Hamilton back on top in Sochi
A euphoric Lewis Hamilton extended his world championship lead to 73 points yesterday when he rode his luck to claim a strategic victory for Mercedes in a roller-coaster Russian Grand Prix. The defending five-time champion came home 3.829 seconds ahead of team-mate and nearest championship rival Valtteri Bottas as Mercedes took advantage of Ferrari’s reliability and tactical problems by delivering a Silver Arrows one-two.
Having grabbed the lead from pole man Charles Leclerc on the opening lap, Sebastian Vettel ignored team orders to let him pass before he suffered a mechanical failure and stopped on lap 28. The resultant Safety Car period gifted Mercedes, who started on medium tyres while their rivals all used softs, a chance to extend their Sochi supremacy to six consecutive wins. Leclerc came home a frustrated and disgruntled third, claiming he expected Vettel to repay him for his slip-stream in a race punctuated by two Safety Car interventions and one use of the Virtual Safety Car.
Hamilton’s win was his first since the Hungarian Grand Prix on August 4, his ninth in 16 outings this year and the 82nd of his career, lifting him 73 points clear at the top of the drivers’ title race. He scored an additional point for fastest lap. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen finished fourth, having started ninth, ahead of team-mate Alex Albon, who had started from the pit lane.
Carlos Sainz was sixth for McLaren ahead of Sergio Perez of Racing Point, Kevin Magnussen of Haas, Lando Norris in the second McLaren and Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg. “That’s exactly what we needed,” exclaimed a delighted Hamilton on the team radio following a flawless strategic performance by Mercedes. “It was an incredible job by all the team – not giving up. Keeping up with Ferrari was a hard task, but we kept pushing.”
Leclerc remained poised, despite his disappointment. “At least we are consistent,” he said. “It’s a shame for the team not to have both of us up here… I will always trust the team, but our tactic was for me to give the slipstream, which I did – and then, well I need to speak to the team about that.” Leclerc had made a clean start, but behind him Vettel enjoyed a superb launch from third to pass Hamilton by the first corner and, after slip-streaming the Monegasque, taking the lead. Before the order settled, Ricciardo collided with Grosjean at Turn Four sending the Haas driver spinning into the barriers.
A Safety Car was deployed and Grosjean retired. “We are looking into the swap further into the race,” Ferrari told Leclerc, running second, suggesting they had agreed to repay him for punching through the air for his team-mate. This was confirmed when Leclerc was told ‘Sebastian will let you by next lap’ – an order not welcomed by Vettel as he stayed in front by 1.4 seconds with Hamilton adrift in third. Vettel said Leclerc, beaten in Singapore by a strategy decision in Vettel’s favour, needed to close up. “I respected everything,” answered Leclerc.
“We will speak later, but now it is difficult to close the gap. Obviously.” A revitalised Vettel was 3.6 seconds clear by lap 16 as Leclerc held off Hamilton until the team freed him to attack before he pitted for mediums on lap 23, Hamilton taking second. The Ferrari re-joined fourth behind Bottas. Within two laps, Vettel said ‘my rears are falling now’, but Ferrari left him out until lap 27 when, with a three-seconds stop, he was half a second slower than Leclerc and re-joined behind him in fourth. Vettel’s race ended seconds later when a power failure saw him stop at Turn 15.
A Virtual Safety Car (VSC) was deployed and, immediately, Hamilton pitted for softs followed by Bottas. Leclerc took second before Williams’ George Russell crashed, prompting a full Safety Car intervention. A luckless Vettel vented his frustration on the team radio as he climbed from his car. Hamilton’s elevation to leader gave him a record as leader of 143 Grands Prix, one more than Michael Schumacher.
Ferrari then called in Leclerc for a set of scrubbed softs. He re-joined third behind Bottas as the field compressed for a 21-lap sprint to the flag. On the re-start, Hamilton pulled two seconds clear, leaving Bottas to resist Leclerc’s superior straight-line speed with a battling display.