Rosberg completely dominated the Russian Grand Prix. From pole position, through the first lap to the finish. Teammate Lewis Hamilton benefited from a chaotic first lap to haul himself back up to second from his tenth starting spot, due to an MGU-H failure in qualifying. A suspected water pressure problem slowed his further charge.
Sebastian Vettel, who had qualified second but was penalised back to seventh due to a pre-qualifying gearbox change, streaked past Daniil Kvyat at the start and out braved the other Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo under braking for Turn 2. That’s when Kvyat used Vettel as a backstop as he hit him from behind.
Vettel was pitched into Ricciardo’s car but continued out of the corner as Hamilton and a cast of others took evasive action.
As Vettel entered the long Turn 3, he was once again hit from behind by Kvyat and ended up spearing the outside wall, his SF16-H retiring on the spot. As a public service, if you watch the in-car video replay of the crash, you are warned to mute Vettel’s expletive-enhanced radio transmission. The four times world champion was livid.
Behind that melee, the accordion effect caused Haas F1’s Esteban Gutierrez, to take out both Nico Hulkenberg and Rio Haryanto at the exit of Turn Last year, Hulkenberg had retired from the Russian race at the very same spot.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was left to gain all of Ferrari’s points. He had grabbed second, was then passed by Valtteri Bottas, but regained second and was then passed by Hamilton on Lap 7. He went on to finish third, scoring the Scuderia’s 700th podium finish.
While Rosberg controlled every aspect of the race, there were terrific midfield battles as Verstappen and Alonso, who both took advantage of the opening laps confusion, battled for 6th. Verstappen would drop out on Lap 35, after running as high as second.
From Lap 24 to the finish, it would be Rosberg, Hamilton, Raikkonen, the two Williams of Bottas and Massa, Alonso, Kevin Magnussen (Renault) Grosjean (Haas) Sergio Perez (Force India) and Jenson Button (McLaren) to round out the points positions.
Rosberg’s winning streak is now seven, tying Michael Schumacher (seven), and Alberto Ascari (seven). Only Sebastian Vettel has won more times consecutively.
It was truly Rosberg uber alles. He took the pole; led every lap, set the fastest time in all three sectors and set the fastest lap of the race on the last lap. That’s a grand slam; as dominant as it gets. Oh, and in overall season statistics, Rosberg has led 186 laps to Hamilton’s 1.
Each of the first four races this season has teased fans of a straight-up, no- holds-barred fight between a full set of Ferraris and Mercedes. Each time, one or the other team has been weakened by mechanical woes.
Ferrari seems able to match Mercedes’ qualifying pace at times, but the races have seen mysterious engine and drivetrain failures. They began with Raikkonen’s flambeau in Melbourne, and then Vettel’s smoky engine failure during the warm-up lap in Bahrain and his gearbox change here in Sochi. Mercedes has had its bumps with Hamilton’s qualifying exit in Shanghai and then here in Sochi during final qualifying (after suffering a power unit problem). Thus, these faux pas continue to rob each race of a full-tilt head to head battle. All eyes are on the first European race in Barcelona as the beginning of the real season. Bets anyone?
Haas F1’s Romain Grosjean 8th place meant he has scored points in 75% of the races this season. Grosjean’s tough years with Renault made him a better driver, and Haas already says he has more than repaid the team for his hiring. Incredibly, the Haas team has stated that they will not block Grosjean’s opportunities should a better team seek to hire him away. Likewise, Kevin Magnussen, who was unceremoniously dropped by McLaren, and then found a home with the new Renault factory team, picked up his first points (and Renault’s since 2010 Abu Dhabi) with seventh, in their marginally competitive holdover car. The team’s vastly experienced Alain Premane sees Magnussen as the solid block to build the team around. Good things await both of these racers shortly.
After the race, Daniil Kvyat was an unrepentant swashbuckler, saying it was a minor contact in Turn Two, and shrugging that it was Vettel fault; that he had suddenly slowed in the midst of Turn Three. Young Daniil is sailing treacherous seas here; with Max Verstappen firmly under contract, the young Russian had better remove his pirate eyepatch and pray he gets points in 75% of his remaining races. There’s no question Team Principal Christian Horner will put Verstappen in a Red Bull seat next season. If Kvyat continues in “plunder mode”, don’t be surprised if Horner makes his decision by mid-season.
Fernando Alonso’s sixth place along with Jenson Button’s tenth put both McLaren-Hondas in the points for the first time since Hungary last year. McLaren had missed going on the Q3 by just 0.1-second. They are bonafide midfield contenders, and both the team and engine maker Honda are pushing hard to catch up. Still, Honda knows that this season’s power unit is severely flawed; both parties have admitted that their engine’s core “architecture” is wrong. They know they will never challenge Ferrari or Mercedes until they build a new-from-the-ground-up engine. Only then can McLaren to push for the first two rows of the grid, let alone dream of reclaiming their past 90’s glories.
Last season Lewis Hamilton had clear air and track ahead of him at the start. Any trouble ensued was behind him, and he took full advantage of his competitors’ accident avoidance maneuvers to pull a dominant lead. This season, Rosberg has had that same benefit, while Hamilton has faced a string of unforced errors and mechanical failures leaving him among the midfield runners at the start. It’s called the knock-on effect; once you start behind the front two rows you are always at risk of cascading untenable positions, that rob you of track position at best and leave you with a smoking hulk of broken machinery at worst. Hamilton, in one of the two best cars on the track, is already 43 points Rosberg after four Grands Prix. Each race will make it increasingly harder to gain ground.
Rosberg said he posted the fastest lap at the end of the race to aid his concentration. The underlying purpose was retaliation. He watched the back of Hamilton’s car as it won the World Championship for two seasons. He knows it causes plenty of mental strain. This past winter, Rosberg treated the offseason very differently. He had won the final three 2015 Grands Prix and picked up massive psychological confidence; he vowed it would continue. He has now won seven Grands Prix in a row. Rosberg’s speed on the 53rd lap at Sochi was his way of telling Hamilton, “this is what you’ll be facing for the rest of the season.”
Now, on to Barcelona.