Mercedes Lewis Hamilton returns to the top step of the podium with victory round the Sochi Autodrom after taking advantage of a VSC period. However, the race was being led by the squabbling Ferrari duo of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc before a MGU-K failure on Vettel’s car prevented the Scuderia from taking a fourth straight win.
Lewis Hamilton’s winning strategy was actually determined on Saturday morning when he and his Mercedes crew decided that the Brit and his team-mate Valterri Bottas, would start on the Medium tyre rather than the favoured Soft tyre. In Q2, both Hamilton and Bottas qualified on the Medium whereas the Ferrari pair of Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel qualified on the Soft tyre.
Eventual pole-sitter, Leclerc, would later rue starting on pole, his fourth in a row, as he knew that before the race that the advantage of the slipstream would allow his rivals to challenge him for the lead. A cracking start by Vettel saw the rejuvenated German driver blast past Hamilton and then past team-mate Leclerc for the lead into turn 1. Hamilton came under attack from McLaren’s Carlos Sainz but the championship leader managed to fend the Spaniard off.
The Ferrari’s, trading fastest lap times, weren’t pulling away as quick from Hamilton behind. But then on lap 6, Leclerc was told by his race engineer that Vettel would let him past for the lead. It seems like this had been orchestrated before the start of the race to ensure that Ferrari would have a comfortable 1-2.
However, Vettel argued that they should continue on as the gap to Hamilton and the others behind wasn’t safe enough to maintain the 1-2 in the reverse order. On lap 7, Bottas eventually made his was past Sainz for 4th but the Mercedes driver was now nearly 10 seconds behind the race-leading Ferrari’s. As the laps went by, the move did not happen and Leclerc started to fall back as Vettel set the timing screens alight with fastest lap after fastest lap.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen qualified in 5th but started the race in 10th due to an engine penalty dropping the Dutchman five places. He was making his way through the field and got past Sainz for 5th while team-mate Alexander Albon, was doing the same and was making his way up from the back of the field.
At the end of lap 22, Ferrari decided to pull the trigger and pit Leclerc. He went onto the Medium tyre and re-joined in 4th. On fresher tyres, Leclerc was putting in great sectors as Vettel complained that his rear tyres were going off. So at the end of lap 27, Vettel pitted. He went onto the Medium tyre and rejoined…
Behind Leclerc who was told to push. The undercut had worked for Leclerc but Ferrari’s day was able to go downhill. Exiting the pits and on his ‘out-lap’, Vettel slowed and eventually came to a halt as he was told to “stop the car”.
“Are you serious” was the reply from the Singapore GP winner as he jumped out of his car due to a MGU-K failure. It was his first retirement of the season and the four time world champion said what near enough every F1 fan wants to hear “bring back the f***ing V12s!”
Vettel’s unsafe Ferrari allowed the stewards to deploy the Virtual Safety Car. Mercedes took full advantage and pitted both Hamilton and Bottas with Hamilton rejoining in the lead. Hamilton and Bottas were now on the Softs and would be much quicker than Leclerc on his Medium tyres who was now slap right bang in the middle of the Silver Arrows pair. The race got going again only for a mechanical issue to send Williams George Russell into the wall and into retirement and bring out the full Safety Car.
Ferrari took the decision to pit Leclerc and put him on equal footing with Hamilton and Bottas by swapping the Medium tyres for the Soft instead. Leclerc fell to 3rd behind Bottas and now if he wanted to win, had to overtake the Finn before having a chance to battle Hamilton.
Bottas defended well and kept Leclerc behind for the reminder of the race as Hamilton pulled out a three and a half second gap to win for the first time since Hungary. Bottas and Leclerc followed home in 2nd and 3rd while Verstappen, who couldn’t do much better than he had done, finished in 4th.
Albon finished in 5th ahead of Sainz who drove well to score points for the first time since Hungary. Sergio Perez claimed a well-deserved 7th ahead of the other McLaren of Lando Norris, Haas’s Kevin Magnussen and Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg.
Lance Stroll headed home the finishers that finished outside the points in 11th with Toro Rosso and home-favourite, Daniil Kvyat in 12th. After jumping the start of the race, Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen recovered to 13th after a drive-through penalty with Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly in 14th.
Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi limped home in 15th after early contact at the start of the race with Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo and Haas’s Romain Grosjean saw the Italian suffer damage and content with that for the rest of the race.
In racing, “three into one never goes”. This is what happened on the opening lap of the race when Grosjean, Giovinazzi and Ricciardo went for the same bit of track at the same time. Grosjean ended up in the barriers while Ricciardo suffered floor damage and a rear puncture and would retire later on.
Russian GP Result
1.Hamilton (Mercedes) 2.Bottas (Mercedes) 3.Leclerc (Ferrari) 4.Verstappen (Red Bull) 5.Albon (Red Bull) 6.Sainz (McLaren) 7.Perez (Racing Point) 8.Norris (McLaren) 9.Magnussen (Haas) 10.Hulkenberg (Renault)
11.Stroll (Racing Point) 12.Kvyat (Toro Rosso) 13.Raikkonen (Alfa Romeo) 14.Gasly (Toro Rosso) 15.Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo)
Retirements: Kubica (Williams), Russell (Williams), Vettel (Ferrari), Ricciardo (Renault) & Grosjean (Haas)
1.Hamilton (Mercedes) 322pts 2.Bottas (Mercedes) 249pts 3.Leclerc (Ferrari) 215pts 4.Verstappen (Red Bull) 212pts 5.Vettel (Ferrari) 194pts
1.Mercedes (Ham & Bot) 571pts 2.Ferrari (Lec & Vet) 409pts 3.Red Bull (Ver & Alb) 311pts 4.McLaren (Sai & Nor) 101pts 5.Renault (Ric & Hul) 68pts