Mercedes uses team orders to get Lewis Hamilton to the top step in Sochi, while Max Verstappen starts at the back and leads for half the race after an incredible early charge.
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Ferrari ramped up its development efforts ahead of the Russian Grand Prix, the Scuderia bringing a completely new front wing for its SF71H car to Sochi than it raced with in Singapore in an effort to rescue Sebastian Vettel’s rising 40-point deficit to Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton atop the drivers’ standings. So it was understandable that were long faces for those wearing red after second and third practice turned into a Mercedes 1-2, Hamilton leading teammate Valtteri Bottas on both occasions, with Vettel a mammoth six-tenths of a second adrift.
Come qualifying, there was a surprise in store, but it was only an internal one at Mercedes as Bottas took his second pole of the year by 0.145 seconds from Hamilton, the Finn getting faster and faster after Hamilton led the first two phases of qualifying, and Hamilton making a mistake and running wide at Turn 7 as he attempted to hunt down Bottas’ time of 1min 31.387secs, which was more than 1.5secs faster than pole on the same circuit 12 months ago.
“I managed to find some time in almost every run,” Bottas grinned after taking pole at a circuit where he’s something of a specialist, after winning his maiden GP at Sochi a year ago.
Hamilton conceded that Bottas simply “did the better job this time”, while Vettel was still more than half a second back, but in third as Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen (+0.850secs to Bottas) wasn’t a threat for anything other than fourth. “The car felt alright, so that makes me quite positive for Sunday,” Vettel said, seemingly more in hope than with any great confidence.
Not in the fight for the front two rows? The Red Bull Racing duo of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, who ended up starting 18th and 19th respectively after the team elected to re-fit Renault’s older ‘B-spec’ engine through concerns that its C-spec, raced in Singapore, didn’t have the reliability required. Both drivers took engine penalties and gearbox penalties, while Verstappen was slapped with another three-place penalty for failing to slow down under yellow flags in Q1, the only session the Red Bulls took part in.
Starting on the back row wouldn’t have been the way Verstappen envisaged his 21st birthday on race day shaping up, while Ricciardo’s high point on Saturday was, as he admitted, watching his beloved West Coast Eagles winning the Australian Football League premiership in the middle of the morning Sochi time. “My voice is definitely suffering after all the shouting,” he croaked.
The back of the grid was a mess after six different drivers took penalties; Toro Rosso duo Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley for new engine components outside of their allocation, McLaren’s Fernando Alonso in the same boat, and Alonso’s teammate Stoffel Vandoorne taking a new gearbox. The penalty spree gave Q2 a bad look, with five drivers of the 15 qualified in the session not bothering to turn a single lap, Renault duo Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz electing to stay in the pits to preserve tyres and start on whatever Pirelli rubber they preferred in the race. So much for a shootout for the top 10 … “It was more boring than anything,” Hulkenberg said.
Well ahead of the glut of penalties was Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, who qualified an excellent fifth, but a whopping 1.8secs from pole as the gap between F1’s haves and have-nots was laid bare again. Esteban Ocon, still without a drive for 2019, was the best of the Racing Point Force India cars in sixth, while Sauber had a day to remember in the Sochi sun, Charles Leclerc qualifying a career-best seventh, and teammate Marcus Ericsson making the top 10 for the first time since Italy 2015 in the week that it was announced he’d be vacating his seat for Ferrari test driver Antonio Giovinazzi next season.
There was good and bad news for local Russian drivers, with Williams’ Sergey Sirotkin causing the yellow flag that caught out Verstappen when he spun in Q1 and qualified just 18th, but the penalties for a third of the field elevated him on the starting grid to 13th. And while we’re on Russian drivers, Daniil Kvyat was revealed as Gasly’s replacement at Toro Rosso for 2019 when the Frenchman moves into Ricciardo’s current cockpit.
Come race day, it looked like Mercedes first and plenty of daylight second, but the long, long run into the first braking zone on the lap (1029 metres) made many wonder how hard Bottas would fight – or be permitted to fight – Hamilton given the Briton’s series lead and Vettel lurking in third on the grid. Would the Finn get his elbows out against his title-chasing teammate, or would he play dutiful rear-gunner to help Mercedes’ best (and realistically only) championship hope?
The race in exactly 69 words*
Hamilton extended his championship lead to 50 points with a maximum of 125 remaining with his eighth win of 2018, which came after Mercedes ordered teammate Bottas to let him past on lap 25. Bottas was a disappointed second, with Vettel losing 10 points to title rival Hamilton with third. Verstappen spectacularly charged from the back of the grid to lead for 24 laps before pitting, and finished fifth.
(* 2018 is the 69th season of Formula One)
The Australian started one place ahead of teammate Verstappen, relinquished that position on the way to the first corner, and only progressed as far as sixth from the back of the grid in a race his teammate led for more laps than any other driver, finishing 49 seconds adrift after 53 laps. How did it happen, and was it as disappointing as the numbers make it sound?
For starters, Ricciardo laboured through much of his 39-lap opening stint on the more durable soft-compound rubber with a damaged front wing, which came when he inadvertently ran over debris from Vandoorne’s McLaren on the very first lap. While Verstappen was tearing through the field to the extent that was fifth after just eight laps, Ricciardo’s progress was compromised, and by the time he got up to sixth on lap 18, he was 19 seconds behind his teammate.
Ricciardo took on a new front wing and a set of ultrasoft tyres when he pitted 14 laps from the end and broke the circuit lap record two laps later, and his best lap of the race was just 0.062secs behind Verstappen’s pace. But this wasn’t a case of ‘what might have been’ for the Aussie had his car not been carrying damage for three-quarters of the race; such was Verstappen’s speed, and such was the deficit Red Bull had to Mercedes and Ferrari combined with the advantage it had over the rest, that sixth was the best Ricciardo was ever likely to do in Sochi – the margin to his teammate would have been smaller, but sixth it would have been.
That’s now 10 races in a row where Ricciardo hasn’t managed to make the podium; both of his rostrum finishes this year have been wins (China and Monaco), which must seem like a long time ago as the sun prepares to set on his Red Bull tenure.
What the result means
The podium in Sochi was a strange one, with a subdued Hamilton taking the winner’s trophy with a result he admitted “didn’t feel great”, Bottas clearly annoyed at the imposition of team orders but playing the team game while being beckoned onto the top step of the podium by Hamilton to receive his second-place trophy, and Vettel looking slightly bemused by proceedings and spraying his champagne with more gusto than the others despite his championship chances taking another hefty hit.
Hamilton was in the box seat for the title before this race, and the unsavoury discussion of team orders hadn’t been an issue at Mercedes much this season, such has been his superiority over Bottas. But when the Finn took a surprise pole on Saturday, and with Sochi’s enormous run to the first braking zone of the lap at Turn 2 off the start, the question of whether Bottas would help Hamilton was raised, and the Finn’s tow helped Hamilton repel a charging Vettel off the start as the pack thundered into the first ‘proper’ corner on the circuit.
Hamilton slotting into second left him vulnerable to Ferrari trying to use the pit stops to unsettle the series leader, and the German pitted a lap before Hamilton on lap 13 and jumped the Briton as the Mercedes rejoined the fray, Hamilton making his disapproval with Mercedes’ strategy choice known over the team radio.
Hamilton quickly closed on Vettel and, after being strongly repelled at Turn 2 on lap 16 (which was investigated by the race stewards, with no action taken), ripped past his title rival at Turn 4 on the same lap with a move that was breathtaking and depressing (for Ferrari) at the same time, Hamilton unleashing the full potential of the Mercedes for one decisive split second.
A developing blister on Hamilton’s left-rear tyre while sat behind Bottas prompted the Mercedes pit wall to switch their two drivers just before the halfway stage, keeping Hamilton out of Vettel’s clutches and making the German’s job mathematically all that more difficult in a clearly slower car and with races running out. Was it necessary for Mercedes to order the switch? Perhaps not, given Hamilton has now won five of the past six races, but while it remains numerically possible for Hamilton to lose the crown, it’s unsurprising.
If Hamilton was sheepish, Bottas glum and Vettel sporting a facial expression of a man resigned to his fate, perhaps the biggest smile in the pit lane was for Verstappen, who injected a huge shot of adrenaline into a race that was strategically interesting but lacking in on-track action with his incredible early charge.
Verstappen passed six cars on lap one, was in the points two laps later and fifth eight laps into the race. He finally pitted for ultrasofts – and, curiously, not the faster hypersoft tyre – 10 laps from home, and while his pace flattened from there to the extent that he finished 14 seconds behind fourth-placed Raikkonen, he’d enlivened the race to such an extent that he was voted as driver of the day for the second race in a row.
Hulkenberg spoke for just about everyone when he was given blue flags to let the Verstappen by on lap 41 – “the Red Bull is the leader – how the hell did that happen?” the Renault driver said. Verstappen, unsurprisingly, said it was a fun 21st birthday at work. “I hope you enjoyed the race as much as I did,” he said.
For historical purposes …
That’s five race wins in Sochi in five years for Mercedes, with Hamilton’s win on Sunday adding to his 2014 and 2015 successes, which give Mercedes a clean sweep when combined with the victories of Bottas (2017) and predecessor Nico Rosberg (2016).
The number to know
0: Sixteen Grands Prix into the 2018 season, Raikkonen (who started and finished fourth on Sunday) is yet to make a pass on the first lap of a race.
The top three teams have been covered extensively above, but there were winners (and losers) behind them. Count Leclerc in the first category, the 2019 Ferrari driver impressing once again with seventh as the only car outside of the Mercedes-Ferrari-Red Bull ‘A’ division not to be lapped, and producing one of the passes of the race when he hung on around the outside of the notoriously feisty Magnussen at Turn 3 on the second lap.
It wasn’t all bad for Haas and Magnussen, the Dane taking four points for finishing eighth and bringing the American team to within 11 points of Renault for fourth in the constructors’ championship with five races to go, after Hulkenberg (12th) and Sainz (17th) couldn’t make their lengthy first stints on soft tyres pay off by the chequered flag.
Force India deserve some credit too, with Ocon and Sergio Perez playing nice after their clash in Singapore the race previously, and adhering to team orders in their ultimately futile attempts to gang up on Magnussen, Ocon finishing ninth, and Perez rounding out the points after both had a go at hunting down the combative Dane.
Those who lost out
Bottas and Ricciardo make this category for reasons controlled and uncontrolled, while further back, Renault’s tyre gamble (as outlined above) didn’t hit pay dirt. Elsewhere, Alonso wasn’t enormously impressed with being given an outline of his race en route to finishing 14th (“I’m 15th, I don’t care,” he said), while Toro Rosso had both drivers retire to be the only non-finishers in the race, both Hartley and Gasly spinning at different corners and returning to the pits to be retired on lap five with front brake failures.
There’s just five races remaining in 2018 and only four days before duties start for the next one, with Sochi on the calendar this year as a baffling back-to-back with Suzuka in Japan. The unique figure-of-eight layout is one all the drivers revere, and one where Mercedes has run rampant since the big rule change of 2014, Hamilton winning at the twisty, undulating super circuit three times in the past four seasons.