Nico Rosberg has claimed yet another Grand Prix victory, continuing his perfect start to the 2016 F1 season and extending his winning streak to seven races in a row since the 2015 Mexican Grand Prix.
Yet again this season Rosberg found himself out in front as his main rivals hit trouble, leaving him to comfortably manage his car to the finish. This time out his team-mate Lewis Hamilton found himself starting much farther down the grid than he’s accustomed to, in 10th position due to mechanical gremlins meaning he missed out on the third part of qualifying. Slightly further up the grid in 7th was the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, who had been demoted five places due to a gearbox penalty. Vettel and Daniil Kvyat once again found themselves at odds shortly after the lights went out. Kvyat completely misjudged his breaking point into turn one and collided with the rear of an unsuspecting Vettel. The Ferrari bounced into Ricciardo, Kvyat’s Red Bull team-mate and caused him substantial damage that compromised the Australian’s race. While Vettel attempted to nurse his car around the next corner he was once again shunted by Kvyat who had failed to consider the closing speed between the cars. The Ferrari was shunted into the barrier and out of the race. It was an extremely clumsy series of errors by the Russian at his home Grand Prix. With two DNF’s and one compromised race, Vettel is already watching his championship chances disappear due to no fault of his own. Esteban Guttierez of Haas got in on the chaos too – he, like Kvyat, stormed into turn three and took out Nico Hulkenberg (celebrating his 100th Grand Prix for all of three corners) and Rio Haryanto. A safety car was needed while the track was cleared of debris.
Title rival Lewis Hamilton was serendipitous in his avoidance of the chaos occurring in front of him. He did not even attempt to make the third turn, instead using the track run-off to his advantage and benefitting from failing to make the third corner, jumping up to fourth place. He quickly set upon Raikkonen in the other Ferrari and Bottas in the Williams. Raikkonen was quickly dispatched with after making an error on entry into a corner in an attempt to pressure Bottas in second place. Raikkonen went too deep, compromised his exit speed and was a sitting duck for the Mercedes down the following straight. Hamilton could make no impression on the Williams until shortly after the first round of pit stops, where Hamilton was able to switch on his tyres far more quickly than the Williams driver and was able to get past. Raikkonen on a contra-strategy went far longer than the early stopping Bottas, and it worked out beautifully, with the Ferrari man a mere few car lengths ahead of Bottas as they approached turn three after his stunningly brief 2.3 second pit-stop. Bottas remained in fourth for the remainder of the race, one place ahead of his team-mate Felipe Massa.
Further down the field Fernando Alonso capitalised on the carnage of turn three to jump into the points. He drove a beautifully measured race to come home sixth. He allowed himself one lap of fun amongst the chronic fuel-saving that the Honda powered McLarens are plagued with, stating that he needed to wake himself up. Renault scored their first points of the season and their first points as a constructor since the 2011 Brazilian Grand Prix as Kevin Magnussen brilliantly held off a chasing pair of Grosjean in the Haas and Perez in the Force India to finish 7th. Jenson Button filled out the final points position coming home 10th, making the Russian Grand Prix the first time both McLaren cars have finished in the points since the Hungarian Grand Prix of 2015. Ricciardo failed to recover from the turn three incident, nursing a compromised car to 11th. It was a day to forget for sister team Toro Rosso, with Verstappen retiring with an engine failure and Carlos Sainz being slapped with a penalty for forcing the Renault of Joleon Palmer off the track.
The drama was not quite over at the front, with Hamilton being informed that he had a water pressure issue. The world champion had been consistently whittling down his team-mate’s lead, from twelve seconds to a little over seven. Whether Hamilton could have mounted a challenge for the lead, or if Rosberg was strategically conserving his tyres, will remain unanswered. The water pressure issue meant Hamilton was forced to back off the pace and consolidate his second place. After the race Toto Wolff stated that both Mercedes cars had been dealing with issues during the race. Reliability must now be a concern for Mercedes. While neither car has failed to finish a race, several issues have beset the silver arrows since the beginning of the season.
Despite these mechanical gremlins, Rosberg has managed the perfect start to the season, winning the first four races. He now has a significant 43 point advantage over Hamilton in the driver’s championship. There are still seventeen races left to run, and Lewis Hamilton has overcome greater points deficits in fewer races since 2014. The fight for glory in 2016 is just beginning. One must think that if Hamilton has a trouble free weekend in Spain in two weeks’ time he will bring the fight to Rosberg and win like he has done so often over the past two seasons. He must.