Lewis Hamilton stomped up the stairs to demand answers from the stewards after they imposed the penalty that cost him victory at the Italian Grand Prix and handed it to the least likely candidate of recent years.
The prize went to AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly, the first French race winner since an even more extraordinary result in the wet at Monaco gifted triumph to Olivier Panis 24 years ago.
This tale of the unexpected was just the tonic the season needed and Gasly sat alone long after the podium ceremony was over and done with, soaking in his achievement in smiling wonderment.
Enjoying the champagne with him was runner-up Carlos Sainz, of McLaren, and third-placed Lance Stroll, of Racing Point. All three had harboured hopes of victory after a red flag caused a 27-minute delay in racing on an afternoon that contained most of the thrills and spills that motor racing can conjure.
The race was at Hamilton’s mercy all weekend. He grabbed pole. He slipped off serenely at the start. His Mercedes was fit to gallop over the skyline.
But all this changed when Kevin Magnussen’s Haas conked out. The safety car was deployed and Hamilton nipped straight to his garage for a change of tyres. Oops, for the boards decreed the pit lane was closed, and his fate awaited him.
Moments later, Charles Leclerc crashed heavily into the barriers after losing control at the Parabolica. He was winded but breathily told his crew that he was thankfully unharmed. The red flag was waved as the tyre wall was rebuilt.
As this was happening there was a dawning realisation that Hamilton was in trouble with the law. As racing was suspended, he was handed a 10-second stop-and-go penalty. With the detour into the pit required to sit out his penalty, that equated to half-a-minute’s loss.
Hamilton stood at the pit wall with boss Toto Wolff, adamant that he had seen no board telling him the pits were shut for business.
His team had no video of the incident to resolve the issue so he took his concerns with him on a long walk up and down the stairs to the stewards room for clarification.
His physio, little Angela Cullen, almost had to break into a trot to keep pace with her boss while he had steam coming out of his ears.
‘The signs had a cross on them but I didn’t see that because I was looking elsewhere,’ said Hamilton, who a few hours after the race put his hands up to the charge. ‘There was not much more for me to say, so I went back and got changed.’
Hamilton then began the standing re-start, on lap 28 of 53, leading from Stroll. But next lap, he peeled off to serve his time. It plunged him to the very back of the field.
Stroll, with the destiny of the race at his feet, made a very shaky getaway, ran off track and surrendered his chance to Gasly (left), who had started ninth but been helped by a timely stop. While Hamilton ploughed through the field to finish seventh, eyes turned to Sainz and his fast-charging McLaren as he closed on the lead. By the end, the Spaniard, who drove a very fine race indeed, was right on Gasly’s tail.
He finished 0.4sec adrift. ‘I just needed another lap,’ he reasoned. Sainz’s British garage-mate Lando Norris, 20, was fourth. So let’s blow the trumpet for McLaren, back from the ashes of recent years.
As for the Rouen-born Gasly, he let out a primeval raw of delight over the radio. Dumped by Red Bull last year and sent back to their junior team, his spirit dented, this was redemption. He drove well.
His joy was in contrast to the long faces at Ferrari as their annus horribilis continued. In addition to Leclerc’s shunt, Sebastian Vettel suffered a brake line failure and went straight through polystyrene markers, captive in a car he couldn’t stop. He eventually did, his race over.
For Hamilton, it was a case of successful damage limitation in relation to his two nearest rivals: he scored seven points while team-mate Valtteri Bottas was a limp fifth and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen retired with an engine problem after an afternoon of unusual anonymity.
So Hamilton, who set the fastest lap, still leads the standings by 47 points from Bottas going into next weekend’s race, the Tuscan Grand Prix in Mugello.
‘I don’t know if they can make the rule better for the future,’ said Hamilton of his punishment, which is prescribed in the rules, ‘but I accept it and move forwards.