The opening race of the 2020 Formula 1 season was a dramatic affair – with Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris stealing surprise podiums for Ferrari and McLaren at the last minute.
That was made possible when Red Bull’s Alex Albon – who was on course for his maiden podium finish and potentially a win – banged wheels with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton (for the second time – remember Brazil 2019?) and spun down the order.
Our writers give their verdicts on the incident, which ultimately resulted in a five-second penalty for Hamilton.
Just a racing incident
It was just a hard racing incident. With everything to gain, a possible grand prix victory, Albon put a legitimate and potentially brilliant around-the-outside move on Hamilton. You don’t get many opportunities to pass Hamilton and this may have been the moment.
As it turned out, it wasn’t but you can’t fault him for trying. Hamilton was under no compunction to get out his way, ran through there side-by-side, ran a bit wide, and clunked wheels. Just racing.
But we’ve codified driving penalties and if the regulation is there it has to be applied. I don’t like codified penalties, I’d prefer a single referee ex-racing driver whose decision was final. But under the system we’ve got, it was a penalty. This was the minimum one that could be applied.
Penalty isn’t the right outcome
I’m absolutely gutted for Albon as he had a genuine shot at victory but I’m struggling to understand how that’s not the definition of a racing incident.
Albon’s gone aggressive, to the outside, and Hamilton’s committed to the corner on the inside.
Hamilton doesn’t seem to wind off any lock and let his car run into the Red Bull, so I don’t see what he’s done to instigate a collision.
Yes, it’s Hamilton’s car that initiates the contact – but that’s physics. That car is going to run wide. Albon should know that is part of the risk attacking on the outside.
A penalty isn’t the right outcome in my view.
Albon knew the risks
I see why the stewards gave Hamilton a five-second penalty as he did cause the contact by running into Albon at the exit, but they could just as easily not have done.
When it comes to moves around the outside of a corner like that it’s always a question of ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ and Albon knew there was a high risk of this kind of outcome. So you can argue this was a racing incident.
As we saw last year in Austria, the risk of being on the outside line does play into such decisions so he did have a part in creating the situation and, once in the corner, there wasn’t a great deal Hamilton could have done about it. So I could go either way on the penalty itself as you can make a case for a penalty or no action as it’s close to the line.
What’s really frustrating is that, while Albon didn’t have a huge amount of laps left and needed to get on with it, he had time not to attempt a high-risk move like that one.
It’s positive that he was giving it a go with a win on the cards and all credit to him for that, but with a big tyre advantage it perhaps wasn’t the percentage play even though it’s understandable that he was unhappy with the contact.
Hamilton’s penalty was justified
Hamilton’s five-second penalty was justified, Albon was side by side mid-corner but slightly ahead at the point of contact and it was his right rear tyre that tried to climb over Hamilton’s left front tyre.
Albon couldn’t really go any wider without going into the gravel and he couldn’t see where Hamilton was, but Hamilton could see it all unfold so he has the responsibility to do something about it. Other, less experienced drivers, did just that so a six times world champion should have done the same.
Hamilton lost sight of the bigger picture
Practice and qualifying for the Austrian Grand Prix made a strong case for Hamilton having just a single primary title rival this season, and that case was only strengthened when Verstappen pulled up shortly after the start.
Maybe that explains Hamilton’s desperation to get past Valtteri Bottas in the race, but the grand prix also proved that a crucial trend carried over from 2019 – that of Hamilton having the edge in race trim.
As soon as Albon pulled alongside at the restart, Hamilton should’ve committed to losing the battle in order not to hurt his chances at winning the war. The tyre offset made it quite likely that Albon would’ve got Bottas too – which would’ve meant just a three-point deficit to the Finn for Hamilton heading into the second race.
Instead, it’s a 13-point deficit, following a thoroughly deserved penalty. He’ll still probably turn it around in no time, but there was no need for this early handicap.