DOHA (Reuters) – Formula One stewards handed a five-place grid drop to Red Bull’s championship leader Max Verstappen at the Qatar Grand Prix on Sunday in a blow to his hopes of beating title rival Lewis Hamilton in the race.
They also gave Hamilton’s Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas a three-place penalty for failing to respect warning flags in qualifying.
Verstappen, 24, had qualified on the front row with seven- times world champion Hamilton taking pole position for Mercedes but the Dutch driver will now start seventh.
AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly joins Hamilton on the front row instead, while Bottas drops to sixth due to Verstappen’s penalty.
The governing FIA initially placed Bottas fifth but changed that on the final grid.
Verstappen is 14 points clear of Hamilton with three races remaining. Defending champions Mercedes lead Red Bull by 11 points in the constructors’ standings.
In another stewards’ decision, Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz was cleared of an alleged flag breach and no further action was taken. The Spaniard moved up to fifth on the grid.
The stewards found that Verstappen had failed to respect double yellow waved flags after AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly had stopped on the pit straight with a broken front wing and puncture.
Verstappen also had two penalty points imposed, taking his tally to four for a 12-month period.
Red Bull had sought to mitigate the penalty because trackside light panels were not showing the yellow warning, there was no in-car warning light and no audio signal from team to the driver.
The stewards said they had “sympathy” for the request but the rules stated the driver had to drive the car unaided while flags and lights carried equal weight.
They pointed out that Hamilton had been handed a three-place drop in Austria last season for breaching a single flag warning while Sebastian Vettel was given a five-place penalty in Bahrain this year for a double-flag offence.
“Accordingly, the stewards believe they have no option but to impose the standard penalty for a breach of the double yellow flag requirements,” a statement said.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Kirsten Donovan and Ed Osmond)