CNN  — 

The Formula One grid was divided ahead of the sport’s return as several drivers, including Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen, chose not to kneel in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

All 20 drivers congregated on the start line before the Austrian Grand Prix, the first race of the season following the three-month delay due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lewis Hamilton, who has been using his sizable platform to speak out against racial and social injustice, knelt on the front line wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, while the rest of the drivers had “End Racism” written on theirs.

Before the race, Ferrari driver Leclerc posted a series of tweets explaining why he had chosen not to kneel alongside his peers.

“All 20 drivers stand united with their teams against racism and prejudice, at the same time embracing the principles of diversity, equality and inclusion, supporting Formula 1’s and FIA’s commitment,” he wrote.

“I believe that what matters are facts and behaviors in our daily life rather than formal gestures that could be seen as controversial in some countries. I will not take the knee but this does not mean at all that I am less committed than others in the fight against racism.”

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Lewis Hamilton kneels ahead the Austrian Prix, but six drivers chose not to kneel.

Verstappen echoed Leclerc’s comments, writing: “I am very committed to equality and the fight against racism. But I believe everyone has the right to express themselves at a time and in a way that suits them. I will not take the knee today but respect and support the personal choices every driver makes.”

In total six drivers chose not to kneel. The other four were Daniil Kvyat, Carlos Sainz, Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen.

The different stances were particularly stark coming less than two weeks after Formula One launched its “We Race as One” initiative, which is aimed at tackling racism and inequality.

After the race, Hamilton told reporters he had previously tried to take a public stand against racism after being inspired by the kneeling protests of former NFL star Colin Kaepernick.

However, the 35-year-old said he was talked out of it, though he didn’t specifically say by whom.

“I thought that was a very powerful statement,” Hamilton said. “Then he lost his job and he was a great athlete. I spoke to him a couple of years ago shortly after that for the [2017] US Grand Prix.

“I had a helmet made in red for his top with his number on but back then I was kind of silenced. I was told to back down and ‘Don’t support it,’ which I regret. So it is important for me that during this time I did my part.”

After qualifying on Saturday, Hamilton said he was disappointed that some drivers hadn’t used their platforms to speak out against racism. However, the Briton said he didn’t ask any driver to kneel alongside him on the start line.

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“I said: ‘I will be doing it but you do what you feel is right,’” he told reporters. “I am really grateful for those who did kneel along with me. I think it is a powerful message, but it won’t change the world.

“It’s a much, much bigger issue across the world; everyone had the right to their own choice and for me it felt right to do. Everything we do is not enough; we all need to do more. There has been awareness for a few weeks and what we don’t need is for it to die a silent death and disappear.”

Business as usual

Despite the extended break before the start of the season, normal service resumed on the track as Valtteri Bottas gave Mercedes top spot on the podium.

It was looking like Mercedes would finish with its two drivers in first and second, but Hamilton was given a five-second penalty just four laps from the end for his role in a collision with Red Bull’s Alex Albon.

That allowed Leclerc to take second and gave young McLaren driver Lando Norris third place for his first ever podium in Formula One.

Hamilton hadn’t won in Austria since 2016, with teammate Bottas taking one win and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen taking the other two in the intervening years.

The six-time world champion had an uphill battle from the off, after being demoted from second to fifth on the grid less than an hour before the start of the race.

The top three drivers celebrate on the new socially distanced podium.

Hamilton had initially been cleared by the stewards for failing to slow down for yellow flags during qualifying, but was handed the grid penalty at the last minute after a complaint from Red Bull.

It was reported that the new evidence Red Bull provided to have the ban instated was a video posted on Formula One’s Twitter account.

Red Bull boss Christian Horner said the footage had only been released by the race promoter on Sunday morning, which is why it wasn’t available for the inquiry on Saturday.

Bottas put in a commanding drive to ignore the drama behind him and led the race from start to finish, despite a flurry of pressure moments following a number of safety cars’ deployments.

Verstappen looked like the only driver capable of challenging the top two early on, but electric issues with the car forced the Dutch driver’s early retirement on lap 11.

Four-time champion Sebastian Vettel’s race was all but over after 31 laps following a collision with Carlos Sainz, the man who is replacing him at Ferrari next year.

The altered Formula One season, which has seen a number of grands prix canceled, continues with another race in Austria next weekend, before heading to Hungary.