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Was Hamilton's Russian Grand Prix penalty fair?

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Saunders: Bottas didn't win on merit (1:51)

Nate Saunders explains why Valtteri Bottas' celebratory radio message left some feeling confused. (1:51)

Valtteri Bottas took his second win of the season in Russia, but after the race the focus remained on Lewis Hamilton. His chances of victory -- which would have moved him level with Michael Schumacher's record of 91 -- were wiped away by a ten-second penalty for a pair of unusual pre-race offences, leaving him with a feeling of injustice.

So was the penalty fair? And what would have happened if Hamilton had not been penalised?

Why was Hamilton penalised?

Lewis Hamilton received two separate five-second penalties for completing two practice starts away from the designated area ahead of the race. Drivers have a ten-minute window to leave their garage and head to the grid in which they can complete as many reconnaissance laps as they want providing they go through the pit lane.

Races can be easily won and lost at the start, so the opportunity to run through the start procedure at the end of the pit lane is incredibly valuable so close to the start of the race. Therefore, it is common to see a queue of cars at the pit lane exit lining up to practice their race start.

The FIA designates an area for drivers to complete these practice starts, which is communicated to teams in the Race Directors' notes ahead of each race weekend. In Sochi, the notes stated that "practice starts may only be carried out on the right-hand side after the pit exit lights and, for the avoidance of doubt, this includes any time the pit exit is open for the race. Drivers must leave adequate room on their left for another driver to pass."

The notes added: "For reasons of safety and sporting equity, cars may not stop in the fast lane at any time the pit exit is open without a justifiable reason (a practice start is not considered a justifiable reason)."

The pit lane opened at 13:30 local time and Hamilton completed his first practice start at 13:32. But rather than use the area where all the other cars completed their practice start, which had a lot of rubber laid on it, Hamilton looked to find a virgin section of tarmac with a grip level more in line with his pole position grid slot. In doing so, he ventured out of the long pit exit and found a spot on the right, which still allowed space on the left for cars to pass, but was way further out towards the track than the rest of the field had used.

"Generally, if you look at probably every race that I've done this year at least, I always start further down, never ever had a problem, done it for years," he said after the race. "Here I haven't done that before, I would say, but it [the Race Director's notes] says you have to be on the right after the lights, it doesn't say how far.

"And so often I don't like to be on the rubber, where everyone has done their practice start, so it's not representative of what it's like on the grid so I like to be on the surface that doesn't have any rubber."

Mercedes engineer Andrew Shovlin added: "If there is a lot of rubber that is not going to be representative of the grip on the grid, the drivers, and also the engineers, will want to find a bit that is closer in terms of the grip expected on the grid. Lewis asked if he could go a bit further ... we didn't realise how far he was going to go, but really it was just about trying to find a bit of tarmac that's more like the one you are going to get when you do the proper race start."

Hamilton pointed out that other circuits like Interlagos allow for practice starts where the pit lane meets the track, although it should be noted that is because the pit exit sweeps downhill and would not be appropriate for a practice start.

In response, Race Director Michael Masi said: "The practice start location is obviously very circuit specific, and detailed in the event notes. So at every other event Lewis has, along with all the other drivers, complied with the requirements of where they perform a practice start in accordance with the race director instructions.

"I would say that the reason why we determine where the practice start location is is for the safety of all drivers, and also so everybody is aware of what is actually happening. We determine its location for a deliberate reason."

The stewards issued the penalty early in the race, so were not able to hear from the driver and team, but were clear they felt Hamilton had breached the regulations.

"The driver performed the practice start near the end, but directly in the pit exit. Art 36.1 requires drivers to use constant throttle and constant speed in the pit exit other than in the place designated for practice starts in the Event Notes item 19.1., which is defined as the place "on the right hand side" after the pit exit lights (and is not part of the track as defined by lines) which has been known to all competitors and used without exception."

Initially two penalty points on Hamilton's superlicence were also issued, but they were later rescinded when it became clear the team had given Hamilton the go-ahead to complete the start in the incorrect place. The penalty points were replaced by a €25,000 fine payable by the team.

Why were Hamilton and Mercedes so upset?

Hamilton initially told TV crews after the race that he believed the two five-second time penalties were too harsh, adding: "They are trying to stop me."

Asked later on if he believed he was being targeted for penalties, he added: "I don't necessarily think that it is for me, I think whenever a team is at the front obviously they're under a lot of scrutiny. Everything we have on our car is being checked, triple checked and triple checked, they're changing rules such as the engine regulation, lots and lots of things to get in the way and make the race exciting I assume.

"I don't know if the rules in terms of what happened today was anything to do with it. Naturally that's how it feels and naturally it feels we're fighting uphill, but it's okay, it's not like I haven't faced adversity before. So we're just keeping our heads down and keep fighting, keep trying to do a better job, be cleaner, squeaky clean."

Speaking after the race, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff challenged the suggestion Hamilton had completed his practice start in the wrong place.

"The Race Director's notes state, if I am well informed, that you must to the practice starts on after the lights on the right-hand side of the pitlane. And what's what happened.

"There is no mention what the right place is in the Race Director's note, nor is it in the regulations. We disagree on that one. We agree to disagree on that one."

However, Shovlin admits the pit wall did have concerns when they realised how far Hamilton had gone down the pit lane.

"We didn't see the first one but when we saw the second one, we thought 'they are not going to like that'," Shovlin said. "We didn't think it was dangerous and, given that the events notes said it was on the right-hand side after the pit exit, we thought it might be ambiguous enough that we would just got a telling off.

"When we saw the car position it wasn't a complete surprise that they didn't like it and no doubt there may have been other teams that flagged it as well as the FIA and stewards.

Mercedes was also surprised that a transgression on the reconnaissance laps before the race resulted in an in-race penalty. There is no obvious precedent for that and if a driver were to speed in the pit lane, which is arguably a similar offence, it would result in a financial penalty for the team rather than a time penalty in the race.

"He received a 10-second penalty for the reconnaissance lap infringement," Wolff added. "An in-race penalty for that can also be debated, but we have to take it on the chin and move on."

However, Masi said the stewards believed Hamilton was gaining an advantage by using a different spot for his race start and, therefore, deserved a sporting penalty.

"I think you need to have a look at everything on its own merits," he said. "In the stewards view, performing that practice start in that area, in their view was a sporting advantage.

"Having spoken to them quickly, and therefore they thought an appropriate penalty was a sporting penalty."

Whose fault was it?

The stewards' decision to rescind the penalty points on Hamilton's superlicence suggests there was enough radio communication to indicate it was a team mistake rather than Hamilton's own error. However, the team radio broadcast ahead of the race suggested it was a bit of both as Hamilton asked the question and the team agreed to his demand.

Hamilton: "It's all rubber down here [at the designated spot] can I go further out?"

Bonnington: "Affirm... Copy, as long as you leave enough room for cars to pass."

It's not clear if there were further radio messages, but once Mercedes representatives had visited the stewards, it was decided that Hamilton did not deserve the penalty points and the €25,000 fine was issued to the team instead.

"The stewards after the ace heard from the team and the driver of Car 44, Lewis and Mercedes spoke to the stewards, at which point it was clear it was actually a team instruction to Lewis of where he could perform those practice starts," Masi said. "On that basis the stewards have rescinded the penalty points as they thought it was inappropriate and as a result have fined the team €25,000 for that instruction."

But after the race, Wolff said no individual would be blamed for the incident.

"The errors always happen together, it's not a team error and it's not a Lewis error," he said. "I wouldn't want to point [the finger] at anybody and I've never done that.

"Things are not always black and white and it has room for interpretation. There are rules and there are things that can be interpreted in two ways, there is common sense, there is the fact that two in-race penalties were given for an infringement that happened before the race.

"There was an argument that he gained an advantage by making the practice starts there, I think it was not an advantage because there was much less grip than on the starting positions. But it is what it is and at the end of the day, obviously we are all emotional about that but the emotion should be geared towards Valtteri, who deserved a race win for a long time and that is fundamentally what makes me happy.

"Finishing one and three is reason to make us cheer and fly home and be happy with how it went. Now we need to learn from the incident, we need to look at the procedures, at the communications and as with every time we will not blame the person but target the problem."

Would Hamilton have won without the penalty?

It's hard to answer the question with certainty given all the variables a Formula One race can throw up, but based on the data we have available, Hamilton would have been the favourite for victory without his penalty. It's not as simple as knocking ten seconds from his race time, as the penalty, which was served at his one and only pit stop, completely changed the dynamic of his race.

Hamilton was at a disadvantage regardless of his penalty as a mistake in qualifying on Saturday meant he had to start the race on the soft tyres whereas Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen started on the mediums behind him. That meant his first stint was always going to be reltively short and, even with a Safety Car to help reduce the strain on his tyres, he still pitted on lap 15. Had he made that pit stop at that time without the ten-second penalty, he would have come out in eighth place instead of 11th.

In our imaginary race without the time penalty, Hamilton would have pushed much harder in the laps after his pit stop than he did in reality as there would have been a chance to retain his lead over the front two. He would still have had traffic to deal with in the form of Daniil Kvyat, Charles Leclerc and Pierre Gasly, but Mercedes is confident he would have dealt with those cars swiftly and pushed hard when he found free air. A fresh hard tyre would have offered more performance than a used medium and so, once he was in clear air, Hamilton would be able to start to undercut Bottas and Verstappen.

Back in the reality of Sunday's race, Verstappen made his pit stop on lap 25 and emerged six seconds ahead of Hamilton when he rejoined. So even just applying some basic maths by giving Hamilton his ten seconds back, he would have been ahead of Verstappen after the first set of pit stops.

When Bottas rejoined Sunday's race, he was 14 seconds ahead of Hamilton, suggesting he may have taken the lead from Hamilton thanks to a superior strategy. But in our imaginary race, it would likely have been a close call as Hamilton would have had less traffic to negotiate and would have been pushing harder knowing a win was on the cards.

So it would have been an incredibly close race between the Mercedes drivers, with both coming out on top of Verstappen. Sadly it didn't play out and instead the main talking points after the race were the penalties mentioned above.