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The Russian Grand Prix was one of contrasts; Lewis Hamilton striving to claim his 100th F1 Grand Prix victory, while fellow Brit Lando Norris fought for his first. In the end it was Hamilton who had his way and notched up that 100th win in a dramatic conclusion to the Russian Grand Prix. For Norris, it was a case of what might have been as the forces of nature that ultimately conspired against him with the chequered flag so agonisingly close…

Their cause had been helped by the three place grid penalty and subsequent engine change for Max Verstappen which led to the Red Bull Honda driver lining up in last place for the race. He was joined at the tail of the field by Antonio Giovinazzi, Charles Leclerc, Nicholas Latifi and Valtteri Bottas, who was given a second new engine in as many races by the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team. That late decision instigated some serious debate as to whether the change was borne from necessity or had been a tactical move to slow Verstappen’s progress during the race.

Norris sat in pole position for the race on medium compound tyres as did most of the front runners, bar Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez. The 850 metre run to the first turn provided slipstream opportunities for those just behind leader with cars three wide as the battled for track position. Norris had led off the line but it was Carlos Sainz and Lance Stroll who were the beneficiaries as they jumped into 1st and 4th at the opening corner. Fernando Alonso had tested the grip levels across the run-off area on the formation lap and duly drove wide. That move resulted in the Alpine driver gaining 3rd place ahead of George Russell, though he soon gave the position back to the Williams driver. Daniel Ricciardo had briefly battled for 3rd but dropped to 7th when caught behind Russell.

Sainz led through the opening corners from Norris, Russell, Stroll, Alonso, Hamilton and Ricciardo, the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 and McLaren engaged in a fight for 6th, with places exchanged midway around the lap. The McLaren then loomed behind Alonso but found it difficult to overtake the wily veteran, who managed to effectively block the Australian’s progress until a trademark late braking move saw the McLaren back in 5th. At the other end of the field sat Yuki Tsunoda. The Alpha Tauri driver ran wide at the opening corner and plunged down the order, while Leclerc, Bottas and Verstappen commenced to pick they way up the field.

At the end of the opening lap Sainz held a 1.2 second lead from Norris, with Russell already 3 seconds from the lead. Stroll, Ricciardo, Alonso, Hamilton, Perez, Ocon and Raikkonen completed the top 10 in close company. Leclerc had jumped to 12th, Bottas sat in 15th and Verstappen cautiously moved to 17th.

Thoughts of a strategic move regarding the power unit change for Bottas and the potential for the Finn to hold up Verstappen were soon forgotten when the Red Bull moved ahead of the #77 Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 with a relatively easy pass for 14th place on lap 6. Verstappen now sat in 14th place, 18 seconds from the leader and not entirely out of contention for the race win. Hamilton stil sat in 6th place, unable to find a way around the second McLaren as a DRS freight train had stalled the progress from Russell in 3rd to 7th placed Perez.

Norris reduced the deficit to Sainz and moved within DRS range as the race approached double digits. The Ferrari driver had been told to manage both his tyres and fuel consumption rate, which had then brought him back into the clutches of the McLaren. Sainz suggested to the team that he needed to push when the gap fell to less than half a second on lap 10.

Verstappen found himself squeezed for space against the concrete wall when an opportunistic attempt to pass Leclerc, who himself had attempted to pass Sebastian Vettel, saw the Red Bull driver squeezed for space and forced to back out of the challenge. The Dutch driver held some concern for his front wing after light contact, but was soon reassured by the Red Bull Honda engineers that all was well.

Ricciardo finally moved ahead of Stroll when the Aston Martin Cognizant driver became the first of the lead group to pit on lap 13. That soon became 1st and 2nd for McLaren as Norris used the DRS to pass Sainz for the lead, while Russell and then Sainz made their stops on successive laps.

Daniel Ricciardo pitted for the harder tyre just shy of half distance in the race. A slow stop dropped the Australian down to 14th place, behind Sainz, Stroll, Russell and Ocon, but a successive fast lap laps soon had the Australian back ahead of the Alpine and Williams.

Hamilton and Verstappen followed each other into the pit lane for fresh tyres on lap 27, Hamilton switching to the harder tyre while Verstappen moved to the mediums. The gap between the two had dropped to as little as 5 seconds in the laps preceding their stops and promised an intriguing battle when the pair returned to the circuit.

Norris dropped to 4th place after the McLaren team completed a much faster pit stop of the British driver on lap 29, with the three leaders, Perez, Alonso and Leclerc, all circulating on their original set of hard compound tyres. The trio finally made their stops on lap 37 and Norris resumed his place at the front of the field with a 2.8 second gap to Hamilton in 2nd. Sainz, Ricciardo, Perez, Verstappen and Stroll sat line astern in what looked to be a battle for 3rd, as the 5 drivers were over 20 seconds from the race lead.

The race took on a chess-like approach as  drivers chipped away at those ahead, whilst managing tyres and fuel consumption. By lap 44 of 53 Norris was within DRS range of Hamilton, the pair over half a minute clear of 3rd placed Sainz. Ricciardo was 2 seconds away from the podium, with Perez close behind. Alonso held Verstappen at bay a further 4.7seconds in arrears, while Stroll, Leclerc and Russell completed the top 10.

And then the rain intervened.

At first it was nothing more than a sprinkle, but the field were all on well worn rubber that had limited grip on the dry surface and were even less capable of dealing with any amounts of water. By lap 47 it was worse, with Carlos Sainz telling his team to prepare for a switch to the intermediate tyres as the seaside section of the track at Turn 5 began to develop a telltale glaze.

Norris ran wide which enabled Hamilton to close to within 2/10ths of a second, but Norris extended his advantage once more on the drier sections of the circuit. Russellm Bottas, Raikkonen and Mazepin stopped at the end of lap 48 for intermediate tyres, hoping to gain an advantage should conditions rapidly deteriorate. Hamilton was told to box for intermediate tyres at the end of the lap, but ignored the instructions as he continued to apply pressure on the younger driver ahead.

“Track is very slippery from here to Turn 10, lots of cars going off, The McLaren engineers radioed through to Norris.

“Yeah, SHUT UP! Norris shouted back to the team as a sea of orange clad mechanics moved into the pit lane with blanket shrouded intermediate tyres for teammate Ricciardo.

“Lando, what do you think about the inter? asked his crew at the end of lap 49.

“No! came the strained reply from the race leader, which proved to be a pivotal moment in the race when Hamilton stopped for the lighter of the two rain tyres.

“It’s stopped raining, queried Hamilton as he moved towards the pitlane.

“Box, box, replied his engineer. “It’s all confirmed, there’s more coming.

Norris was joined by Perez, Alonso, Leclerc and Vettel in taking the gamble to remain on slick tyres, while Hamilton and Verstappen were the best of those on the intermediates in 2nd and 7th.

The McLaren held a 25 second advantage with just 3 laps left to run. Norris was now committed to finishing the race on slicks at a much reduced pace, but was it enough of an advantage to take his first Formula 1 Grand Prix victory?

The first seeds of doubt quickly appeared when Nikita Mazepin passed the McLaren to un-lap himself and vision appeared of both Gasly and Stroll spinning. The gap shrank by more than 10 seconds in a single lap as Max Verstappen advised that the rain was now falling quite heavily in parts of the circuit.

After running wide at consecutive corners, Norris then slid off the circuit in a low speed spin in Sector 2. The combination of a wet track and old tyres made it impossible to maintain any level of grip and Hamilton snatched the lead of the race.

“It’s full wets guys, I’ve got to box or I’m going to shunt, Norris conceded to his team in a message that spelled out the different approaches in strategy.

Hamilton, a seven times world champion had been told to stop and did so rather reluctantly in what was a race defining moment, while McLaren left the decision with their much younger and less experienced ‘rising star’.

Lewis Hamilton went to take the win with almost a minute back to Max Verstappen in 2nd. Carlos Sainz held out Daniel Ricciardo for 3rd, with Bottas, Alonso, Raikkonen, Norris, Perez and Russell rounding out the top 10 in a day that had gone from bright skies to gloom in more ways than one.

“That’s it Lewis, that’s the one hundred, Hamilton’s engineer announced over the radio.

“Thanks guys, that was hard work. It’s taken us a long time to get that one hundred. So grateful to all of you, he replied.

 “Not the best of weather, but what a great race it provided, Hamilton said to Sky Sports. “It’s taken a long time to get to one hundred and I wasn’t even sure that it would come, he added as Lando Norris moved over to congratulate the winner. “Lando did such an amazing job. He had such incredible pace for McLaren. It was a bit bitter sweet to see my old team ahead. They won the last race and are doing fantastic, obviously powered by Mercedes. It is good to see them united again.

The team made a great call at the end. I didn’t want to let Lando go and, of course, I didn’t know what the weather was doing.

It was a shattering end for Norris and one from which the McLaren driver will grow stronger.

“It wasn’t the race or the result we wanted in the end, Norris said to McLaren Media. “I made a good start and we had a good first stint. Right at the end when the rain started, we made the call not to box and that cost us everything. We made the decision that was right at the time for the conditions at the time. It was my call, along with the information from the team, and together we need to review what we could’ve done better. It’s incredibly disappointing of course, because we’ve been strong all weekend and I felt comfortable with the pace and the car today.

Fourth place for Daniel Ricciardo was another strong result for the team.

“Pretty eventful race. Sometimes this track doesn’t provide that, but this weekend it did with both quali and the race, Daniel Ricciardo said to McLaren Media. “There was a lot that happened. I think my start was kinda too good! I had to pull out and then pull back in, so we lost a few positions there, but then made a few back over the first lap. So, there were some good moments. I defended pretty well in the first stint, then in the second stint made a few good passes, but then struggled towards the end of that Hard tyre.

Then the rain came, and that’s when it all turned on its head. The in-lap was sketchy. I think Carlos went off in Turn Seven, then me, then Max. I think Max saw both of us and just went off less and was able to pass there. Then we got out on the Inters and I could see Carlos ahead. I felt that I was bringing him in a bit in the last couple of laps, but it was a little too late.”




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