World champion Lewis Hamilton was on the brink of equalling Michael Schumacher's record of 91 grand wins after claiming pole position for the Russian GP at Sochi.
But two five-second time penalties imposed by the race stewards as punishment for two practice starts in the wrong area on the way to the grid, ultimately cost Hamilton victory in the race he was leading when the penalties were applied.
An incredulous Hamilton demanded to know on the team radio why he had incurred the penalties and was nonplussed when told it was a breach of regulation number 19.1.
After finishing third in the race, which was won by his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, with Red Bull driver Max Verstappen second, Hamilton told Sky Sports F1 that the race stewards "are out to stop me".
It is serious to accuse race stewards of bias and maybe the FIA should punish Hamilton further for bringing the sport into disrepute. Undoubtedly headlines around the world reporting on what became a fairly processional and predictable race once Hamilton had served his penalties, were all about Hamilton's outburst rather than Bottas' ninth grand prix win.
Hamilton was able to serve the two penalties in one pit stop, by adding 10 seconds, but the team queried the penalties.
The stewards said: "The driver performed the practice start near the end, but directly in the pit exit. Article 36.1 requires drivers to use constant throttle and constant speed in the pit exit other than in the place designated for practice starts in the event notes item19.1, which is defined as the place 'on the right-hand side' after the pit exit lights and not part of the track as defined by lines, which has been known to all competitors and used without exception."
It was difficult to tell from television replays just what rule Hamilton had breached. The TV viewer couldn't really decipher whether the practice start Sky F1 showed was within the designated area or not, but it was evident that at the point where Hamilton was stationary, the other drivers were exiting the pits at close to 200km/h and in the interests of safety, race stewards will always take a dim view of any indiscretion.
Hamilton was in a defiant mood when interviewed by Sky F1 post-race and asked about what he thought the penalty was about.
"I need to go back and see what the rules are," he answered. "I need to see exactly what I did wrong, I'm pretty sure nobody has got two five-second penalties for something so ridiculous before. I didn't put anyone in danger, I've done this at a million tracks over the years and never been questioned on it. But it is what it is."
"They [the stewards] are trying to stop me. But it's okay, I just need to try to keep my head down and stay focused then see what happens."
As well as the time penalties, the stewards also initially imposed two penalty points on Hamilton's Super Licence. A total of 12 points means a driver has a race ban and Hamilton was already on eight points when the stewards added two more. But the stewards, after hearing from the Mercedes team, decided to remove the points added to Hamilton's licence and fine the team instead €25,000 for giving the instruction to Hamilton to complete his practice start where he did.
It is fair that the driver shouldn't be punished for following a team instruction, but clearly, the driver has to be punished for a breach of the rules, even if the team appeared to condone what he did.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff has understandably, given one of his team members approved of Hamilton's practice start, defended his driver's criticism of the steward's decision, noting "in the director's notes, it said you can make a practice start after the light on the right-hand side… and that's what he did".
"So, there is room for interpretation and clearly we have to analyse why we made the mistake and just take this one on the chin, even though we were at the stewards and agree to disagree.
"I think Lewis has faced a lot of adversity in his life, and to all of us, the penalty seems a little harsh. Never before pre-race on a reconnaissance lap has an incident been penalised with an in-race penalty, so that's new, and now can be debated.
"But I think things go against him harshly sometimes and if you are the most successful driver you have to take it sometimes."
Two races ago Hamilton got a 10-second penalty for entering the pit lane at the Italian GP when it was closed. Conspiracy theorists will have a field day. The problem with Wolff's argument about some sort of bias against Hamilton, presumably because he is the champion, is that Alfa Romeo driver Antonio Giovinazzi, (an Italian!) got the same penalty as Hamilton in Italy. And Renault driver Daniel Ricciardo was given a five-second time penalty in Russia for failing to go around designated bollards when returning to the track at turn two, the corner at which Carlos Sainz hit the wall and crashed out of the race on lap one trying to negotiate those bollards at speed. Understandable why Ricciardo didn't try to negotiate them, but instead of criticising the race stewards' post-race after finishing fifth, Ricciardo used the penalty as a form of motivation, albeit explained in rather basic terms.
"I took full responsibility for it," he explained. "I just locked up and went wide and I was like, 'I'm probably going to get a penalty here.'
"So, when Karel [Loos] told me I think I'd already accepted it in my head. So, it was actually quite good in hindsight, it lit a bit of a fire in my bum, and I just got on with it. I think that was cool. I was, I guess, proud to not let it get to me."
Hamilton seems to have taken no responsibility while strongly accusing the stewards of being out to get him. He didn't suggest it was on racial grounds, but Wolff's comment that Hamilton has faced adversity and been treated harshly may fall on deaf ears so far as Hamilton's critics are concerned. It is frankly hard to accept that a six-time world champion in the best car possibly ever to grace an F1 track, who is paid $54 million a year and has an estimated worth of $285m, has faced any adversity.
FIA race director Michael Masi has dismissed Hamilton's criticism of the race stewards,
"From my perspective, it's very simple that if Lewis wants to raise something, as I have said to him before, and said to all the drivers, numerous times the door is always open, and I'm more than happy to discuss," Masi said.
"We have the stewards as an independent judiciary to adjudicate those [the sporting regulations] and therefore there was an infringement and it doesn't matter if it was Lewis Hamilton or any other of the 19 drivers."
Amid the controversy of Hamilton's critical comments, it is easy to overlook Bottas' second victory in the Russian GP. He said he knew he had an opportunity to win the race after starting on a medium tyre compared to Hamilton being on a soft tyre, and then with Hamilton's penalties, found himself in the clear.
"For sure, it's nice to get a win again, its been a while," Bottas, who won the season opener in Austria, said. "I need to try and keep the momentum. It's nice to squeeze some points against Lewis, there are still quite a few races to go, I just have to keep pushing and won't give up."
But then Bottas took to Twitter with a message to his critics that kind of took away some of the niceness.
"For my critics-To whom it may concern-F*** you! #VB77#Russian GP."
Hamilton leads Bottas in the championship by 44 points with seven races remaining, while third-placed Verstappen is another 33 points back.
Verstappen, who yet again said he was happy with second given he didn't have the pace to fight for the win, said in the post-race press conference, before he learned Hamilton's two-point penalty had been retracted, that it was a "bit harsh" given he didn't cause a crash. But perhaps fittingly the last words on the issue should go to former F1 driver Mika Salo, who was one of the four race stewards that imposed Hamilton's penalty. Reacting to Hamilton's blunt comment that the stewards had it in for him, Salo had an equally blunt response.
"Full of s***," he told Ilta Sanamat, a Finnish tabloid. "This is by no means true. Everyone has the same rules. It's pretty clear. Hamilton did his starts from the side of the track and twice more."
Hamilton will have time to study the rule book before the next race at the Nurburgring on October 12. But for a driver who has been at the forefront of the FIA campaign for equality, with the slogan "WeRaceAsOne", his paranoia about FIA officialdom singling him out for differential treatment when it comes to rule breaches, is not the mark of a true champion and is self-centered.