Mercedes F1 is unbeaten in Russian GPs at the Sochi street circuit and that streak was likely to continue with title-contender Max Verstappen carrying a three-spot grid penalty. However, the forecast of rain over the weekend gave fans some hope for alternative outcomes.
After heavy rain and flooding earlier in the week, the weather took a favourable turn and the Friday practice sessions were in dry conditions. Mercedes were quickest throughout with McLaren and Ferrari not far behind. Red Bull also confirmed that Verstappen would be using a new power unit which combined with his other penalty, placed him firmly at the back of the starting grid. He was joined by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc who also used a new power unit, one that the team claimed to be their most promising update yet. That placed those two out of contention from starting high on the grid and opened up a podium opportunity for the McLaren drivers and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz. No, we did not expect Perez to do well enough at Sochi even in a Red Bull.
Heavy rain returned on Saturday which cancelled Free Practice 3 but it slowed just enough for a wet qualifying session. It felt like Turkey 2020 again as the track began to dry up as we got to Q3, taunting drivers to gamble an attempt on dry-weather slick tyres for their final runs. The post-rain track surface makes it hard for the tyres to get up to an optimal temperature for maximum traction while already being slippery. So, driver’s would likely be attempting consecutive timed laps rather than the usual format of out-lap, fast-lap, and in-lap. The trickiest thing would be to time the switch from Intermediate tyres to Softs.
Hamilton set an impressive timed lap in Q3 in his first run, on the wets, and was notably quicker than teammate Valtteri Bottas. Lando Norris was able to place himself between them on his run with the Inters. With 6 minutes left, George Russell was the first to try the Softs. Even though the Williams was sliding around a bit, it showed more pace on the drying track, especially once the tyres were up to temperature. Other teams were quick to follow suit. As Russell came down the main straight to start his timed lap, Mercedes brought in both cars to the pits to switch to the Soft tyres too. Unfortunately, Hamilton slid into the pit wall as he made the turn for the narrow entry and damaged his front wing. When he stopped in the box, the team scrambled to get a fresh wing and the delay also held up Bottas who had entered the pits behind Hamilton. Mercedes were able to get both cars back out on track but with the chance of just one timed lap on the slick tyres.
Hamilton and Bottas were unable to better their times in their single run on the Softs. Carlos Sainz was the first of the batch to break into the 1:42s but was beaten to Pole by former teammate Lando Norris. It was McLaren’s first Pole position result since 2012 claimed by their current British superstar. George Russell was able to set the third-fastest time at the very end for his second-best result in a Williams. The future Mercedes driver started on the second row on Sunday, just ahead of Hamilton. Daniel Ricciardo and Fernando Alonso were able to jump ahead of Bottas whose best time on the Inters ended up being seventh fastest. It was a disappointing qualifying for Perez who was only ninth fastest in the end behind Lance Stroll and ahead of Esteban Ocon.
Valtteri’s Russian GP continued to get worse as Mercedes decided to use his poor qualifying result to fit his car with new power unit elements. The resulting penalty would place the Finn P16 on the starting grid. Giovinazzi and Nicholas Latifi also had grid penalties of their own for new parts and would start behind the Mercedes but ahead of Max and Charles.
Sunday turned out to be nice and dry for the start of the race but there were predictions for rain towards the end of the 53 lap race. The wet qualifying meant driver’s had free choice of tyres for the start of the race with nearly all of them opting for the Mediums. Perez was the only driver in the top 10 to start on the Hard compound. Even though Norris was chuffed with his first-ever F1 Pole position start, he must have been wary of the circuit’s ongoing trend: the Polesitter does not win. The circuit’s main straight is very long with a kink that counts as Turn 1 before the braking zone for the double-jointed Turn 2. Whoever starts from Pole ends up providing a strong slipstream for the cars behind and is rarely able to stay ahead by the time they reach Turn 3.
When the lights went out, Norris got a better start than Sainz and was decidedly ahead. As they passed the kink, Russell, Sainz and Ricciardo were side by side (in that order) with Hamilton right behind. Lando positioned himself in the middle of the track to try and defend but that gave a better slipstream to Carlos. The lead McLaren then moved to cover the deepest inside line towards Turn 2 which blocked Lewis while Carlos switched to the middle of the track to overtake for the lead. George was holding onto P3 with Ricciardo getting caught in the multi-lane sandwich as the pack bottlenecked for Turn 2. Sainz was ahead as they approached the corner and used some badger-style late-braking (even locking up his front right) to keep ahead of Norris.
Hamilton dropped to P6 by the time he rounded Turn 2 with Stroll ahead and Ricciardo alongside. Alonso, meanwhile, found a loophole in track limits for Sochi regarding Turn 2. The rule states the drivers who go onto the run-off area at Turn 2, must follow the assigned slip route past the polystyrene barriers to rejoin the track. The Spaniard interpreted the rules to his advantage by deliberately aiming for that path which the Alpine driver to minimise his losses in the Lap 1 traffic through Turn 2. He was on the outside line of a multicar sandwich approaching the corner when we went wide, returned the positions gained by the time they cleared Turn 4 and tucked into P5 behind Stroll and ahead of Hamilton. That cheeky move didn’t give him a position advantage but allowed him to negate the positions he would have lost/ got into an incident through Turn 2 if he tried to stay within track limits.
By the end of the first lap, Sainz was in the lead followed closely by Norris with Russell a little further back. Ricciardo had managed to move back into P5, ahead of Alonso and Hamilton with Perez behind them. Leclerc had the best start of the back-benchers and was in P12 while Bottas and Verstappen were P15 and P17 respectively. Lewis overtook Fernando on Lap 2 through the Turn 2/3 section but the Spaniard did his best to make his former teammate work for it.
Sainz and Norris were running away from the pack with Russell holding up Ricciardo and Hamilton. The Ferrari could not match the pace of the McLaren that was chasing it and on Lap 13, Lando finally overtook Carlos for the lead at the end of the second DRS zone towards Turn 13. At that point in the race, Verstappen was running P11 and had got past both Bottas and Leclerc who were in P12 and P14 respectively. All three were on Hard tyres while most others started on the Mediums.
Sainz pitted after being overtaken, switching to the Hards after just 14 laps. This placed him towards the back of the pack for the middle part of the race. Ricciardo was the first of the podium contenders to stop for Hard tyres, pitting on Lap 23 while running fourth. At the same time, Norris was over 13 seconds clear of Hamilton while the Red Bulls that started on the Hards were running P4 (Perez) and P7 (Verstappen). However, a slow stop put Daniel far down the order as he rejoined the track in P13 with Sainz in P10.
Mercedes pitted Hamilton on Lap 27 and Red Bull responded by pitting Verstappen on the same lap. Perez was left out for a long first stint and found himself in P2 with Alonso behind him on a similar strategy. McLaren brought in Norris at the end of the following lap which allowed Checo to take the race lead for a few laps. Leclerc had made his way up to P3 while Hamilton and Verstappen were running P9 and P11 respectively. Lando rejoined the race in P4 and was still more than 10 seconds clear of the defending World Champion. Verstappen was driving conservatively to extend the life of his Medium tyres and was passed by Alonso on Lap 38 who had pitted the lap before. Further afield, we had Sainz, Perez and Ricciardo behind Hamilton.
Norris was driving exceptionally and seemed well composed for someone who’d never led an F1 Grand Prix before but was Hamilton was gaining on him each lap in the faster Mercedes W12. In the final few laps, he was within DRS range of the Mercedes-powered McLaren but was struggling to get close enough to overtake. This is when the rain began to fall. It started with some drizzle at specific parts of the track, especially Turn 5. On Lap 47 of 53, Norris went wide on that corner due to the slightly wet conditions allowing Hamilton to close in but managed to hang onto the lead. Both remained within half a second of each other going forward.
This is where the difference in experience between the two drivers and their teams came into play. Based on their radio messages that were broadcast, neither wanted to pit for Intermediates and let go of a chance to stay in the lead. More rain seemed imminent but it was unclear if it would arrive before or after the end of the race. McLaren asked Lando for the final call and he opted to stay out on track while Mercedes ordered Hamilton to come in. Others took cognisance of the situation and started to bring their drivers in from Lap 48 onwards as the conditions made it almost undrivable on the used slicks.
Mercedes pitted Bottas on Lap 48 and triggered the rush of stops among the top ten. Verstappen, Sainz and Ricciardo pitted for Inters the following lap. After ignoring his team’s first call to pit, Hamilton finally pitted on Lap 50. Perez pitted behind Lewis but he was nearly 50 seconds behind and losing ground to others who’d already switched to Inters. By Lap 51, it was positively pouring down and Norris kept sliding off the track allowing Hamilton to pass him for the win with less than two laps remaining.
Lando pitted at the end of that lap to switch to Inters and salvage some points nonetheless. Behind him, Alonso and Leclerc were running P3 and P4 respectively having earlier decided to stay out on the slicks. Alonso was far behind so was able to enter the pits at the start of Lap 51 to minimise the damage but Leclerc pitted a lap later and lost a lot of positions.
In the end and under wet conditions, Lewis Hamilton took the chequered flag at the 2021 Russian Grand Prix for his 100th win in the sport. The seven-time world champ is the first to ever reach this milestone and it’s a record that probably will not be bested anytime soon. Coincidentally, Mercedes as a team played the crucial role in getting Lewis his 100th win in the exact way they have been critical to the Brit’s many world championships.
This win also allowed Hamilton to retake the lead in the 2021 driver’s championship but not by much as Max Verstappen was able to finish P2 despite starting last. After all the drama in the closing stages of the race, who would have guessed that we’d end up with another Hamilton-Verstappen 1-2? This outcome will still make me chuckle for a long time.
The final podium spot was claimed by Carlos Sainz, who delivered drove brilliantly to recover from what seemed like a shambolic race strategy. It was the Spaniard’s third podium in his first season for the Italian Reds and his consistency is overshadowing his teammate’s raw skill. Leclerc ended up finishing the race in P15 as a result of staying out on the Hard tyres too late. It is unclear if it was his call or another mistake from his side of the garage, but things don’t seem to be getting any better for the young Ferrari star.
While it was Hamilton who took the win at Russia this season, everyone’s hearts sympathised with young Lando Norris. The McLaren driver had given a great performance all weekend and for most of the race, losing out to the experience of seasoned race winners in Lewis and Mercedes. It’s a bitter lesson for both team and driver but one that will hopefully speed their maturity as they continue on their journey to become title challengers in the future. He finished P7 in the end with an extra point for the fastest lap. Meanwhile, teammate Daniel Ricciardo had a Sainz-like race recovery after a poor pitstop. The well-timed stop for Inters allowed the Aussie driver to finish P4 and he wasn’t far behind Sainz either.
Bottas contributed vital points to Mercedes’ constructor’s title chase with a P5 finish despite an overall lacklustre performance in the race. Even though he was nowhere near his teammate’s pace all weekend, the last minute part change and grid penalty seemed to have knocked the fight out of him. Perez suffered due to the late call for Inters, missing his podium chance and finishing P9.
Fernando Alonso was sixth across the finish line. This result was quite impressive considering his late stop for Inters and a long first stint on the Hard tyres. His teammate, Esteban Ocon, wasn’t so impressive and classified P14.
Rain and Kimi Raikkonen seem to agree with each other as the soon-to-be-retiring Finn managed to secure a P8 finish. It was his best result this season and only his third point-scoring finish in 2021. His teammate, Giovinazzi, finished P16.
George Russell was able to score another championship point with a P10 classification while teammate Nicholas Latifi had to retire from the race. It is the Brit’s fourth point-scoring finishing in the last five races! Even if we discount the freebie podium from Spa, the future Mercedes driver has been consistently improving as have the Williams team in 2021.
AlphaTauri failed to score a point for the second time this season as Gasly and Tsunoda could not match the competition’s pace around Sochi. The drivers finished P13 and P17 respectively. Aston Martin’s woes continue as Lance Stroll seemed to have cost Sebastian Vettel another good result by bumping into him on track.
The F1 show moves to Turkey for the next race but it might not be as interesting as it was in 2020 under dry conditions. It will likely be a track that favours the Mercedes W12 and Red Bull will try their best to stay on their tails and ready to pounce. Stay tuned and don’t forget to subscribe to the blog for more F1 and automotive content.
- L. Hamilton Mercedes — 1:30:41.001
- M. Verstappen Red Bull Racing Honda +53.271
- C. Sainz Ferrari +10.535
- D. Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes +65.607
- V. Bottas Mercedes +67.533
- F. Alonso Alpine Renault +81.321
- L. Norris McLaren Mercedes +87.224
- K. Räikkönen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari +88.955
- S. Perez Red Bull Racing Honda +90.076
- G. Russell Williams Mercedes +100.551
- L. Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes +116.198
- S. Vettel Aston Martin Mercedes +1 lap
- P. Gasly AlphaTauri Honda +1 lap
- E. Ocon Alpine Renault +1 lap
- C. Leclerc Ferrari +1 lap
- A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +1 lap
- Y. Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda +1 lap
- N. Mazepin Haas Ferrari +2 laps
- M. Schumacher Haas Ferrari DNF
- N. Latifi Williams Mercedes DNF