Lewis Hamilton has been handed the opportunity to regain the lead of the world championship after Max Verstappen was thrown to the back of the grid for Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix.
Verstappen was already due to serve a three-place grid drop in Sochi following his extraordinary crash with Hamilton at the Italian Grand Prix.
But the Dutch driver will be forced to claw his way back through the field, punished for taking on his fourth engine – one more than is permitted for the season.
Verstappen’s second engine was damaged beyond repair in his 180mph crash with Hamilton at July’s British Grand Prix.
Verstappen’s demise hands the initiative to his rival with Mercedes, unbeaten on Sochi soil since the race was added to the calendar in 2014, and quickest in practice on Friday.
Hamilton trailed Valtteri Bottas in both sessions. But, if required the Finn will surely be ordered aside to ensure his team-mate takes a full quota of points.
Responding to Verstappen’s penalty, Hamilton said: “It is definitely a shame for him but we have to capitalise on that and get a maximum result.”
Verstappen drove from 19th to fifth here three years ago, but he said: “In 2018 the gaps to the midfield were bigger, so it will be more difficult to come through on Sunday.
“It will be a challenging race, but we had to take the penalty.”
Until news broke of championship leader Verstappen’s punishment, the two protagonists had been expected to renew their fascinating battle, a fortnight on from their second major collision of the season.
Following the flashpoint in Italy – Hamilton’s second crash with Verstappen in five races – the seven-time world champion and his Mercedes boss Toto Wolff derived a plan to combat the Dutchman’s pugnacious style.
“They race each other very closely now, which wasn’t the case in the past,” said Wolff.
“We have discussed these things in detail, and the change of approach is that Lewis has decided not to bail out anymore when he thinks the corner is his.”
Wolff and his Red Bull counterpart Christian Horner were in agreement that a third coming together is inescapable, with only five points separating their drivers.
“You cannot expect them to have velvet gloves on,” added Wolff. “That is why I believe we are going to see more harsh moments.
“It needs two to tango. If they both want to avoid collisions they would have fewer collisions, but if they don’t, because they feel it is right not to bail, or not give enough room then we will have more.”
Horner sitting to Wolff’s left, concurred. “To say they are never going to touch each other again over the next eight races, I doubt Toto has that control over Lewis and we don’t over Max,” he said.
“It is down to them in the car racing for the biggest trophy in motor racing.
“We want it to be a really competitive and a clean run-in to the end of the season.
“But inevitably when the drivers are starting next to each other so often, are racing at venues that are very tight, and share a similar mentality, you will get incidents.”
In the build-up to Sunday’s race, Hamilton claimed his 23-year-old rival is feeling the pressure of battling for his maiden championship.
But Horner said: “I don’t see any change in Max. He is a young guy, he is going for it, and has nothing to lose.
“He is not sitting there with a bunch of world championships defending the title. He is the challenger.
“That is the way he is attacking this championship and when you see the pressure he was under at Zandvoort, with his home crowd, you don’t get bigger pressure than that, and the way he handled it to win was truly impressive.”
Practice played out under crisp blue skies on Friday, but heavy rain is forecast to hit Sochi for qualifying.