“Deliciously ironic” is how technical director James Allison described the perverse chain of events that handed Mercedes an unlikely 1-2 in Russia. Having seemingly defied a pre-race plan, a high-flying Sebastian Vettel was hung out to dry in favour of his team-mate at the pitstops before a fateful MGU-K failure on the German’s car would prove terminal to Ferrari’s hopes of victory. It denied Ferrari what was shaping up to be the Scuderia’s most emphatic performance of the season so far.
From the purist’s perspective, there is much not to like about the Russian Grand Prix. The carpark run-off areas which caused a monstrous crash in Formula 2, the sparse grandstands and the unedifying sprinkle of strongman Russian nationalism are just some of the race’s many turn-offs. However, a finely poised weekend leading up to a tightly contested race probably saw F1 make its most enjoyable visit to Sochi, with several superb performances distinguishing the weekend…
Top of the class…
Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport
Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.602s | Race margin to team-mate: +3.829s (safety car)
There is nothing artificial about Lewis Hamilton’s relish for competition. As much as he has been superb at levelling the opposition at the wheel of the fastest car on the grid, the reigning champion is clearly energized when the odds are stacked against him. It is certainly no coincidence that Hamilton ascended to entirely new heights in recent seasons versus some of Ferrari’s most competitive cars for many years.
Hamilton certainly had a fight on his hands in Russia, with the ballistic straight-line performance of the Ferrari putting it at a clear advantage on the power-sensitive layout. To make matters worse, recent updates appear also to have unlocked the cornering potential of the SF90. Charles Leclerc’s ability to beat an almost perfect lap from Hamilton to pole position, despite overheating his rear tyres in the final sector, is just the latest marker of the strides Ferrari has made. The steering wheel was also taken out of Hamilton’s hands off the line, with a synchronized tow leaving Lewis powerless to prevent scarlet formation flying at the front. Unquestionably, Hamilton would not have won if not for the “deliciously ironic” VSC, however, he had already succeeded at pressurizing the Ferrari pair in the opening stint. A point for fastest lap capped-off a fairly supreme performance for the six-time champion elect.
Sebastian Vettel – Scuderia Ferrari
Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.425s | Race margin to team-mate: N/A
Contrary to the headline on the BBC Sport website, at no point did Sebastian Vettel ignore team orders. Instead, he pointed out the patent absurdity of losing upwards of four seconds with Hamilton in such close proximity before proceeding to lap consistently faster than his younger team-mate. Vettel didn’t ignore anything. He rightly articulated the innate difficulty of first lap choreography, having arguably produced a launch that would have put the German in the lead no matter what the arrangement.
Somewhat lost amid Ferrari’s customary political shenanigans was by far and away Vettel’s most convincing Sunday of the season. Long before he was unceremoniously left out to pasture following Leclerc’s pitstop, Vettel was able to eke out the gap; cumulatively inflicting a string of purple sectors as the fuel load wore off. Race pace has been just as much lacking as qualifying pace during the German’s recent travails, however, in Sochi F1 saw a brief glimpse of the old metronomic Sebastian Vettel in his customary place at the head of the field. Shame that it would only last till midway through the race. Indeed, if Vettel has any regrets about the race it will be his choice of parking space. “Bring back the V12s”, indeed…
Carlos Sainz Jr – McLaren F1 Team
Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.079s | Race margin to team-mate: -11.860s (safety car)
Both Sainz and McLaren were thoroughly out of sorts on Friday; strangely unable to get a handle on the fiddly final sector despite having extolled the car’s slow corner potential in Singapore. It’s indicative of the Spaniard’s working relationship with Tom Stallard and the rest of his engineering team that he was able to qualify sixth despite never placing inside the top ten in any of the practice sessions. Also, in pipping his team-mate by eight-hundredths Sainz edged closer to levelling the Saturday stakes between the impressive McLaren duo. As has been his style this year, Sainz’s race was almost faultless. He passed Bottas on the opening lap but made little effort to frustrate the Mercedes’ progress. He would have finished fifth, but the safety car put the faster Red Bull of Alexander Albon within range. Excellent stuff.
Sergio Perez – SportPesa Racing Point F1 Team
Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.275s | Race margin to team-mate: -12.093s (safety car)
The Mexican stalwart hasn’t quite been his bombproof self in 2019. An uncharacteristic spin in the wet in Germany, a further spin in practice in Monza and a gearbox penalty-inducing encounter with the barriers in Singapore has rather blunted the best hope of a somewhat struggling Racing Point. Albeit with a rear axle that still has a mind of its own, some new upgrades were enough to put Perez in the fight for Q3, although an error on his final lap left him eleventh. A fine race saw the Mexican fighting for points from the outset, with Perez seizing on the safety car to sneak past Lando Norris as he battled with a resurgent Albon.
Homework to do…
Kimi Raikkonen – Alfa Romeo Racing
Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.085s (Q1) | Race margin to team-mate: -4.436s (safety car)
As one of the most reliable performers on the grid, recent races have been a rare lapse in form for the dependable Finn. An unforced spin in qualifying in Monza and an unnecessary tangle with Daniil Kvyat in Singapore has rather shifted the internal momentum in the team towards his young team-mate. Albeit at the wheel of a car that was bluntly refusing to gel with the Sochi circuit, Giovinazzi took Saturday honours for the second consecutive weekend in Sochi; with Raikkonen eliminated in Q1. A blatant jump start isn’t what you expect from the second most experienced F1 driver in history. The resulting drive-through penalty relegated the quest for points from improbable to impossible.
Robert Kubica – ROKiT Williams Racing
Qualifying margin to team-mate: +1.118s | Race margin to team-mate: N/A
As much as it has been a privilege to watch Robert Kubica race in F1 again, it has been fairly difficult to watch him so consistently rooted in last place. The somewhat distasteful subject of the Pole’s personal performance has become almost unavoidable as Kubica has routinely struggled to even get within a respectable proximity of his rookie team-mate. Whilst the Pole arguably produced his best lap of the season to get within three-tenths of George Russell in Singapore, a nightmarish Friday in Sochi resulted in a qualifying deficit of 1.118s. A steady race was ultimately called off amid fears over spare parts following an alarming and unspecified failure on Russell’s car. The urge to treat Kubica’s performances gently is understandable – however, the prospect of new racing challenges for the Pole will come as a blessed relief for journalists accustomed to ruthlessly interrogating driver performances.
A lap to top the timesheets in Free Practice 2 said more about Max Verstappen than the RB15. The Dutchman produced a predictably impressive drive to recover from the five-place engine penalty, but there was never any prospect of an assault on the Mercedes and Ferraris. Poor pace and a crash in Q1 contributed to a worrisome weekend for Albon, although a combative safety car-assisted drive to fifth in the race mostly made amends.
A fine weekend for Nico Hulkenberg saw him outqualify Daniel Ricciardo by almost four-tenths – although a tricky start, bungled pit-stop and engine woes would confine the German to a single point. Ricciardo’s race unravelled in the same opening lap collision that sent Romain Grosjean careering into the barriers. The Frenchman was an unfortunate victim given his impressive run to ninth in qualifying; his first Q3 appearance since Hungary. Albeit a strategic beneficiary of the safety car, a characteristically feisty drive from Kevin Magnussen gave Haas their first points since the British Grand Prix. Engine issues in Free Practice 1 and Free Practice 3, a qualifying no-show and a general lack of pace from the STR14 didn’t make for a happy home race for Daniil Kvyat. However, whilst a resurgent Pierre Gasly produced the team’s most eye-catching moment of the weekend with a fine first lap in Q2, it was the Russian who won out in the fruitless hunt for points.