Ferrari look poised to end Mercedes’ dominance at the Sochi Autodrom, but a foiled pre-race plot and a stroke of bad luck ended their chances. Mercedes showered themselves in champagne while several rivals were left to drown their sorrows with vodka.
We take a look at the winners and losers of the Russian Grand Prix…
A supreme slice of luck matched with a solid tyre strategy allowed Lewis Hamilton to take full advantage of Ferrari’s misfortune and in-house squabbling to claim his ninth victory and Mercedes’ eighth 1-2 finish of the season.
Hamilton didn’t get the cleanest start off the line which gave the Ferrari duo an opportunity to close him out in the long drag race to Turn 2 and for Sebastian Vettel to take the lead. But as the Prancing Horse power-struggle made their plot come undone, Vettel had to pull over due to an energy recovery problem triggering a Virtual Safety Car, neutralizing the race.
As the reigning champion had already been told to stay out on his Medium compound tyres, the Virtual Safety Car handed him a free pit stop – where he boxed for Soft tyres – and rejoined comfortably ahead of Leclerc.
Hamilton lead seamlessly from there, gaining enough space to pump out the fastest lap of the race, securing an extra bonus point.
A three-race winless streak ended for Mercedes in Sochi, and Hamilton’s first win since the summer break, the Briton has now stretched his championship lead to 73 points – almost the equivalent to three race wins – with five Grand Prix remaining.
“Just keeping up with them [Ferrari] was an incredibly hard task but we haven’t given up, we keep on pushing and the car was really fantastic today,” said Hamilton. “A big thank you to everyone here and also back at the factory because I know they’re all sitting on the couch with their fingers crossed.”
After a crash in the first session of qualifying that handed him a pit lane start for the main game, Alex Albon was the comeback kid, pulling off a brilliant recovery to rescue fifth behind his Red Bull Racing teammate Max Verstappen and ahead of McLaren’s Carlos Sainz.
Albon has had great success at Sochi before, winning at the circuit in Formula 2 last year. Once again he showed his class with clean and decisive moves to pass several more experienced rivals to equal his best result since joining Red Bull’s top team.
“I wanted to bounce back with a good result after crashing in qualifying yesterday (Saturday),” Albon said.
“So I am really happy with how the race went although we were probably a little lucky with the Safety Car.
“I caused a lot of work for the team on Saturday night and morale was a bit low, so this result is for them. Starting from the pit lane was never going to be easy – so it is a good haul of points.”
Carlos Sainz Jr.
The second half of 2019 has been fruitless for Carlos Sainz with him failing to score in Belgium, Italy and Singapore. But the McLaren driver has changed his fortunes, finishing a strong sixth in Russia and closing his gap in the championship standings to just three points behind sixth-placed Pierre Gasly.
Sainz has credited his Sochi success to sweeping changes made to both MCL34 cars ahead of qualifying, resulting in both McLarens reaching Q3. The Spanish driver made an impressive start in the Grand Prix, challenging Lewis Hamilton for third place before dropping into fourth. He wasn’t able to hold off challenges from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Alex Albon but held on to sixth ahead of Racing Point’s Sergio Pérez.
His points haul for sixth, combined with an eighth place for Norris, means McLaren have now scored more than 100 points in a season for the first time since 2014.
“We got a good start which was the first target to give ourselves a chance to be on TV and we were fighting the two Mercedes and two Ferraris into T1,” said Sainz. “From there on it was just about pace management and tyre management. It was a race where strategy was key – the timing of the pit stop. We executed everything perfectly and we got a few points.
“This track is quite tough for us. Low speed corners and medium speed corners combined is not very good, but still we managed to extract another best of the rest, which is just what we needed.”
Aussie fans rejoiced with the earlier start time for the Russian Grand Prix which allowed them to avoid looking red eyed on Monday morning. In a welcome change, the action commenced at 9:10pm AEST with it all but wrapping up by 11pm.
With Japan up next on the Formula 1 calendar things will get even better with a 4:10pm start for Sunday’s main game on October 13, but we will have to compete against the Bathurst 1000 telecast…
Ferrari, and in particular Charles Leclerc, were the ones to beat in Russia and were set to take Mercedes to school at Sochi.
But it all came undone when their apparent pre-race plot backfired as Vettel reserved his lead until Leclerc’s pit stop undercut and then went on to have a technical fault ending his race and neutralizing Leclerc’s.
Leclerc fought back to stay in P3 and on the last step of the podium but Ferrari fans were left wanting.
“We are disappointed because we did not do a perfect job today. To win, you need reliability and today we didn’t have it. Unfortunately, it’s not the first time this season that’s been the case,” said Team Principal Mattia Binotto.
“Before the race, as always, we spoke with the drivers and we asked Charles to give Seb a tow, because that would be the best way for him to get ahead of Hamilton and for the two of them to be first and second come the end of the opening lap. In fact, Seb got a fantastic start, which allowed him to pass Hamilton even before the entry to the corner.
“It’s not the result we were hoping for, but after today, we are even more prepared for the fight. Our car is strong, as is the team and we are ready to give our all in the coming races.”
High from his long-awaited success in Singapore, Sebastian Vettel had a great start off the line from third position, even catching a tow from teammate Leclerc enabling him to jump Hamilton as per what seemed to be the plan.
Unfortunately, the German also jumped his teammate, with the Scuderia assuring Leclerc that they would swap the two back on track. Instead of accepting the early strategic move, Vettel put his foot down, leaving Leclerc to get his position back in the pit stops.
After Vettel’s first lap back out of the pits he immediately pulled over with technical issues, leading to his retirement from the race and a Virtual Safety Car that saw his rival Mercedes claim victory.
Vettel refused to go into details about the pre-race agreement when questioned after the race, shutting down about the specifics but admitting he thought there was a plan in place to lock out Mercedes from a one-two finish.
Ferrari now trail leaders Mercedes in the Constructors’ Championship by 162 points with a maximum of 220 available over the final five Grands Prix of the season.
“Today, we are very disheartened. We wanted to finish first and second, but all we got was a third place. It’s not the result we were hoping for. I got a good start and the first stint was pretty quick which allowed me to open up quite a gap.
“After the pit stop, I rejoined in second place but shortly afterwards the team asked me to stop the car because there was a problem with a hybrid component on my Power Unit. I hope the engine will be okay for the coming races. It has definitely been not our day today.”
The Australian driver is on a run of extreme bad luck after his start from 10th on the grid was wrecked by damage caused in a first-lap incident that eventually forced his car to retire.
Ricciardo was involved in a three-car clash with Haas driver Romain Grosjean and Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi at Turn 4, leaving him with a puncture as well as aerodynamic and balance problems.
He retired on Lap 25, unable to make a gain from the back of the field.
Ricciardo’s teammate, Nico Hülkenberg, crossed the line in tenth place, at least salvaging a point for Renault and bringing their points tally to 34 points apiece in the Drivers’ Championship standings.
“Unfortunately, our race was pretty much over from the start,” Ricciardo said. “I had too much damage on the car to carry on, which is a shame.
“I got hit and had a puncture and damage to the floor. “I’ll look at it with the perspective that if I qualify higher up the grid then I’m less likely to be in the bad stuff.
“I’ll take responsibility for that, but in terms of the accident, I was just a passenger.”
Images via Aston Martin Red Bull Racing, McLaren, Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, Scuderia Ferrari