Ferrari looked set to end Mercedes’ dominant run at the Sochi Autodrom, but in the space of a few seconds their hopes of victory vanished, with championship leader Lewis Hamilton seizing the advantage to seal a first Grand Prix win since the summer break….
Sebastian Vettel took a surprise lead at the start from third on the grid, leapfrogging pole-sitter and Ferrari team mate Charles Leclerc and Mercedes’ Hamilton, with it soon emerging that Ferrari had plotted such a scenario pre-race as part of a plan to defend from Hamilton.
It worked, with Leclerc slotting into second, but when Vettel was asked to hand the place back to his team mate, the four-time world champion kept his foot down. After much discussion, and some consternation from Leclerc on team radio, the red duo settled into rhythm until the pit stops.
Leclerc pitted first and set a flurry of fastest laps which proved enough to undercut Vettel and regain what would have been the net lead. But on his first lap out of the pits Vettel pulled over on track with an energy recovery problem, to his absolute dismay. There was worse to come for Ferrari, though, because that retirement triggered the Virtual Safety Car, neutralising the race.
This allowed Hamilton, whose Mercedes team had instructed him to extend his stint on the medium tyres, to get what essentially amounted to a free pit stop. The Briton boxed for soft tyres and rejoined comfortably ahead of Leclerc, with the other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas pitting and rejoining third.
A full Safety Car was then required when George Russell suffered an apparent brake issue, pitching the Williams driver into the barriers. Ferrari took the opportunity to bring Leclerc in for a fresh set of softs, dropping him behind Bottas but hopeful he could attack both Silver Arrows with a little over 20 laps to go.
But try as he might, Leclerc couldn’t get close enough to launch a proper attack on Bottas, while Hamilton was able to cruise away at the front, even having enough breathing space to pump in the fastest lap of the race to secure the extra bonus point.
The Briton crossed the line to secure his ninth victory of the season, stretching his championship lead to 73 points – almost the equivalent of three race wins – with just five Grands Prix remaining. Bottas, having rebuffed Leclerc, ended up second to give Mercedes their fourth one-two in Sochi in six attempts.
Leclerc completed the podium, failing in his bid to snatch the fastest lap of the race, with Max Verstappen in a lonely fourth place. His Red Bull team mate Alexander Albon pulled off a brilliant recovery from a pit lane start to rescue fifth, ahead of McLaren’s Carlos Sainz.
Racing Point’s Sergio Perez scored points for the third time in four races with seventh, with McLaren’s Lando Norris eighth. Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg completed the top 10, the former after having five seconds added to his race time for an off-track moment several laps before the flag.
But the day belonged to Mercedes, who brilliantly took advantage of a supreme slice of luck to secure their eighth one-two of the season to edge closer to their sixth successive constructors’ championship title.
Under bright blue skies, those on the clean side of the grid found some extra purchase as they pulled away at the start, Vettel slipping by Hamilton and then using Leclerc’s slipstream to blast into the lead at Turn 2.
Further back, there was heartache for Romain Grosjean – who had started eighth – as he was pitched into the barriers by Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi, who was given the squeeze by Daniel Ricciardo. The three-way contact also caused a puncture for Ricciardo, the Renault retreating to the pits for fresh rubber but later retiring from the race because of damage.
A Safety Car was triggered, with Ferrari using the period to discuss a driver swap between Leclerc and Vettel, as apparently previously agreed before the race. Vettel didn’t want to budge, suggesting Leclerc should get closer if he wanted to be let by. Leclerc, meanwhile, was furious that Vettel wasn’t playing ball, insisting he couldn’t get close enough as it was hard to follow.
Meanwhile, replays showed Kimi Raikkonen had jumped the start, triggering a drive-through penalty for the Alfa Romeo driver. When the race got going again, Vettel stormed away at the front, building up a tidy lead over Leclerc, who continued to voice his dismay at Vettel not moving over, only to be told by the team that they wold rectify the situation later in the race.
Verstappen was making good progress through the field, making up for the five-place grid penalty for an engine change that confined him to ninth, and ran a comfortable fifth following a slick pass on Sainz, who opted not to defend in a bid to focus on his own race.
As the pit window approached, Mercedes told Hamilton – who had started on the more durable medium tyres versus the softs that the Ferraris and Verstappen ran – that they were going to extend their stint by 15 laps, allowing him to complete the final stint on soft tyres.
The Briton was showing impressive pace on the mediums, suggesting he still had a shot a victory in the closing stages when he was on the fresher rubber and could attack the Ferraris. But it proved to be even easier for him, as by staying out longer, he could pit for free when the Virtual Safety Car was called into action following Vettel’s sudden retirement.
That lifted him ahead of Leclerc into a lead he wouldn’t relinquish. Ferrari still fancied their chances at this point, boxing Leclerc for softs in the hope they could use their superior straight-line speed to get back ahead of the two Mercedes on track – but it proved too difficult a challenge for Leclerc, who ended up third behind a resiliant Bottas.
It means Hamilton became the all-time record holder in races led, as this was the 143rd Grand Prix he had achieved the feat, surpassing Michael Schumacher who had held the accolade for 18 years.
Verstappen didn’t have the pace to keep up with the lead battle, so was forced to settle for fourth, comfortably ahead of team mate Albon, who continued his run of finishing in the top six in all four of his starts for Red Bull.
Sainz, who ran as high as third briefly at the start, took a strong sixth, his first points since F1 returned from its summer break, with team mate Norris’ eighth place meaning McLaren have scored 100 points for the first time since 2014.
Sergio Perez maintained his 100% record of scoring points in all six Sochi races in seventh, Kevin Magnussen gave Haas something to smile about as he ended the American team’s four-race scoreless run in ninth and Nico Hulkenberg score points for the fourth time in a row with 10th.
There’s a short break before Formula 1 heads to Suzuka in two weeks time for the Japanese Grand Prix, a home race for Red Bull and Toro Rosso’s engine supplier Honda. Can Mercedes keep up the momentum there or will Ferrari hit back after seeing victory slip through their fingers? A great weekend could see the Silver Arrows seal the constructors’ crown again.