Mercedes’ quest to walk away from the Qatar Grand Prix with a seismic result ended at the first corner when Lewis Hamilton and George Russell collided.
It was the worst possible way for the race to commence for the Brackley-based squad as the pair challenged polesitter Max Verstappen into the first corner.
Starting on the Medium compound, Russell got a strong getaway and had his front right tyre aligned with Verstappen’s left rear as they turned into the first corner.
In all likelihood, it wouldn’t have been enough for Russell to take the lead from Verstappen, who could’ve simply let his car drift out wide and closed the door on the Mercedes driver on the exit.
But behind them both, equipped with the Soft tyre arrived Hamilton, who was looking to make use of his softer rubber to progress ahead of one, if not both on the opening lap.
The golden rule
Rules of engagement on the opening lap are always hard to enforce given that there is so much happening in such a short period of time.
One thing that doesn’t change, however, is the requirement to always give your team-mate room to ensure that the team has maximum opportunity to finish the Grand Prix in the highest possible positions.
Hamilton, usually one of the strongest wheel-to-wheel racers in F1, failed to do so. Had he been any more towards the inside of the corner, Russell risked bludgeoning the side of Verstappen’s car and landing himself in even further trouble.
The seven-time champion’s feisty racecraft and determination to move ahead was fantastic to see as it often makes for spectacular replays on highlight reels - unfortunately, on this occasion, it was his downfall.
Hamilton can’t have expected his team-mate’s car to disappear as he targeted as tight a line possible through Turn 1 - whether it was to pinch his team-mate into backing out, carrying as much momentum as he could or avoiding the dusty off-line strip, Hamilton got it wrong.
With his now-three-wheeled car sent to its final destination of the gravel trap, Hamilton was out of a race for the first time this year and accepted blame for the crash after the Grand Prix.
Russell was also sent into a spin but was able to continue on his way, albeit at the back of the field. He eventually recovered to fourth.
Mercedes could’ve and likely did anticipate a close call between its drivers on the opening lap by starting its second driver in the pack on a softer tyre. It was only natural that Hamilton would be faster and have more grip in the opening laps, giving him a strong opportunity to overtake.
But at the same time, the drivers are experienced enough to ensure they can race cleanly in such circumstances.
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With Hamilton out of the race, the only possible punishment to inflict on him as a guilty party was a grid penalty, as his retirement made a time penalty useless.
Stewards have been lenient for some time when it comes to dealing with first-lap incidents. Drivers know the risk that they take when so many of their competitors are close by, and it can go wrong quickly.
In their decision document, the stewards outlined that “the argument can be made that Car 44 [Hamilton] was predominantly at fault”, but determined that “the incident is considered as a typical ‘Lap 1, Turn 1’ incident”.
Perhaps the outcome would’ve been different if Russell was also forced to retire, but given that Hamilton, the instigator, was the sole party to retire, no further penalty was required.
Any such time or grid penalty wouldn’t have mirrored the disappointment that Hamilton felt at that moment, beached in the gravel after breaking the key rule of F1 racing - never make contact with your team-mate.
Naturally, Mercedes wouldn’t have pursued further punishment as it was both of its drivers involved, but the same might not be said if it was two separate outfits that came to blows.
Leniency over opening lap crashes rarely ever feels right or justified, especially if there is a clear picture of who was at fault.
But by swiping his team-mate and damaging Mercedes’ prospects for the remainder of the race, Hamilton was bruised enough under the Qatar floodlights.