F1 – Russian GP – Race
Previt, MiniFans! Yesterday, we almost witnessed the demise of Mercedes in qualifying, albeit due to factors mostly outside of their control. Vettel’s crash, which prompted a red flag, added to the lack of a lap by Hamilton, as his was erased because he went off track, made it so that they needed a sprint in the last two minutes left of Q2. However, the combo of Hamilton and Mercedes is better under pressure than a lot give them credit for and they snatched pole yet again. We are yet to see whether their winning streak will continue on, as the ever hungry Verstappen shimmied his way in between the German cars.
Tyres were likely to be important during the start. Hamilton, in his own desperation to make sure he’d score a good enough lap without the proper preparation, ended up with soft tyres that he’d need to protect during the formation lap. Meanwhile, Verstappen and Bottas, who were starting second and third, bore the yellow rimmed mediums, a choice shared by most drivers outside of the top 10. The start in Sochi has never really been benevolent to the pole sitter but Hamilton managed to make it work for himself and kept his first place as Bottas and Verstappen fought for second. What did work just as usual was the safety car coming out in the first lap, for incidents caused by Sainz, who clipped a wall after leaving the track, and Stroll, who got hit by Leclerc and slammed against another wall. Meanwhile, the Renaults had settled into their places as the best of the rest, sitting comfortably in fourth and fifth after Ricciardo put pressure on Verstappen.
The restart behind the safety car was very clean, unlike some previous experiences we have had. Hamilton kicked the race off with a few corners to go, trying to make his soft tyres work in his favour. Two unexpected penalties came out for Hamilton: He got handed two five seconds penalties for incorrectly doing the practice starts in the pitlane. One would be served during his pit stop, but the second one would likely need to be added to his final time, as only one stop was expected. The incident between Leclerc and Stroll was considered a race incident and the Ferrari driver was not penalised. Russell, Norris and Albon were providing the most entertainment at the back, all of them switched to hard tyres to try and make it to the end, continuously overtaking each other.
All eyes turned to Hamilton, as he’d probably be the first to stop from the top cars. He asked his team not to stop him early as other drivers with his same set of tyres started pitting but was called in shortly after. He complied with both penalties at the same time, remaining stationary for a full ten seconds before he changed tyres. Dropped in the middle of traffic, he quickly made his way up the timing tower up to fifth, eventually third after all pit stops were made, after having complained about the ridiculousness of the situation he was in. What looked like team orders in Renault were executed at the end of the straight in order to give Ricciardo a chance at overtaking Vettel, with whom Ocon hadn’t had any luck. Despite the cleanness of the manoeuvre by the Frenchman, his teammate went a bit wide in turn 2 and was slammed with a five-second penalty for not doing the slalom set in place for those going off track as he easily went past Vettel. He acknowledged he was at fault and told his team he’d drive faster, a promise he kept by pulling away from Leclerc quite easily.
A very conservative Hamilton kept his distance to Verstappen for a long while, maybe in an effort to preserve his tyres for the last laps to hunt Verstappen down. A very quick virtual safety car came out so that marshals could change the bollards broken by Grosjean trying to comply with the slalom in the exit of turn 2 and failing miserably. All this was going on parallel to the fight for 9th between Norris, Albon and Gasly, the last of them with brand new tyres on. Norris was eventually forced to yield due to his tyres giving up on him. At the front, Verstappen managed a fastest lap that was quickly snatched back by Bottas, who is back to winning. One last five-second penalty was handed to Albon for not following instructions, but he kept his tenth place despite this. Verstappen could hang onto his second place and Hamilton stood in a third step on a podium he was expecting would be enough to match Schumacher’s victories. The only Racing Point left was the best of the rest, while Ricciardo did keep his place in front of Leclerc, having enough of a gap to remain fifth.
Mercedes came out victorious in Sochi one more time, just maybe not in the way everyone expected. They retained the first place at all times, but it wasn’t so easy behind the scenes. After the qualifying scare, in which they were forced to use softs, the race seemed like a more usual affair. That was until the stewards handed Hamilton not one, but two five-second penalties for incorrect practice starts. Bottas managed to save the team’s winning streak by doing what’s expected of him: stepping up and being the one to win when Hamilton isn’t around. His overtake on Verstappen at the start gave him a win otherwise unthinkable, even with his teammate’s different tyre strategy. Leclerc was the one who saved Ferrari’s honour, finishing sixth in a race when they weren’t expected in the points, something his teammate did comply with. The difference with which Ricciardo and Hamilton accepted (or not) their penalties as fair struck a cord with many spectators, who found it easy to cheer for the Australian as he acknowledged his fault and promised to drive faster, delivering on his promise to finish fifth, while the reigning world champion did his usual complain over radio. We’re now resting for a week to come back to Nürburgring in the second week in October. See you in Germany!