Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton won the Russian Grand Prix on Sunday without needing to overtake the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc even though both were comfortably ahead of him for the first part of the race.
Ferrari will live to rue how they handled the team’s dynamics at Sochi ceding the winner’s and runner’s up positions which they were well equipped to fight for.
It was Leclerc yet again who delivered when it mattered on Saturday, out-qualifying his team-mate and everyone else to set pole for the fourth time consecutively.
Such was the Monegasque’s dominance that he was four tenths of a second ahead of Hamilton, the Brit having just pipped Vettel by 0.023 of a second to split the dominant Ferraris.
Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, for whom Sochi is a favourite track, did not have the weekend going his way as he was only able to qualify in fifth position (which became fourth on the grid because of a five-place grid penalty for Red Bull’s Max Verstappen who had qualified fourth), the Finn unable to replicate the form that saw him on pole at the same track last year.
Hamilton had already indicated his intention to attempt a pass on Leclerc soon at the start by taking advantage of the Ferrari’s slipstream.
Vettel was not about to let that happen and immediately after the start, he blocked Hamilton from coming left behind Leclerc and then proceeded to overtake his teammate on the inside by the time they got to Turn Two.
Hamilton was momentarily overtaken by McLaren’s Carlos Sainz but he was able to brake late into the inside of Turn Two to stay in third position.
A Safety Car was deployed when the Haas of Romain Grosjean, the Renault of Daniel Ricciardo and the Alfa Romeo of Antonio Giovinazzi collided sending Grosjean spinning out into the barriers.
It didn’t take long for the race to resume and for Ferrari to launch into a team dynamics ‘circus’. Leclerc expressed his displeasure at having Vettel in front of him.
On the sixth lap, he was told that the German would let him through in the next lap. Vettel, however, became stubborn and seemed intent on having his team-mate fight to regain the lead.
Although the Ferrari crew was happy that their cars were leading in Russia, tension was building between the drivers and the team. On the 22nd lap, Leclerc, running second, was pitted first among the lead cars. A 2.5 second pit stop saw him rejoin in fourth position, ahead of Verstappen.
Red Bull’s Alexander Albon, meanwhile, was making his way up from last position because he started from the pit lane.
Just before the halfway mark of the race, he was in ninth position and came up to the Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly. Albon spectacularly passed Gasly through the sweeping Turn Three bravely staying on the inside and taking Turn Four on the outside. If an extra point was to be earned for the best overtake in a race, that had to be it.
Crippling his Ferrari
Vettel dived into the pits on the 26th lap and when he re-joined, he got behind his teammate, perhaps an indicator that the team sought to give Leclerc his position back by forcing the four-time world champion’s hand.
As a result, Hamilton inherited the lead. Interestingly, whenever he has led at Sochi, he has gone on to win.
However, the chequered flag was still pretty far-off.
A lap later, Vettel retired, a power unit issue crippling his Ferrari to such an extent that the German could not even crawl back to the pits.
A Virtual Safety Car was deployed. This played perfectly into the hands of Mercedes who had not pitted any of their drivers. First, Hamilton came in while in the lead and emerged in the same position. Mercedes did a double-stack and when Bottas came out, he had only lost a single position to Leclerc.
The Safety Car then came out shortly thereafter when the Williams of George Russell hit the barriers courtesy of a brake problem. With Mercedes in softs, Ferrari opted to have Leclerc pit a second time to change from mediums to softs to give him a chance to attack in the twenty laps that remained.
Try as he might, Leclerc was unable to pass Bottas even as Hamilton was setting fastest laps and extending the gap to his team-mate.
The Brit cruised on to victory for his 82nd race win and in the process, surpassed Michael Schumacher’s record of 142 races led. He also got the extra point for the fastest lap besides opening a 73-point gap lead on second-placed Bottas with only five races to go.
He was followed by Bottas, Leclerc, Verstappen then Albon.
The fifth place finish by Albon means that he has now finished in the top six in all four of his starts for Red Bull. Off to Suzuka, Japan next with Ferrari having the arduous homework of putting its house in order to quell the manifest disunity.