“F1 Russian GP: Joy and relief for Hamilton; Terse and Tense at Ferrari”

Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may have rounded off a Mercedes 1-2 at Sochi yesterday to record the German marquee’s sixth win at the Russian Grand Prix, but it was a race that could so easily have belonged to Ferrari {note 1}.

There was a mixture of joy and relief in Parc Fermé and again on the podium following the conclusion of the eighth Russian Grand Prix.

Joy from Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes in taking their first win since Hungary in July and also that Hamilton’s Finnish teammate Valtteri Bottas came home 2nd.

But there was also relief that nearest rivals Ferrari stumbled to take 3rd place with Charles Leclerc, when the Scuderia looked like wrapping their own 1-2 at the halfway mark, albeit with Sebastien Vettel leading the way. How quickly things turn…

Really though, this should have been Ferrari’s race and the fumbling between the polesitting Leclerc, Vettel and the Ferrari pitwall in the early stages of the Grand Prix was indicative of the difficulties the Scuderia are facing.
Admittedly on one hand, it is a good problem to hand, but on the other hand, squabbling teammates and a tentative team management tiptoeing around pinched egos rarely makes for a positive outcome.

Unless, of course, one possesses a significant car advantage – see McLaren in 1988, Red Bull in 2013 and Mercedes in 2016 – and in this instance, Ferrari do not.

Leclerc had noted prior to the start that pole position was necessarily an advantage at Sochi, due to the long drag around the non-event of turn one and into the hard-braking turn two and so it proved in practice.
From the front row, Leclerc had a reasonable start, while Hamilton was sluggish away on his mediums – Vettel, meanwhile, from 3rd on the grid got away well on his soft Pirelli tyres, drafted Leclerc briefly and slotted into the lead, a lead he held until he stopped on lap 26.

A brief safety car following a crash between Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo), Romain Grosjean (Haas) and Daniel Ricciardo (Ricciardo) kept things steady for three tours, but from there, the leading three held their position for that opening stint.
Yet, the gaps spread ever so slightly, as the race aged, while in the 2nd place Ferrari, Leclerc began to boil. Having gained on Leclerc from the line, Vettel was instructed by the Ferrari pitwall to allow Leclerc through. On several occasions, Vettel received the order and, on several occasions, the pitwall informed Leclerc that the swap was coming soon; however, the German insisting he be allowed more time to build a gap to Ferrari’s challengers.

While it was easy to see where Vettel was coming from, it was also clear that he was playing a small game in an attempt to rebalance the roles at Ferrari. Winning last week in Singapore helped – another win would even perception further. Responding on the radio, Leclerc told the pitwall that he respected their decision, but one could hear terse teeth been gritted through the radio static.
Eventually the Ferrari pitwall acquiesced, choosing instead to leave Vettel out for an additional four laps after Leclerc’s stop, giving the Monegasque racer enough of a run on new tyres to jump Vettel.

In theory that should have been it. Having not yet stopped, the Mercedes – with Hamilton ahead of Bottas – led, while the freshly tyred Ferrari ran 3rd and 4th knowing this race was there for the taking.

And then on lap 29, a shudder, a drop of noise and the unwinding and spooling of an MGUK and a hamstrung Vettel parked up by on of Sochi’s many non-descript run-off areas – Virtual Safety Car and a change that played right into Mercedes’ hands. The pace slowed significantly, allowing Hamilton to pit and emerge ahead of Leclerc, with Bottas exiting the pits just behind the Monegasque racer.

But it didn’t stop there. Two laps later, a failure at the front of George Russell’s car sent the young Briton careering into the barriers, forcing the stewards to bring out the full safety car.

So now what? There were two options – a) Ferrari could leave Leclerc in 2nd place in an effort to chase the lead on slightly used medium tyres, or b) bring him in again and change him onto softs, knowing that he would lose a position to Bottas.
It was a risk, but Ferrari chose the second option and brought Leclerc into the pits on lap 31, with the race restarting two laps later, but despite all his momentum, his confidence, his pace, Leclerc was stuck.

Sochi is not the easiest place to pass, even with the ultra-long straight from the final corner to the second turn, the various energy-recovered power boosts and DRS sections available. Indeed, it is one of the reasons Leclerc fell adrift of Vettel in the opening stint – he simply could not get close enough to the car in front – and now he couldn’t get close enough to Bottas.

Once again, strategy and circumstance failed the red team, but this was no complete giveaway – Hamilton raced hard and laid down some very critical fast laps when it was needed. As the final stages of the race unravelled, the five-time champion drew away from Bottas without taking too much from his Pirelli’s and still had enough to set the fastest lap two tours from the end, bagging the extra point as a result. Job done.

Indeed, probably the only moment in the race when Hamilton appeared troubled was the run down from the start of the race toward turn two. His getaway stuttered, allowing not only Vettel through, but also – briefly – Carlos Sainz, although that did not last, as the Mercedes power unit outblasted McLaren’s customer Renault unit.
Bottas, meanwhile, dropped to 5th at the start and eventually took Sainz on lap seven, but by then, Hamilton was already six seconds up the road. Job done – again.

The gap between the two Mercedes was already 15s by the time Vettel’s off brought out the safety car and such was Hamilton’s advantage, Mercedes were easily able to serve both of their cars and still have a breather in between.

Hamilton built a solid four-second cushion over his Mercedes subordinate, while Bottas was doing enough to keep Leclerc at bay, allowing the “Silver Arrows” to take the top two spots. Once again – job done.

Sensing that 2nd place was no longer on the cards, Leclerc dropped back slightly from Bottas and build a gap to allow a last dash run at the fastest lap point, but even this was beyond him, with Leclerc’s lap 52 effort falling four-tenths adrift of Hamilton.
From pole, Leclerc would settle for 3rd spot, allowing Bottas to gain an addition three points over the Ferrari racer in the battle for 2nd in the championship.

Hamilton hasn’t won the title yet, but he may as well have. His fourth win at Sochi means a 73-point gap to Bottas in the standings, with just 125 points left to play for. As the field disassembles and prepares for the Japanese Grand Prix in two weeks, Leclerc now sits some 34 points behind Bottas.
Considering how much Ferrari were expected to win this race as the weekend evolved, this can only could as a successgul save for Mercedes. Joy and relief indeed.

Behind the commotion out front, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen took a lonely 4th place. Having started 9th following a grid penalty, Verstappen drew ahead of the slow starting Nico Hülkenberg, made easy work of Sergio Perez (Racing Point, lap 8), Lando Norris (McLaren, lap 12) and Sainz (lap 17), by which stage, the gap to the lead was already 34s.

Following the safety car, the gap extended again with Verstappen ending the race some 14s adrift of race winner Hamilton; however his desire to change tyres late on and go for the fastest lap were stymied by the presence of teammate Alexander Albon in 5th, only 24s adrift in the final tours.
Albon enjoyed a somewhat more entertaining race, as he started in the pitlane and slowly climbed the order and used Russell’s safety car to earn a strategy boost.

Sainz came home 6th ahead of Perez (7th), while Haas’ Kevin Magnussen originally took 8th, only to be dropped to 9th after leaving the track at turn two and not rejoining in the appropriate manner. This promoted Norris to 8th, with the McLaren rookie completed a double-points finish for the Woking team, taking past 100 points in the Constructor’s Championship and well ahead of the works Renault team.
Hülkenberg grabbed 10th and the final point, but not too far ahead of Lance Stroll (Racing Point, 11th).
Daniil Kvyat won the Toro Rosso battle over Pierre Gasly. As Gasly fought hard to jump his Russian stablemate, the Frenchman divebombed Kvyat in turn two, only to outbrake himself and not only lose the position to Kvyat, but also Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen, who secured 13th. It proved a disappointing result for Raikkonen, who picked up an early penalty for jumping the start, but looking at Alfa Romeo’s pace, it is unlikely they would have ever threatened the points.
Gasly took home 14th ahead of Giovinazzi (15th), who raced with damage following his first lap contretemps with Grosjean and Ricciardo.

Whereas Grosjean was out on the spot, Ricciardo did continue for 24 laps, before it was decided to bench the knackered Renault and Williams retired Robert Kubica following Russell’s incident fearing a similar mechanical failure may also take the Polish driver out of the race.

{note 1}
This year’s race may have been Mercedes-Benz’ sixth win at Sochi, but the first two Russian Grand Prix (1913-14) were won by Benz, prior to the merger between Benz & Cie and Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) in 1926, following which the name ‘Mercedes-Benz’ was adopted in honour of the Mercedes model that Daimler released in 1902.
When World War I was declared, the Russian Grand Prix was put on hold, but not reinstated following the creation of the Soviet Union. This hold came to an end, when the Russian Grand Prix was reinstated for the 2014 Formula One season. As an aside, this is the first time, I have placed a notation in the banner headline.

© FIA.

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