Mercedes told Lewis Hamilton to give up fourth place to Carlos Sainz Jnr despite not knowing whether he would get a penalty for passing the Ferrari driver off-track.

Hamilton gained the place from his rival as the pair went side-by-side through the first corner at the start. However Hamilton ran wide at the exit, putting all four wheels outside track limits, and Mercedes were concerned he might be penalised for gaining a position off-track.

The FIA no longer advises teams whether to give up positions to avoid penalties in such situations, as was the case in earlier seasons. Mercedes were therefore unsure whether Hamilton would be penalised for the move.

Mercedes technical director James Allison confirmed Hamilton “didn’t have to” give the place up. “It was a question of judgement,” he said in a video released by the team.

“We all saw the start of the race along with all the people who viewed it. We saw the little tangle that Lewis and Carlos got into with Lewis just being edged wide off the circuit, keeping it lit and getting ahead of Carlos.

“Immediately the question in all our minds, and Lewis’ mind is: Was that place gained by leaving the track? Did I gain an advantage by leaving the track?

“You know in the back of your head that you get a little bit more leniency from the stewards sometimes in the first corner of the first lap of a race. But you can’t rely on it.”

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The FIA has increased the standard penalty for gaining a position by going off-track from five seconds to 10 seconds this year. This made Mercedes less willing to risk staying ahead and being penalised.

Hamilton passed Sainz off-track at the start

“You know that the consequences if you don’t give the place back and the stewards rule against you is worse than just giving the place back,” Allison explained. “So we did what we always do which is get on the blower to the FIA and ask for a bit of guidance as to whether that looked a bit much to them.

“They did what they always do which is to be as inscrutable as the sphinx and say ‘well that’s up to you, you need to make your own judgement.’ The more we looked at it, the more we thought we probably won’t get away with this.”

Race control announced on the third lap of the race that the incident had been noted. On the following lap they confirmed Hamilton was under investigation for leaving the track and gaining an advantage, which led Mercedes to act.

“While we were thinking about it we saw the messaging come up to say that the incident was being investigated. Which we were pretty sure was going to be the case and we just thought the balance of risk was one where we had better to surrender that place.

“We therefore asked Lewis to give the place back. He knew the situation, he gave up the place without a word, he didn’t even put up a breath of a fight on the radio because he understands that balance of risk as well.”

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The stewards ultimately ruled Hamilton had gained an advantage by going off the track but did not penalise him because he returned the position.

“As things turned out, we’re glad we did because the stewards subsequently ruled in a way that made it clear that had we pushed our luck we would have ended up with a penalty.”

Although the decision ultimately made no difference to Hamilton’s finishing position, Allison believes they made the correct call to give up the place instead of risk a 10-second penalty.

“Giving back that place to Carlos, a place that we didn’t earn legitimately at the start, cost one second or something like that. So, nine seconds of extra penalty to be served and that could have had quite a significant impact later in the race.

“As things turned out with some of the floor damage to Lewis’ car, and the subsequent penalty he had for crossing the white line on pit entry, if he had served it, it wouldn’t have made a world of difference.

“But early in the race when everything was still possible then it was clearly the right thing to do; to take the hit of giving the place back to Carlos, not incurring the wrath of the stewards, not getting a 10 second penalty and fighting forward from that point.”

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