Lewis Hamilton won the Russian Grand Prix from second-place on the starting grid to capture his milestone 70th career Formula One victory, his series-leading eighth this season and his third victory in a row. Hamilton finished 2.545 seconds ahead of his Mercedes teammate, polesitter Valtteri Bottas to take his third victory at Sochi and maintain Mercedes’ dominance at the track, as no other team has won the Russian Grand Prix.
Bottas led from the first corner and controlled the race from the opening lap through the mediatory tyre stops without placing one wheel wrong, but obediently played the team player, pulling to the side at Turn 13 to let championship leader Hamilton assume the lead with 28 laps remaining. By winning, Hamilton maximised his points haul lead over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel by ringing up an extra seven points to his lead. It also means Hamilton can now afford to finish second to Vettel in every remaining race and still have enough points to take the drivers’ crown.
Hamilton later described the situation as ‘super uncomfortable’ and ‘a win that I’m least proud of.’ Mercedes justified the call to protect Hamilton from Vettel as the team detected what seemed to be a small tyre blister that could have threaten Hamilton’s end of race pace.
Bottas, standing stern-faced and crestfallen, made it clear he is a team player first. “Lewis is fighting for the championship, and I am not so it is better for the team if Lewis wins,” said Bottas to Sky F1. “It’s not ideal, but that’s a fact.
Hamilton countered with plenty of respect “There are not many team-mates who would do something like that,” reflected Hamilton. “It’s the strangest day l can remember in the sport.”
Hamilton’s victory, combined with Sebastian Vettel’s third-place finish, allowed Hamilton to extend his lead in the championship standings to 50 points over Vettel, with just five in Grands Prix remaining this year’s title chase.
Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen took fourth place with the Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo capturing fifth and sixth respectively. A very quick Charles Leclerc finished as ‘best of the rest’ – the only other driver to finish on the lead lap to claim seventh place for Sauber Alfa Romeo while taking his first points since the Austrian Grand Prix.
Kevin Magnussen’s muscled his Haas to an eighth-place finish, ahead of the two Racing Point Force Indias of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez, who drove to team orders – due to their collision in Singapore – to try and attack the Haas instead of each other.
Valtteri Bottas took command of the Russian Grand Prix immediately at lights out, using his perfect launch to rocket ahead of both Hamilton and Vettel – his Mercedes’ positioning blocking Vettel and providing a slipstream for Hamilton. The pack made it through the first corner as well as the extended “straight” and Turn 3 intact, with Bottas already streaking out ahead of Hamilton, who had Vettel close behind but not able to attack. Hamilton then defended into the next big braking zone to stymie Vettel. Raikkonen held onto fourth place.
Behind him, Sauber’s Charles Leclerc had moved up to sixth at the start before swooping around Kevin Magnussen’s Haas on the outside of long Turn 3 on Lap 2. The Toro Rossos had a strong opening few laps before both Pierre Gasly, and Brendon Hartley had near identical brake failures, spins and retirements.
Up front, Bottas was in total command, his steering inputs smooth and precise, as his pace slowed from attack mode to reflect the need to nurse his fast but delicate starting tyres.
Indeed, with all of the leading cars starting on the Ultrarsoft tyres, by Lap 5, every driver was saving their tyres to make pitstops needed after only a dozen laps.
However, there was a driver deep within the pack who was in no need to preserve tyres. Max Verstappen and teammate Daniel Riccardo had their Red Bulls undergo strategic power unit, gearbox and auxiliary systems changes for Sochi, with the intention of being more competitive at later Grands Prix. For this, they took grid penalties that put them in the last row. Distant, yes but their cars were set up for qualifying in optimal race trim, shod with Softs, the slowest but most durable tyre.
At lights out, Verstappen who was celebrating his 21st birthday stormed forward attacking all before him. By Lap 2, he advanced from P20 to P11. Despite his aggressive pace, Verstappen appeared to take little life out of his tyres, and when he slashed past both Magnussen and Leclerc on Lap 7, he was in P5 with plenty of grip. Verstappen switched to “stalking mode” as he waited for the Mercedes’ and Ferrari’s tyre stops.
Those stops came in a cluster. Mercedes brought leader Bottas in on Lap 13 – Ferrari responded one later with Vettel. Both stops were rapid, leaving Hamilton even more track length to swallow before his stop on Lap 16, but taking slightly longer, he rejoined the race now behind Vettel.
Hamilton immediately put the Ferrari under pressure, attacking throughout the following lap into Turn 2, but Vettel rebuffed him. One more Hamilton attack again at Turn 4 and this time, he reclaimed second place.
After Raikkonen stopped on L19, Verstappen’s stalking was complete; starting last, he now led the Russian Grand Prix on his 21st birthday with gobs of tyre grip remaining.
By lap 25, the top four were separated by just five seconds, with Verstappen – who was yet to stop – starting to hold up Bottas, Hamilton and Vettel. That’s when controversy raised its troublesome head.
Seemingly embarrassed by Hamilton’s slower than expected stop, Mercedes principal Toto Wolff made the call to switch Bottas and Hamilton to prevent the championship leader coming under pressure from Vettel. The duo swapped places under braking for Turn 13. Verstappen used this event to extend his lead to 2-3 seconds, with his Red Bull controlling the pace.
But with a mandatory tyre change, both he and Ricciardo had to eventually stop. Ricciardo was the first to pit (lap 39), Verstappen hung on in the lead until Lap 43. Back-markers allowed Hamilton to close right in on the Dutchman briefly, but the leader fended off the attack into Turn 2 before his mandatory stop for Ultrasoft tyres.
Verstappen rejoined in fifth place, fourteen seconds behind Raikkonen and ten laps to go, but between the recalcitrant hard-to-heat Ultrasofts, and the distance to Raikkonen, Verstappen saw it was hopeless and turned his engine mapping down.
With Hamilton now in clear air, he increased his pace and created a two-three second buffer to his team-mate to take his eighth win of the season, leading Mercedes’ third one-two finish of the season.
Bottas had made one last enquiry to Mercedes about reversing the finishing positions, but Mercedes’ pit wall replied “nyet”.