Mercedes’ decision to make Valtteri Bottas cede victory at the Russian Grand Prix to teammate Lewis Hamilton was not what anyone wanted to see, but in what is first and foremost a team sport it was – for the championship leaders at least – justified and understandable.
LUKE McCULLOUGH explains how it all unfolded…
|FREE PRACTICE SESSION 1||FREE PRACTICE SESSION 2|
|3.||Lewis Hamilton||1:34.818||23||1.||Lewis Hamilton||1:33.385||35|
|4.||Valtteri Bottas||1:34.999||28||2.||Valtteri Bottas||1:33.584||33|
Friday morning saw Hamilton and Bottas finish the opening practice session in P3 and P4 respectively, posting their best time on the Soft compound behind and sitting behind Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen. The morning session caused no concern for the team as the track needed to be rubbered in and dusted off at a venue used rarely around the former Winter Olympic village.
The afternoon’s session concluded with Hamilton leading the way in P1, just 0.199s ahead of Bottas in P2 as the pair had a taste of both race and qualifying pace on the Hypersoft and Ultrasoft compounds. The duo tallied up more than 30 laps each and both set their fastest lap times on the extremely sticky, pink-walled Hypersoft tyre.
“Sochi has been one of the weaker circuits for me in the past, particularly last year,” Hamilton said on Friday evening.
“I’ve done a lot of work to understand the balance and see where I can improve to try and rectify this and today has been good in that sense. Let’s hope that it continues tomorrow.”
“It was a good day for us; on paper, it looks like we should be competitive, but it’s only Friday,” added Bottas.
“The initial feeling of the car was good; however, there’s still work to do. It’s so difficult to get a perfect set-up for each corner on this track because the balance is so different throughout the lap. I think it’s going to be very close, so we’ll have to keep pushing.”
|FREE PRACTICE SESSION 3||QUALIFYING|
|1.||Lewis Hamilton||1:33.067||13||1.||Valtteri Bottas||1:31.387||17|
|2.||Valtteri Bottas||1:33.321||16||2.||Lewis Hamilton||1:31.532||18|
Hamilton again topped the third and final practice session of the weekend putting in a 1:33.067 and completing 13 laps. Bottas, at one of his most dominant circuits, finished off the session two-tenths further back as he still was unable to lap faster than his four-time world championship winning teammate.
It was one of the easier qualifying sessions the Brackley-based team had endured. Naturally, the duo made it through to Q2 before essentially automatically qualifying for the final 12-minute shootout as drivers down the gird chose not to run during the session due to engine penalties and to keep a choice of tyres open for Sunday’s race.
Bottas drew first blood in the final session, banking a faster lap time than Hamilton by just four-thousandths of a second in the first runs. On their second tour, Valtteri lowered his vision and lapped an additional one-tenth faster to cross the line with provisional pole.
As for Hamilton, a clumsy mistake in the middle sector cost him a chance of claiming his third straight pole, running wide at the sweeping right-hander of Turn 7 and being left to abort the lap.
The final classifications would give Valtteri Bottas his second pole position of the season and with Lewis in P2, Mercedes’ fifth front-row lockout in 2018.
“It’s been a long time since I last took pole in Austria this year, so this feels very good,” a cheerful Bottas said post-qualifying.
“We made some changes after FP3 and the car felt even better in Qualifying. I managed to find time in almost every run during Qualifying; I just had to put everything together in Q3. I was able to get a really good lap in on the second run and it was enough for pole, so I’m happy.
“The Ferraris will be strong as well, but we should have a car that gives us the chance to fight them for win. The start will be decisive; we need to aim for a very good initial get-away. The straight into Turn 2 is so long that it’s easy to overtake if the guys behind you get a better start. The main day is still ahead of us and I’ll give it everything to maintain the lead.”
“This has never been the strongest circuit for me, but Q1 was really good. My run on the hypersoft at the end of Q2 was a great lap, but then I couldn’t repeat it in Q3,” summarised Hamilton.
“I was two tenths up on my final lap but I made a mistake. I think I had the pace for pole, but Valtteri did the better job this time.
“It’s great for the team to have a 1-2 here, we’ll try and convert that tomorrow. We’ve made some big improvements to how we use the tyres and how we set the car up and it’s showing.
“It’s tough to overtake here, so the race will be about tyre management and who gets the best start. I’ll be pushing hard; we saw Valtteri’s great start last year, and I think that’ll be my best shot to win.”
No one seem prepared to address the elephant in the room: the looming spectre of team orders…
|ORMULA 1 2018 VTB RUSSIAN GRAND PRIX – FINAL CLASSIFICATION (53 LAPS)|
|Driver||Team / Entry||Laps||Result|
|1.||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 W09||53||1:27:25.181|
|2.||Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 W09||53||+ 2.545|
Both drivers lined up on the front row of the grid with the Ultrasoft compound; Bottas had the stronger getaway to maintain position on the long run to Turn 2.
Hamilton, meanwhile, had to defend early and resister a challenge from Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari to keep P2. The top three remained in close proximity before Bottas pitted from the lead on Lap 12 for Soft tyres.
One lap later and Vettel followed suit, boxing for the yellow-walled Soft compound and attempting an undercut move on his championship rival Hamilton.
As planned, when the Briton dived into the pits for his change of tyres another lap later, the undercut worked for Ferrari with Vettel swiping an effective second place from the championship leader when exiting the pit lane.
Vettel wouldn’t hold his advantage for long as Hamilton with his dominant Mercedes package favoured around the Sochi circuit, regained the place with a swift move down the inside of Turn 4 just after the long left-hander at Turn 3.
Hamilton attempted a move down the inside two corners earlier into the heavy-braking zone of Turn 2 with DRS but was irked by the German when he almost squeezed the Briton into the wall. The stewards looked into the Vettel’s manoeuvre for moving twice under braking but no further action was warranted.
Battling early in his stint with Vettel as he followed closely behind, Hamilton suffered tyre blistering. With the team in a position to switch their drivers and defend from Vettel, it would also maximise points in both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ championships.
On Lap 25, just under half distance into the race, the duo did just and awapped positions to allow Hamilton to gain second position and Bottas third while Max Verstappen continued to stay out and go long on his opening stint with the soft tyres.
Vettel continued to linger for the remainder of the race, forcing the Silver Arrows to hold station and deny Valtteri Bottas a potential fourth Grand Prix victory.
Instead, Hamilton’s triumph would be his 70th career victory and his third in Russia, continuing Mercedes’ dominance at the Sochi venue since its inaugural Grand Prix in 2014.
“Valtteri was an incredible gentleman today. Honestly, it’s the strangest day I can remember having in the sport in my career,” explained Hamilton after the race.
“I remember, we have crossed this situation and discussion before. It’s always felt super uncomfortable, I was like ‘Look, I want to win the right way’, that’s always how it is for me.
“As racing drivers we exist to win, and if you tell us we can’t win, it’s like you are taking our air away, our life away’. It’s that deep. I would never wish it upon anyone else and would never ask for it, ever.
“I made sure when we were in a meeting before [with Valtteri], I was like ‘Just so you know, I’ve never gone to Toto and those guys, this is not how I want to win’. Obviously, the team took the decision when they saw that my tyres were blistered and Vettel was charging from behind. There are stronger heads in the team who are like ‘We have to win, it’s all about the win.
“It is very weird to feel down but we have to really embrace the moment still. It’s definitely a victory on my list of wins that I am least proud of.”
“It’s been a tough day. We got a good result for us as a team with maximum points, but for me personally, it was a difficult race. Although I already understand the situation,” furthered Bottas.
“If you put yourself in the team leader’s shoes, for them it doesn’t matter if it is me or Lewis winning, as long as we are 1-2 we get the maximum points.
“For the end of the year, it’s only Lewis fighting for the Championship, I am not. So, for the team, it is always better that Lewis wins – that’s how it goes. It is not ideal for me as an athlete and a person, but that is a fact.
“We are playing as a team and I am prepared to play as a team. I took one for the team today, I will take one for the team tomorrow. That’s how it goes, but I am also looking forward to next year, starting a new season.
“I know that today I was supposed to win and I could’ve won the race on equal terms. I know myself I am the winner of this weekend. I don’t have the trophy but it doesn’t matter. That’s how it is and I move on.”
“We are all racers at heart and what we want to see is out and out racing and may the quickest man win. But then we are a bunch of rational guys,” explained Toto Wolff, Team Principal of Mercedes.
“We discuss things in the morning and then everything is different in the race. This is what happened today.
“We should be over the moon with a 1-2 and fundamentally we are. But we also feel that it went against Valtteri – it would have been a race win for him and we changed it.
“Valtteri is such a tremendous team player, but it’s deflating for a driver and deflating for a team. Sometimes you have to take it and this is what we did today. We finished 1-2, we have a 50 point advantage and that feels good on a day that has otherwise been very difficult.”
Achieving maximum Constructors’ Championship points and jumping from a forty to a fifty point lead in the Drivers’ title race the best possible outcome Mercedes.
As we countdown to only five races to go now, the title chase for Sebastian Vettel now must become mathematical. The German must win every race for the remainder of the season with Lewis Hamilton finishing no higher than third every time for Vettel to pose any sort of championship challenge.
Mercedes’ success this weekend can let Lewis Hamilton now comfortably start to place one hand on his fifth world championship trophy.
Images via Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team