Lewis Hamilton finally claimed victory number One-Hundred at the Russian Grand Prix, after judging the switch to Intermediates in the closing laps perfectly at the Sochi Autodrom, Max Verstappen despite starting last finished second with Carlos Sainz Jr rounding off the podium.
The race begun under dry conditions but with a seventy percent chance of rain at some point in the race, no one could have predicted that it would come as heavy as it did in the final seven laps! There was drama before the race had even begun, as Valtteri Bottas had yet another new power unit fitted resulting in an engine penalty, he started sixteenth. Ahead of Charles Leclerc and most importantly Verstappen.
Lando Norris made an initially great start from pole, but was a sitting duck with a huge slipstream behind as Sainz despite making a poor start led into Turn Two with Norris and George Russell behind. Hamilton too made a poor start but made it four a breast down into Turn Two thanks to the slipstream. The world champion lost out though and dropped down to seventh, the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team driver not wanting to risk an early fight. Lance Stroll made a great start and launched into fourth ahead of Daniel Ricciardo.
Further down the field the Leclerc made the best start of the engine penalty quadruple, and worked his way to twelfth by the end of the first lap. Bottas and Verstappen didn’t make as much ground as the Scuderia Ferrari driver. Home boy Nikita Mazepin made an excellent start up to thirteenth.
In the opening stages Sainz and Norris were able to escape and build an eight second gap over Russell, who had a DRS train of Stroll, Ricciardo, Hamilton and Sergio Pérez behind. The Williams Racing car clearly not on the same pace as those in the top seven.
A similar story was occurring further down the field as a DRS train led by Kimi Räikkönen in tenth, saw drivers down to fifteenth stuck behind the Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN. The charging Verstappen who started on the hard was one of those stuck in the train, the Red Bull Racing driver importantly overtook Bottas down the inside into Turn Thirteen on Lap 7/53. A crucial move by the Dutchman who overtook Pierre Gasly in the same spot for thirteenth two laps later.
It was nearly big trouble for Verstappen on Lap 10 as Sebastian Vettel and Leclerc battled hard ahead of the Red Bull driver from Turns Four to Seven. Verstappen tried to overtake both at Turn Seven in an opportunistic move but was quick to pull out just in time, with a potential crash just averted. He did move ahead of Leclerc for twelfth.
With Qualifying Two being wet, all twenty drivers were allowed to start on fresh tyres, however drivers who started on the medium compound begun to struggle early on with front graining, team strategists were working hard on other strategies.
Up at the front and Sainz who did have a two second lead over Norris suddenly found himself under threat from the McLaren F1 Team, driver who got himself within DRS range. Norris went for a move at Turn Four but couldn’t quite pull it off on Lap 12. Norris then complained of his tyres being done, before closing the gap again rapidly and overtaking the Ferrari down into Turn Thirteen on Lap 13.
Behind the leaders, the Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One Team pulled the trigger with Stroll pitting on Lap 13, the undercut worked a treat as he jumped Russell who pitted on the following lap. Aston Martin were almost jumping for joy as Sainz who pitted on Lap 15 almost came out behind Stroll, the undercut proving to be incredibly strong.
On Lap 17, Norris led from Ricciardo and Hamilton, all still to pit but with a rapid Red Bull of Max Verstappen charging after them in sixth, lapping just over a second a lap faster on occasions. The Dutchman was setting fastest lap after fastest lap quickly hunting down his championship rival, whilst the mountains around the circuit became worryingly smothered in rain clouds in the distance.
By Lap 20 race leader Norris had a ten second lead over Ricciardo. The top ten drivers all had yet to pit, whilst the early leader and front runners Sainz, Stroll and Russell sat in eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth. Pitting early began to look like the wrong call though, as the track began to rubber in and those who had yet to pit had their graining slowly clear up.
Drama struck on Lap 23 as Italian Grand Prix winner Ricciardo made a late dive into the pits, covering Mercedes who had ran into the pit-lane as a dummy. It was a very slow stop for the Australian, giving away track position to Hamilton who was now in clear air in second and lapping much quicker, gapping Pérez behind. A few places behind Hamilton, Verstappen who was now in fifth began to complain on the team radio that he couldn’t turn the car, after working his way through the field the Dutchman was beginning to struggle on his hard tyres whilst behind Fernando Alonso.
Hamilton who had been pushing hard in the clean air locked up when braking for Turn Two on Lap 27, so on that lap the seven-time world champion made his way into the pits where he had an excellent stop, coming out ahead of Ricciardo in ninth. Verstappen also pitted at the end of Lap 27 but didn’t have as clean a stop, he came out in twelfth but quickly made his way up to eleventh.
Race leader and pole sitter Norris finally made his stop on Lap 29 and had a brilliant pit-stop, coming out in fourth but importantly ahead of those who had already pitted. Bottas pitted too and came out in fifteenth. Pérez now led from Alonso and Leclerc, the trio had yet to stop.
Hamilton had a mega Lap 30, making up two places past Sainz into Turn Two and past Gasly for fifth, whilst also setting the fastest lap of the race at the time. Hamilton sat eight seconds behind theoretical race leader Norris. Whilst Hamilton made his way past Gasly easily, Sainz was struggling to get past the Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda who had created a DRS train. Behind them Ricciardo and Verstappen overtook Stroll, who was the first to pit very early on and was now struggling on his tyres by Lap 32.
At the back Mick Schumacher became the first retirement of the grand prix on Lap 34 with a technical issue, the German had been running last all race.
Gasly finally released those behind on the same lap as the Frenchman finally made his stop, Sainz now led the DRS train which was seriously hurting Verstappen two places behind. The other Ferrari of Leclerc who was still yet to pit was overtaken by Norris on the inside of Turn Four on Lap 35, Norris of course had much faster tyres.
The British driver was being hunted down quickly by a determined Hamilton, the gap was down to five seconds as Hamilton overtook Leclerc with ease a lap later. Leclerc finally pitted on Lap 36, with Pérez and Alonso who were first and second but yet to stop, making their way into their boxes on Lap 37. Pérez had a shocking stop, coming out behind Ricciardo in fifth but ahead of Verstappen.
So Norris on Lap 38 was back in the lead, with Hamilton in second now just two seconds behind and flying. Behind the leaders Alonso overtook Verstappen for sixth, the Alpine F1 Team car on fresh tyres unlike the Dutchman. Back at the front Norris began to respond to the flying Mercedes, setting the fastest lap of the race on Lap 40, with a threat of rain being reported on the Ferrari team radio. Whilst one McLaren was leading, the other was defending fourth place brilliantly from Pérez, whilst Sainz sat in a lonely third.
Further down the field at the bottom of the points Leclerc was showing strong late pace, quickly passing Esteban Ocon then Russell for ninth on Lap 42. Whilst this was going on the clouds overhead grew darker and drew closer, all team were now reporting a threat of rain in the closing laps in what was already a brilliant grand prix. Bottas at the time was stuck in a DRS train in fourteenth .
Back with the leading pair and by Lap 45 the gap was down to just over a second, Norris was superior in the final sector managing to keep Hamilton just outside of DRS range. At the same time Pérez finally found his way past Ricciardo for fourth at Turn fourteen and Leclerc passed Stroll for eighth.
Lap 46 and what all the teams had feared began to come true, as the fans umbrellas went up and ponchos went on as the heavens opened with seven laps to go. Sainz straight away told his team to get the Intermediates ready as everyone’s hearts were in their mouths. The rain flags were flown instantly as the rain was visibly heavy around Turns Four and Five, the rest was dry! Norris went off the circuit on Lap 47 at Turn Five and at Turn Six on Lap 48 as drivers all began to struggle, with some pitting for Intermediates.
The drama continued on Lap 48 as the Aston Martins collided at Turn 10, whilst almost the entire field pitted including Hamilton on Lap 49 for Intermediates but not Norris! Hamilton complained it was the wrong call but Mercedes told him that more rain was coming. Stroll and Gasly then collided with the AlphaTauri spinning round, followed by Stroll who went into the barrier, both continued.
McLaren and Norris had no choice but to stick with the slick but it was quickly becoming the wrong call, as Mercedes prediction came true on Lap 51/53 as the rain completely poured. Norris slid off at Turn Five as the track went from dry to almost fully wet in the space of a lap. Norris who had driven unbelievably all race had simply made the wrong call as Hamilton took the lead.
Leclerc was another who had failed to pit and suffered a similar fate to Norris. By the time Norris did stop he came out in eighth place, in a horrible stroke of bad luck. Amazingly it all meant that Verstappen after starting last was in second on the final lap, with Sainz in third in horrendous conditions.
But as the final lap fell in what was possibly the race of the year, Hamilton claimed victory number One-Hundred at last to win the Russian Grand Prix, fifty-two seconds ahead of second place Verstappen with Sainz rounding off the top three. It means Hamilton regains the championship lead by a tiny two points going into the Turkish Grand Prix.
Behind the top three, Ricciardo was fourth with Bottas somehow ending up in fifth, Alonso was sixth with Norris in a heartbreaking seventh but with the fasted lap and being awarded driver of the day, in what is some form of consolidation. The points were rounded off by ,Räikkönen, Pérez and Russell. Eleventh and twelfth was taken by Stroll and Vettel despite the Aston Martin’s hectic last few laps. Gasly was thirteenth ahead of Ocon, Leclerc, Antonio Giovinazzi, Yuki Tsunoda, Mazepin and Nicholas Latifi who was the final finisher.
The FIA Formula One World Championship now has a much needed week off, before returning for the Turkish Grand Prix at Istanbul, where Mercedes will be hoping to further extend their thirty-three point lead over Red Bull in the constructors standings.