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Was Lewis Hamilton’s Russian Grand Prix penalty fair?



Valtteri Bottas took his second win of the season in Russia, but after the race the focus remained on Lewis Hamilton. His chances of victory — which would have moved him level with Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 — were wiped away by a ten-second penalty for a pair of unusual pre-race offences, leaving him with a feeling of injustice.

So was the penalty fair? And what would have happened if Hamilton had not been penalised?

Why was Hamilton penalised?

Lewis Hamilton received two separate five-second penalties for completing two practice starts away from the designated area ahead of the race. Drivers have a ten-minute window to leave their garage and head to the grid in which they can complete as many reconnaissance laps as they want providing they go through the pit lane.

Races can be easily won and lost at the start, so the opportunity to run through the start procedure at the end of the pit lane is incredibly valuable so close to the start of the race. Therefore, it is common to see a queue of cars at the pit lane exit lining up to practice their race start.

The FIA designates an area for drivers to complete these practice starts, which is communicated to teams in the Race Directors’ notes ahead of each race weekend. In Sochi, the notes stated that “practice starts may only be carried out on the right-hand side after the pit exit lights and, for the avoidance of doubt, this includes any time the pit exit is open for the race. Drivers must leave adequate room on their left for another driver to pass.”

The notes added: “For reasons of safety and sporting equity, cars may not stop in the fast lane at any time the pit exit is open without a justifiable reason (a practice start is not considered a justifiable reason).”

The pit lane opened at 13:30 local time and Hamilton completed his first practice start at 13:32. But rather than use the area where all the other cars completed their practice start, which had a lot of rubber laid on it, Hamilton looked to find a virgin section of tarmac with a grip level more in line with his pole position grid slot. In doing so, he ventured out of the long pit exit and found a spot on the right, which still allowed space on the left for cars to pass, but was way further out towards the track than the rest of the field had used.

“Generally, if you look at probably every race that I’ve done this year at least, I always start further down, never ever had a problem, done it for years,” he said after the race. “Here I haven’t done that before, I would say, but it [the Race Director’s notes] says you have to be on the right after the lights, it doesn’t say how far.

“And so often I don’t like to be on the rubber, where everyone has done their practice start, so it’s not representative of what it’s like on the grid so I like to be on the surface that doesn’t have any rubber.”

Mercedes engineer Andrew Shovlin added: “If there is a lot of rubber that is not going to be representative of the grip on the grid, the drivers, and also the engineers, will want to find a bit that is closer in terms of the grip expected on the grid. Lewis asked if he could go a bit further … we didn’t realise how far he was going to go, but really it was just about trying to find a bit of tarmac that’s more like the one you are going to get when you do the proper race start.”

Hamilton pointed out that other circuits like Interlagos allow for practice starts where the pit lane meets the track, although it should be noted that is because the pit exit sweeps downhill and would not be appropriate for a practice start.

In response, Race Director Michael Masi said: “The practice start location is obviously very circuit specific, and detailed in the event notes. So at every other event Lewis has, along with all the other drivers, complied with the requirements of where they perform a practice start in accordance with the race director instructions.

“I would say that the reason why we determine where the practice start location is is for the safety of all drivers, and also so everybody is aware of what is actually happening. We determine its location for a deliberate reason.”

The stewards issued the penalty early in the race, so were not able to hear from the driver and team, but were clear they felt Hamilton had breached the regulations.

“The driver performed the practice start near the end, but directly in the pit exit. Art 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 item 19.1., which is defined as the place “on the right hand side” after the pit exit lights (and is not part of the track as defined by lines) which has been known to all competitors and used without exception.”

Initially two penalty points on Hamilton’s superlicence were also issued, but they were later rescinded when it became clear the team had given Hamilton the go-ahead to complete the start in the incorrect place. The penalty points were replaced by a €25,000 fine payable by the team.

Why were Hamilton and Mercedes so upset?

Hamilton initially told TV crews after the race that he believed the two five-second time penalties were too harsh, adding: “They are trying to stop me.”

Asked later on if he believed he was being targeted for penalties, he added: “I don’t necessarily think that it is for me, I think whenever a team is at the front obviously they’re under a lot of scrutiny. Everything we have on our car is being checked, triple checked and triple checked, they’re changing rules such as the engine regulation, lots and lots of things to get in the way and make the race exciting I assume.

“I don’t know if the rules in terms of what happened today was anything to do with it. Naturally that’s how it feels and naturally it feels we’re fighting uphill, but it’s okay, it’s not like I haven’t faced adversity before. So we’re just keeping our heads down and keep fighting, keep trying to do a better job, be cleaner, squeaky clean.”

Speaking after the race, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff challenged the suggestion Hamilton had completed his practice start in the wrong place.

“The Race Director’s notes state, if I am well informed, that you must to the practice starts on after the lights on the right-hand side of the pitlane. And what’s what happened.

“There is no mention what the right place is in the Race Director’s note, nor is it in the regulations. We disagree on that one. We agree to disagree on that one.”

However, Shovlin admits the pit wall did have concerns when they realised how far Hamilton had gone down the pit lane.

“We didn’t see the first one but when we saw the second one, we thought ‘they are not going to like that’,” Shovlin said. “We didn’t think it was dangerous and, given that the events notes said it was on the right-hand side after the pit exit, we thought it might be ambiguous enough that we would just got a telling off.

“When we saw the car position it wasn’t a complete surprise that they didn’t like it and no doubt there may have been other teams that flagged it as well as the FIA and stewards.

Mercedes was also surprised that a transgression on the reconnaissance laps before the race resulted in an in-race penalty. There is no obvious precedent for that and if a driver were to speed in the pit lane, which is arguably a similar offence, it would result in a financial penalty for the team rather than a time penalty in the race.

“He received a 10-second penalty for the reconnaissance lap infringement,” Wolff added. “An in-race penalty for that can also be debated, but we have to take it on the chin and move on.”

However, Masi said the stewards believed Hamilton was gaining an advantage by using a different spot for his race start and, therefore, deserved a sporting penalty.

“I think you need to have a look at everything on its own merits,” he said. “In the stewards view, performing that practice start in that area, in their view was a sporting advantage.

“Having spoken to them quickly, and therefore they thought an appropriate penalty was a sporting penalty.”

Whose fault was it?

The stewards’ decision to rescind the penalty points on Hamilton’s superlicence suggests there was enough radio communication to indicate it was a team mistake rather than Hamilton’s own error. However, the team radio broadcast ahead of the race suggested it was a bit of both as Hamilton asked the question and the team agreed to his demand.

Hamilton: “It’s all rubber down here [at the designated spot] can I go further out?”

Bonnington: “Affirm… Copy, as long as you leave enough room for cars to pass.”

It’s not clear if there were further radio messages, but once Mercedes representatives had visited the stewards, it was decided that Hamilton did not deserve the penalty points and the €25,000 fine was issued to the team instead.

“The stewards after the ace heard from the team and the driver of Car 44, Lewis and Mercedes spoke to the stewards, at which point it was clear it was actually a team instruction to Lewis of where he could perform those practice starts,” Masi said. “On that basis the stewards have rescinded the penalty points as they thought it was inappropriate and as a result have fined the team €25,000 for that instruction.”

But after the race, Wolff said no individual would be blamed for the incident.

“The errors always happen together, it’s not a team error and it’s not a Lewis error,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to point [the finger] at anybody and I’ve never done that.

“Things are not always black and white and it has room for interpretation. There are rules and there are things that can be interpreted in two ways, there is common sense, there is the fact that two in-race penalties were given for an infringement that happened before the race.

“There was an argument that he gained an advantage by making the practice starts there, I think it was not an advantage because there was much less grip than on the starting positions. But it is what it is and at the end of the day, obviously we are all emotional about that but the emotion should be geared towards Valtteri, who deserved a race win for a long time and that is fundamentally what makes me happy.

“Finishing one and three is reason to make us cheer and fly home and be happy with how it went. Now we need to learn from the incident, we need to look at the procedures, at the communications and as with every time we will not blame the person but target the problem.”

Would Hamilton have won without the penalty?

It’s hard to answer the question with certainty given all the variables a Formula One race can throw up, but based on the data we have available, Hamilton would have been the favourite for victory without his penalty. It’s not as simple as knocking ten seconds from his race time, as the penalty, which was served at his one and only pit stop, completely changed the dynamic of his race.

Hamilton was at a disadvantage regardless of his penalty as a mistake in qualifying on Saturday meant he had to start the race on the soft tyres whereas Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen started on the mediums behind him. That meant his first stint was always going to be reltively short and, even with a Safety Car to help reduce the strain on his tyres, he still pitted on lap 15. Had he made that pit stop at that time without the ten-second penalty, he would have come out in eighth place instead of 11th.

In our imaginary race without the time penalty, Hamilton would have pushed much harder in the laps after his pit stop than he did in reality as there would have been a chance to retain his lead over the front two. He would still have had traffic to deal with in the form of Daniil Kvyat, Charles Leclerc and Pierre Gasly, but Mercedes is confident he would have dealt with those cars swiftly and pushed hard when he found free air. A fresh hard tyre would have offered more performance than a used medium and so, once he was in clear air, Hamilton would be able to start to undercut Bottas and Verstappen.

Back in the reality of Sunday’s race, Verstappen made his pit stop on lap 25 and emerged six seconds ahead of Hamilton when he rejoined. So even just applying some basic maths by giving Hamilton his ten seconds back, he would have been ahead of Verstappen after the first set of pit stops.

When Bottas rejoined Sunday’s race, he was 14 seconds ahead of Hamilton, suggesting he may have taken the lead from Hamilton thanks to a superior strategy. But in our imaginary race, it would likely have been a close call as Hamilton would have had less traffic to negotiate and would have been pushing harder knowing a win was on the cards.

So it would have been an incredibly close race between the Mercedes drivers, with both coming out on top of Verstappen. Sadly it didn’t play out and instead the main talking points after the race were the penalties mentioned above.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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