SPIELBERG, Austria -- Two plus three usually equals 5, but once penalties are applied, Lewis Hamilton will start Sunday's Austrian Grand Prix from fourth on the grid when many assumed he would be fifth.
Hamilton was issued a three-place grid penalty for impeding Kimi Raikkonen in Q1 on Saturday, an incident for which he accepted full blame. He had finished second in the session itself, but in the hours after qualifying there was confusion over where he would start -- Mercedes initially believed it was fifth, the FIA confirmed it was fourth when the provisional grid was issued several hours later.
This wasn't a failure to understand basic arithmetic, but a quirk in the regulations that also explains some of the other curiosities on Sunday's grid -- for example, George Russell had a three-place grid penalty but, despite qualifying 19th, he will start the race in 18th position ahead of Alexander Albon and Carlos Sainz, who had bigger penalties to serve. This is all linked to how penalties are issued on a theoretical grid after a qualifying session.
The key to understanding Hamilton's position on the final grid starts with Haas' decision to fit a new gearbox to Kevin Magnussen's car immediately after FP3 on Saturday, incurring the Danish driver a five-place grid penalty. Magnussen duly qualified fifth in one of the standout performances of the day.
When Magnussen's penalty was applied, rather than the grid shifting upwards -- something that happens later in this process -- his fifth position instead remained vacant.
Magnussen dropped to 10th, where Sebastian Vettel had qualified. They briefly both occupied that position.
So, before Hamilton's penalty was issued and the provisional grid could be confirmed, it effectively looked like this:
10. Vettel, Magnussen
Several hours later, the stewards confirmed the Hamilton penalty, and as such the theoretical grid briefly looked as follows:
10. Vettel, Magnussen
So Hamilton did, in fact, drop to fifth on the grid. Due to the way the penalties are applied, this was a vacant slot. If the grid had been set right after this (there's no reason it would have been, but for argument's sake), Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas would still have started the race from the grid slots they qualified on ahead of Hamilton in fifth, with Charles Leclerc having the front row all to himself.
Of course, there is a final step to this process. Once all the penalties are applied the vacant positions are removed from the order, meaning everyone below second position was shifted up one position (except from Magnussen, who had dropped to 10th as the result of his penalty). Magnussen stayed tenth and Vettel moved up to ninth, rather than both doing so.
While Hamilton had served three places worth of grid penalties, by the time it was all shifted upwards he was fourth, ahead of Norris, who many had assumed (for good reason, given how complicated this is) would be starting there.
So while it is complicated, there is method to the madness. The quirk means that only Leclerc and Haas' Romain Grosjean start the race where they actually qualified.