Lewis Hamilton has been handed a championship boost as Sebastian Vettel was left to rue what could prove to be another pivotal mistake in their battle for the Formula One world title.
Six days after he collided with Valtteri Bottas in France, Vettel will start the Austrian Grand Prix from only sixth after he was penalised for blocking another driver in qualifying.
Hamilton was beaten to pole position by Bottas in the sister Mercedes, but the Englishman, 33, will take huge comfort from Vettel’s latest setback.
Hamilton’s Mercedes boss Toto Wolff celebrated Vettel’s penalty with a fist-pump as news of the stewards’ verdict emerged during the Austrian’s media briefing.
Vettel qualified third at the Red Bull Ring, but was demoted three places after he was adjuged to have impeded Carlos Sainz as the Renault driver attempted a flying lap.
Vettel argued that his Ferrari team did not tell him about Sainz, and he was unaware of the approaching Spaniard. However, Vettel also admitted to briefly taking his eyes off the road.
Speaking before the penalty was issued, Vettel said: “I was looking down on the main straight, and I didn’t see him. I wasn’t told on the radio, so I can only apologise to him. Obviously, there was no intention.”
But the German was summoned to the officials, and following a 90-minute investigation, he was hit with the grid penalty.
“It is the belief of the stewards that notwithstanding the absence of a radio call, the driver of car 5 (Vettel) should not have been so slow and on the racing line during a slow-down lap,” F1’s governing body, the FIA, said in a statement.
The error marked Vettel’s sixth high-profile mistake in the last calendar year. He banged wheels with Hamilton in Azerbaijan, crashed out in Singapore, tangled with Hamilton and Max Verstappen at the start in Mexico, and fell from second to fourth when he ran off the road in Baku earlier this season.
He also lost 15 points to Hamilton last Sunday after his crash with Bottas at the start.
“In order to win a championship you need to be as fast as possible, as reliable as possible and with the least errors,” Wolff said. “Sometimes it is difficult to put of all these things together.
“Sebastian’s biggest strength is certainly his ambition, but sometimes, as in France, it goes against him.
“Every team is aware that you need to get out of the way in order not to have a penalty, and all drivers are instructed by their engineers about what is happening behind them.”
Wolff added: “It is important to collect every single point. If you leave something on the table, it can bite you. The situation is more comfortable like this.”
With Wolff’s Mercedes cars locking out the front row, Vettel will now start behind team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, Red Bull’s Verstappen, and the Haas of Romain Grosjean.
Hamilton is 14 points ahead of Vettel and now looks set to establish an even greater championship lead ahead of his home race at Silverstone a week on Sunday.
Bottas denied Hamilton his 50th career pole for Mercedes after edging out the four-time champion by just 0.019 seconds.
Hamilton made a mistake on his penultimate run after he ran wide at turn two which left him with too much to do to.
“Valtteri did a fantastic job, and he deserved the pole,” Hamilton said. “I made a mistake and when you don’t have your first lap in Q3 as a banker, you’re building from scratch for the second one. There’s lots to play for tomorrow.”
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