Many F1 races in the modern era can turn into snooze fests with one driver or one team having an outright advantage. But rarely does 300km of racing end on a disappointing note for all the podium finishers, yet that’s what happened at Sochi this year.
The Sochi Autodrom circuit has been dominated by Mercedes ever since the first race in 2014 and they were the favourites to win, as usual. After the disappointing result in Singapore, Ferrari’s sudden lack of pace was even more apparent on this track while Red Bull Racing surprised everyone with their lap times in free practice. Unfortunately, both Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen had multiple new parts including power elements and gearbox changes. The resulting grid penalties meant that they would inevitably start at the back and so they did not progress beyond Q2 in qualifying which also gave them the choice of which tyres to start on.
Valtteri Bottas was outpacing Lewis Hamilton all weekend and even in qualifying. A strong circuit for the Finn who took his first ever F1 win here just last year, Bottas was quick enough to start on pole position at Sochi yet again. Hamilton was just under two-tenths of a second slower to qualify second fastest, giving Mercedes their 55th front row lockout in F1. Kevin Magnussen made the most of Red Bull’s absence from Q3 and was able to qualify 5th fastest while his Haas teammate Romain Grosjean qualified 9th fastest. Both drivers of Racing Point Force India were keen to recover from Singapore’s debacle and Esteban Ocon was able to qualify P6 with Sergio Perez securing P8 on the starting grid. Alfa Romeo Sauber had a good qualifying with both cars in Q3 as Charles Leclerc put in an impressive lap to be 7th fastest and Marcus Ericsson started 10th on the grid.
Mercedes’ pace advantage over Ferrari left little hope for an exciting race for the championship but it was fun to see Bottas leading the race from pole position. All of the top 10 on the grid started on HyperSoft tyres and would be pitting considerably early so there was the question who’d Mercedes bring into the pits first. As it turned out, they pitted Bottas first on Lap 12 switching to the Soft compound, Vettel followed on the next lap and on Lap 14, Hamilton pitted to change to the yellow-walled tyres as well. As the duo started to catch up with Verstappen in the mid-stages, Bottas found himself being slowed down in the dirty air and getting caught up by Hamilton. Just as we the viewers were looking forward to a clean teammate battle, the team orders came through for the Finn and he was told to move aside for Lewis on Lap 25. Being the team player he is, Bottas complied without too much fuss but did point out that he wasn’t happy about it and let Hamilton overtake him. This moment decided the outcome of the race and perhaps even the 2018 championship as Lewis Hamilton took the win and Bottas finished second.
Valtteri’s frustration was flush on his face but he stayed stoic as Hamilton walked over to him first thing after he got out of his car in parc ferme to acknowledge his sacrifice. Even in the later interviews and on the podium, the Brit showed hearty sportsmanship, even offering to switch trophies with his Finnish teammate. Bottas still hasn’t won a race in this season and this was his strongest performance but as Hamilton said, he played the team role when asked of him. Even Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff expressed how he felt uncomfortable about the circumstances but did what was needed.
The opening laps did offer some fantastic excitement though as birthday-boy Verstappen made his way up the order from 19th making up to P5 within the first ten laps. While it was predictable that the Red Bull can outpace any middle-order car and that they would most likely finish in P5 and P6, what made Max’s charge more impressive was the fact that he didn’t just wait for the slower cars to move out of his way and made some exciting overtakes on his way up. His drive was impressive for another reason – he technically led the race for about twenty-five laps since he started on the Soft compound tyre and didn’t have to pit till Lap 43. Till then, he was able to keep both Mercedes cars behind him and in the end, he crossed the line in P5 after a commendable performance.
Ricciardo didn’t have as strong a performance as his teammate as he picked up some front-end damage on the opening lap. But he too had the faster car than all of the middle order and was able to make his up to P6 and had also started on the long lasting Soft compound tyre. He made a pit stop on Lap 39 for a new front end and switch to Hypersoft tyres for the last stint but stayed in P6 till the finish line. Raikkonen had the dullest race of the top six as he started and finished the Russian GP in P4. The only excitement Ferrari offered on Sunday was when Vettel undercut Hamilton by pitting a lap earlier. Sebastian’s out-lap was better than Lewis’ in-lap which allowed the German to get ahead into P2 when the Brit exited the pits. It only lasted for a couple of corners as Hamilton was right on Vettel’s tail and despite a late braking moment into Turn 2 with a questionable manoeuvre from the Ferrari man before letting the faster Mercedes pass him around Turn 3. Hamilton was able to leave Vettel behind and focus on catching his teammate after this point with Ferrari running on the Ultrasoft tyres.
Finishing the best-of-the-rest was future Ferrari driver, Charles Leclerc who crossed the chequered flag in P7 while his Sauber teammate Ericcson finished in P13 and out of the points. Leclerc had a great start and possibly the best overtake all race when he went around the outside of Magnussen having already gotten past Ocon and moved up to P5. Haas too only got one car in the points with Kevin who finished P8 while Romain Grosjean just missed out with a P11 result.
Racing Point Force India did manage to improve upon Singapore with a double points finish and both drivers clearly had been given a talking to as they exchanged positions as per team orders. At first, Ocon was asked to let Perez go ahead to try and chase down Magnussen and when it didn’t work they were swapped back. In the end, Ocon finished P9 and Perez took P10 for the final point at Sochi. Renault, on the other hand, suffered due to lack of pace and could not work out a good enough strategy to try and make the most of the tyre choice. Nico Hulkenberg started and finished his race in P12 while Carlos Sainz started 13th on the grid and finished P17.
More of the usual at McLaren and Williams during the Russian GP with back-of-the-pack results. Both Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were expected to have grid penalties for new engine parts and neither got past Q3 anyway. So, Alonso started 16th and finished in P14 while Vandoorne started 15th and crossed the line in P16, losing places on the opening lap. McLaren will have an all-new lineup next season as Fernando takes a break from F1 and Vandoorne will be replaced by fresh talent Lando Norris. Both Williams cars were also out in Q3 but the grid penalties of others allowed Sergey Sirotkin to start 13th and Lance Stroll next to him 14th on the grid. The Russian had a lot of support at home but was the last to cross the finish line in P18 while Stroll managed to secure a P15 finish.
The most unfortunate team on Sunday was, in fact, Toro Rosso as it had gone back to a previous engine spec for Sochi and took grid penalties for changes made. This meant that despite qualifying performance wherein Pierre Gasly was 13th fastest, he started 17th on the grid and Brendon Hartley in last. Things got worse as they both suffered issues with their brake mechanisms, spinning out on the opening laps before both drivers retired to the pits after just four laps around the Sochi circuit.
Realistically, it does seem like Hamilton has just about secured his fifth world title but there are still 5 more races to go. We will follow the Formula 1 action as it heads to Japan next weekend to race around the iconic Suzuka circuit. Stay tuned and subscribe to the Auto Loons for the latest updates on the freshest content.
Final Race Standings:
- L. Hamilton Mercedes – 1:27:25.181
- V. Bottas Mercedes +2.545
- S. Vettel Ferrari +7.487
- K. Raikkonen Ferrari +16.543
- M. Verstappen Aston Martin Red Bull Racing +31.016
- D. Ricciardo Aston Martin Red Bull Racing +80.451
- C. Leclerc Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +98.390
- K. Magnussen Haas Ferrari +1 Lap
- E. Ocon Force India Mercedes +1 Lap
- S. Perez Force India Mercedes +1 Lap
- R. Grosjean Haas Ferrari +1 Lap
- N. Hulkenberg Renault +1 Lap
- M. Ericsson Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +1 Lap
- F. Alsono McLaren Renault +103.011
- L. Stroll Williams Racing Mercedes +1 Lap
- S. Vandoorne McLaren Renault +2 Laps
- C. Sainz Renault +2 Laps
- S. Sirotkin Williams Racing Mercedes +2 Laps
- P. Gasly Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda DNF
- B. Hartley Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda DNF