Lewis Hamilton’s title defence got off to a miserable start on a day of drama and high tensions at the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix.
The Brit battled back from a three-place grid penalty and was on track for second behind Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas before another punishment demoted him to fourth.
The five-second penalty for crashing into Alexander Albon’s Red Bull with 10 laps to go pushed Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc into second while British sensation Lando Norris romped to a magnificent maiden podium for McLaren.
Amid all the chaos behind him, Bottas produced a peerless performance to lead from start to finish at the delayed 2020 season opener.
But it was a bitter blow to Hamilton, who crossed the line just 0.6 seconds behind Bottas, as he finally got his bid underway to equal Michael Schumacher’s record title haul of seven.
Much of the build-up of this race was plagued by F1’s fight against racism and whether all the drivers would ‘take a knee’ in a show of support for the Black Lives Matters movement.
Hamilton, who has played a prominent role in the fight against inequality, led the way as one of 14 stars to kneel before an action-packed season opener littered with mechanical issues.
Leclerc and Max Verstappen had confirmed their refusal to follow Hamilton and Co before the race. Antonio Giovinazzi, Daniil Kvyat, Carlos Sainz and Kimi Raikkonen were the other drivers to remain standing.
All drivers wore “End Racism” T-shirts, other than Hamilton, whose said “Black Lives Matter” on the front and ‘End Racism’ on the back.
Against that backdrop of high tensions, Hamilton’s preparations were handed a blow less than an hour before the lights went out with the penalty for a yellow flag infringement in qualifying.
Once the race got underway, Hamilton quickly went about stamping his authority on this season opener.
McLaren’s Norris was merely a passenger as his British rival breezed past him within six laps of the start.
Then Albon in his Red Bull could do nothing about a rapid Hamilton, who made the move stick with ease.
And Red Bull’s misery was compounded when Max Verstappen broke down with a mechanical issue.
The Dutchman, widely regarded as Hamilton’s chief title rival this season, made no secret of his frustration with a string of x-rated radio messages.
And so, for the remaining 57 laps of this season opener, it was a battle of cat-and-mouse between the two Mercedes cars.
Bottas has had to play second fiddle as Hamilton’s teammate for three years but perhaps this campaign could be different.
Having romped to a sensational pole in Spielberg, Bottas held firm despite Hamilton’s aggressive bid for a victory.
The Brit had several bites of the cherry but ultimately was forced to back off as gearbox issues struck both Mercedes cars.
And then after the restart following the second of three safety car periods, Albon and Hamilton went toe-to-toe in a battle for second.
Albon was launched into the gravel, ending his chances of a dramatic win. The stewards held Hamilton to blame and slapped him with a five-second penalty.
Hamilton was unable to find the five-second breathing space between him and his rivals which would retain his podium spot.
Indeed, it was a frenetic afternoon from start to finish and Hamilton will be left scratching his head as his quest for F1 supremacy this season endured a chaotic start.
Meanwhile Norris set the fastest lap of the race with a last-gasp effort to ensure he jumped ahead of Hamilton – and become the youngest British driver to finish on a F1 podium.