Lewis Hamilton’s first race of his championship defence was tinged with controversy on and off the track after a pulsating Austrian Grand Prix.
After Hamilton claimed that division between his fellow drivers over taking the knee before before Formula One’s season opener is further proof of racism in the sport, he was then accused by the London-born Alexander Albon of denying him the most unlikely of maiden victories.
Albon’s Red Bull boss Christian Horner went even further by saying that Hamilton should issue an apology to his young charge for their dramatic late crash.
Before a pulsating race on F1’s return to action – the first global sporting event of the Covid-19 era – six drivers, including Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, stood in the back row of a divided grid as Hamilton and 13 of his contemporaries knelt in the fight for racial equality.
Hamilton had just received the news that he would start three places back from his qualifying position of second – penalised by the stewards for a yellow-flag infringement in qualifying.
He eventually fought back to cross the line as runner-up – finishing just half a second behind the impressive winner Valtteri Bottas in the sister Mercedes car – but he was then slung back to fourth after the stewards found him guilty of punting Albon into the sand trap with 10 laps to run.
The five-second penalty promoted Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc to second and McLaren’s Lando Norris to third – the mightily impressive 20-year-old eclipsing Hamilton as Britain’s youngest F1 podium finisher.
It was Albon who suddenly found himself in contention for a remarkable victory after Red Bull took advantage of the second of three safety cars to pit their man for fresh tyres.
Albon, 24, sensed that Hamilton on old rubber was vulnerable and he swiftly launched a move round the outside of the Briton’s black machine. But on the exit of the corner, Hamilton’s front-left tyre hit Albon’s right rear – his race over.
“I am a bit fresh right now so I have to be careful what I say,” said Albon. “I really feel like we could have won that race.
“I felt like I did the move already and I was focused on catching Bottas. The contact was so late.
“There’s always a risk of overtaking on the outside, but I knew that as long as I gave him [Hamilton] all the space that I could then it’s up to him if he wants to crash or not.”
Red Bull team principal Horner said: “Alex didn’t deserve that. A five-second penalty doesn’t do anything for him. It was just a misjudgement for Lewis, and it’d be good if he apologised for it.”
Hamilton’s crash here was his second in three races with Albon. Hamilton was penalised back in Brazil for taking Albon out of first podium finish with a penultimate-lap collision.
“It’s not been a great weekend for me,” Hamilton concluded. “It was a really unfortunate scenario with Alex. It really felt like a racing incident but I’ll take whatever penalty they feel I deserve and move forward.”
Hamilton will be provided with a chance of redemption in just seven days’ time at the same venue. Sunday’s race may have been the first grand prix to ever take place behind closed doors, but the millions watching on their televisions around the globe were treated to a thrilling spectacle.
Just 11 of the 20 cars made it to the finish as a series of mechanical failures, likely owing to the seven-month break between races here and in Abu Dhabi on December 1, helped to spice up the show.
Bottas, who beat Hamilton to pole by just 12 hundredths of a second, kept his cool to lead every lap and claim an opening win of this new era.
“The dream of winning the title is very much alive this year,” said the Finn. “There is no doubt about that.
“I have to get the best out of myself each week. I want to enjoy this but I have to perform at the next race and be ready for whatever comes.”