The 2019 Russian Grand Prix will be remembered less for Lewis Hamilton’s taking Mercedes’ first F1 win since early August than for the newly dominant Ferrari team’s probable victory tossed away courtesy of a defiant Sebastian Vettel’s public implosion over the team’s race plan via his team radio.
Given Charles Leclerc’s speed during the weekend, and both his blinding pole laps, all Ferrari had to do to win the Russian Grand Prix was keep Leclerc and Vettel in front and aware of any moves by the Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
To assure the team of its continued unexpected dominance of the second half of the 2109 season, Ferrari asked its drivers to protect each other at the start during the very long run down to the first turn, Turn 2.
Orders were devised that third qualifier Vettel would hold back second qualifier Lewis Hamilton. Leclerc would give his teammate the benefit of his slipstream, unopposed, to shut off any Mercedes lunge by letting the German take the lead. Once the Mercedes were neutralised, Vettel would then return the lead of the race to Leclerc.
Unfathomably, it was just too much to ask.
Ferrari’s team orders farce surfaced during the opening laps as Vettel chose to ignore the Scuderia’s pre-race decision. Once in command of the Grand Prix, the German then defiantly refused to cede the position back to Leclerc.
Unfortunately, Ferrari’s team radio broadcast the rowdy squabble to one and all. Eventually, Vettel’s SF90 power failure near the halfway point permanently reset the team order.
Nevertheless, Vettel’s initial resistance and his car’s failure also initiated a Virtual Safety Car. As is F1, Vettel triggered several new scenarios that wholly altered the Grand Prix in Mercedes’ favour.
Hamilton took advantage of the VSC period to make a pit stop and rejoin ahead of Leclerc, who had already stopped for tyres and led the race just before his teammate’s DNF.
Ferrari then sacrificed another position to the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas during another Safety Car to pit Leclerc for a second time, cementing a Mercedes a one-two victory and leaving its fast young ace languishing in third at the flag.
Max Verstappen finished fourth ahead of Red Bull rookie teammate Alex Albon, who started from the pit lane and fought his way back to fifth. Carlos Sainz took sixth for McLaren after running as high as fourth at the start of the race, ahead of Sergio Perez’ Racing Point in seventh, McLaren’s Lando Norris in eighth, Kevin Magnussen’s Haas in ninth and Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg in tenth.
Charles Leclerc claimed his and Ferrari’s fourth consecutive Formula 1 pole position in qualifying at Russia’s Sochi Circuit. It was the first time a Ferrari pilot had captured four-in-a-row since Michael Schumacher in 2000 (when Leclerc was just three years old).
Leclerc set two laps fast enough for pole during Q3. With his 1:31.628 had an advantage of 0.402 seconds over Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who split the two Ferraris on his wild final lap. Leclerc had everything in hand, outpacing Hamilton by almost half a second in the first sector of the lap.
Sebastian Vettel sat in second place after the first runs in Q3, but only found 0.082s on a messy second lap and had to settle for third, 0.023s slower than Hamilton. Red Bull driver Max Verstappen displayed potential pole position speed early in qualifying but ended up fourth fastest and 0.682s off the pace. He drew a five-place grid penalty due to the installation of a new Honda V6 before Friday’s first practice dropping him to start ninth.
Leclerc started from pole position, with the knowledge that Ferrari had ordered its drivers not to fight each other on the long run down to Turn 2 on the opening lap. Vettel, starting third, made a perfect launch dashed past Hamilton and lined up squarely behind Leclerc. Using his teammate’s slipstream, he took an unchallenged lead on the inside of Turn 2.
Leclerc didn’t flinch as Ferrari management told him that by helping Vettel to keep Hamilton and Bottas from challenging for the lead by giving Vettel the clean shot at Turn 2, Ferrari would have Vettel cede the position back to the young Monegasque
Indeed, first on Lap 3 and again on Lap 5 – while the race was slowed under an early Safety Car for a collision between Romain Grosjean, Antonio Giovinazzi and Daniel Ricciardo, Ferrari told Leclerc he would get the lead back on the next lap.
However, when Vettel received the message, he responded: “I would have got him (at the start) anyway. Let’s break away (from Hamilton in third) for another two laps and let me know”.
Not the reply Ferrari expected. Just one week after Leclerc was angered by Ferrari’s strategy, which handed Vettel the win in Singapore, here was Vettel defying an order to let Leclerc past
Rather than produce strategy holding back the potent Mercedes duo, Ferrari now had to defuse tensions between a young Leclerc convinced he should be allowed back into the lead as per a pre-race agreement, while Vettel felt his new-found speed was justification enough to keep the lead.
Running in clean air, Vettel created a 4.0s gap on his teammate by Lap 17, while Leclerc had Hamilton 2.9s behind him.
Ferrari solution was to pit Leclerc on Lap 22 for a fresh set of medium tyres. The Scuderia would keep Vettel on track for long enough on his worn tyres to allow Leclerc to make up the distance on his fresh tyres and reclaim the position when Vettel finally pitted.
With Leclerc setting fastest lap after fastest lap, Ferrari brought Vettel in on Lap 26. By the time Vettel rejoined, Leclerc was ahead.
Amid this kerfluffle, Hamilton remained out on medium tyres that couldn’t match Leclerc’s outright speed, but as a result, could go longer into the race than Ferrari. Mercedes bet that a Safety Car or Virtual Safety Car period (of which Sochi’s history suggested would occur) after Ferrari’s stops presented the Germans with a chance to stop and then leapfrog the Scuderia during a VSC segment.
On Lap 28, Mercedes got their wish. As Hamilton led the race on old mediums, Vettel reported a failure of his MGU-K – the energy recovery system used to provide a power boost. Approaching Turn 15, Vettel was told to stop on track, forcing race control to call for a VSC.
Hamilton and Bottas immediately pitted as Leclerc circulated at considerably reduced speed. The duo changed to soft tyres and rejoined in first and third.
Within another lap, George Russell’s Williams experienced brake failure on the circuit and went into the barriers, triggering the deployment of a full Safety Car.
Ferrari then chose to pit Leclerc from second place to put him on fresher soft tyres until the end of the race, but in doing so, the young Ferrari ace lost a position to Bottas.
The race restarted on Lap 32, with Bottas doing a yeoman’s job of holding off Leclerc. As such, the remaining 20 laps were a disappointing procession.
That cleared Hamilton to cruise to his 82nd victory in F1 in unfathomable circumstances and extend his championship lead over teammate Bottas to 72 points with five races remaining.