The Ferrari resurgence came to a shuddering halt at the Russian Grand Prix as Lewis Hamilton led home Valtteri Bottas in a most unlikely 1-2 for the Mercedes AMG Petronas Team. Ferrari had been the dominant team throughout the weekend, however a combination of unusual team strategies, broken promises and mechanical issues conspired to rob them of a fourth straight victory. It also raised more questions of a Ferrari future with both Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc as their drivers.
Leclerc held pole position for the race, the fourth in succession for the team and a record last matched by the team during the days of Michael Schumacher. Sebastian Vettel claimed 3rd, with Lewis Hamilton sandwiched by the pair in second. Both Ferrari’s managed to get off the line faster than the Mercedes and Vettel just managed to squeeze past Hamilton as the championship leader moved across to protect his position.
Vettel moved right and managed to dive underneath Leclerc for the lead at turn 2 as the two Mercedes drivers came under pressure from the McLarens of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris. It seemed unusual that Leclerc had not protected the corner from his teammate, a situation later revealed as a strategy by Ferrari.
“What was the deal? Charles would give the slipstream to Seb to make sure we were first and second at the end of the first lap and that would have put us in the best position to control and manage the race, which was the case up until the point of the unreliability,” Team Principal Mattia Binotto stated. “By the time he would have given the slipstream, and Sebastian would have had that type of advantage, ideally we would have swapped back – but Seb was very fast so I think any decision could have been postponed. Initially, we asked him to swap. That was not the case, because Charles was not sufficiently close to him. That was the deal.”
While the leaders managed to safely negotiate turn 2, there was an incident further down the midfield. A slow start for Daniel Ricciardo saw the Australian drop behind the Haas cars of Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean. Lance Stroll squeezed between Ricciardo and Antonio Giovinazzi at the corner and made contact with the Alfa Romeo as he made the pass. Magnussen, Grosjean and Ricciardo all took to the run off area at the exit of the corner as the Haas pair avoided the Red Bull of Max Verstappen and Ricciardo gave room for the Racing Point car.
Daniel Ricciardo managed to get a run on Romain Grosjean towards turn 4 and held the inside line as Grosjean ran wide. Antonio Giovinazzi tried to thread the needle between the pair, only to make contact with both; the Haas pitched onto three wheels and into the barriers and the Renault tagged on the left rear, which resulted in a flat tyre, substantial damage to the floor and a subsequent spin. Grosjean was eliminated on the spot, while Ricciardo was retired by the team when it became apparent that the car’s race pace was compromised. A lesson learnt according to Daniel Ricciardo.
“Unfortunately, our race was pretty much over from the start. I had too much damage on the car to carry on, which is a shame. It was a bit chaotic through Turn 2 and I had the inside line for Turn 4 where I thought I was safe. I got hit and had a puncture and damage to the floor,” Ricciardo said. “I’ll look at it with the perspective that if I qualify higher up the grid then I’m less likely to be in the bad stuff. I’ll take responsibility for that, but in terms of the accident, I was just a passenger.”
The Ferrari race strategy began to unravel on lap 6 when Leclerc was told by his engineer, “Sebastian will let you by next lap.”
Vettel decided not to follow the pre-race plan and told the team, “I would have got him anyway, but let’s break away for another 10 laps .” When asked again to let Leclerc pass, Vettel refused, saying that the second Ferrari was too far behind to do so. Ferrari responded by pitting Leclerc first on lap 23 with a switch from the soft to the medium compound tyres. Vettel complained that “The rears are falling off now,” as his lap times began to drop away. Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon ran wheel to wheel in a tenacious fight for 8th place, which was more of a personal issue than a simple exchange for race position. The issue eventually decided in Albon’s favour.
Vettel eventually stopped for fresh rubber on lap 27, which handed the lead to Hamilton. As Vettel stopped, Leclerc’s engineer radioed ‘We need you to push.” By the time Vettel rejoined the race, Leclerc had passed. An MGUK issue for Vettel just past the half way point of the race brought the German’s race to an end. As the team asked him to stop and car immediately, Vettel asked “Are you serious?” As he parked the car against the barriers.
The virtual Safety Car was used to recover the stranded Ferrari, a move that played into the hands of the Mercedes team. Hamilton was immediately called into the pits for his first stop and emerged with a healthy 8 second gap to Leclerc. George Russell crashed into the barriers on the following lap while the race was still under caution, with a suspected brake failure. The Williams team soon retired the sister car of Robert Kubica as a precautionary measure.
Ferrari elected to stop Leclerc for a second time for another set of soft tyres after he had been unable to close the gap to Hamilton. The move put the sole surviving Ferrari down to 3rd, though the team were optimistic that it would provide Leclerc with a race winning advantage. Unfortunately, the strategy failed to give the expected outcome as Leclerc continued to trail Bottas in 3rd for the final laps of the race.
Lewis Hamilton went on to record an unlikely race win from Bottas and Leclerc. Verstappen, Albon, Sainz, Perez, Magnussen and Norris rounded out the top 10.
“This win feels like it has been a long time coming and it was just an incredible job from the whole team: never giving up, pushing forward, always trying to be innovative,” Lewis Hamilton explained. “It’s incredibly inspiring to be part of that and amazing to have this result today considering how quick the Ferrari’s were in that opening stint. It was a really hard task to keep up with them, especially on the offset tyre, but we kept pushing and the car felt really good today. We thought that their soft tyres would drop off during that opening stint, but they had such good pace that I was struggling to keep up with them – and that’s probably a little warning for us, because it looked like they got their calculations right in that regard.”
Formula 1 now heads to the Suzuka Circuit in Japan for the next round on October 13th.
Main Image: f1.com
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