Red Bull chief Helmut Marko reckons Lewis Hamilton will incur a heavy penalty later this season to put him on a level playing field with Max Verstappen, who will start this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix from the back of the grid.
F1 teams are only permitted to use three power units throughout the season but Verstappen is being supplied with his fourth of the campaign and an entire new engine this weekend.
That means the Dutchman must start the race in last place, increasing the likelihood of Hamilton overturning his five-point deficit in the Drivers’ Championship.
Hamilton has used all three of his power-unit allocation this season but Marko reckons Mercedes will need to install a fourth later in the year – which would bring about the same punishment.
“With Turkey, Austin and Mexico our circuits are coming up again. We assume Mercedes will take the penalty there. For the same reasons as we did here in Sochi,” Marko told Auto, Motor und Sport.
However, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff insists that his team will not necessarily need to change Hamilton’s engine again.
The Austrian said: “It’s not an absolute must, because we’re still running very comfortably with this power unit.
“It’s a decision that can be made at any time but, at the moment, we don’t feel it’s necessary.
“Does that mean we’re not going to take a fourth? No, it doesn’t. We will see how the next races pan out.”
Verstappen was already serving a three-place grid penalty this weekend because he was found guilty of causing the crash with Hamilton in Monza last time out.
Given Verstappen was already at a disadvantage, Marko felt it was the right time to introduce the new engine.
“With the superiority of the Mercedes, Max would have been third at best in qualifying,” Marko explained.
“He then gets another three spots penalty because of the Monza penalty, so that would put him sixth. Changing one engine part would mean P16.
“That’s not much better than the last starting row, so that’s why we prefer to replace all the parts.”
Valtteri Bottas set the fastest lap times during Friday’s practice sessions in Sochi, with Hamilton two tenths behind in second.
If the Finn does start from the front of the grid then Mercedes may implement team orders to allow their title-challenger the best chance of winning the race.