29 Sept 2019
Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale introduces us to the action from the Russian GP in his own inimitable style
Ambient 22° Track 34° Humidity 67% Wind 0.8 m/s
A magnificent blue sky overarched the paddock, studded with cotton candy clouds alternately throwing shade down the pit straight and parting to reveal the specific kind of sun that one only gets near bodies of water, that peculiar golden hue that seems surreal to those who've not seen it in person.
A technical issue for Sainz, in that the left rear wheel was having a bit of an issue when being mounted on the hub, causing a mild degree of consternation as the formation lap loomed. The rest of the midfield down to P14 had chosen to start on the Softs, with the bottom end going for the contra strategy of starting on the Mediums, save Kvyat on the Hard. For the sharp end, the tyre strategy created a point of interest and even though Pirelli have said a one stop Soft-Hard is the quickest, given how slow the teams tend to run to get the Soft tyres deeper into the race, a real opportunity existed for Mercedes to stay close and then give themselves a good offset with fresh tyres for the chase, should they not snatch the lead at the start.
Overnight, the FIA reset the bollards (removing the first one and keeping the cars far left as they reenter the track) on the outside of T2 as it was too difficult for the cars to make the original configuration and there had already been a big crash in the F2 race between a car using the runoff. Aitken, correctly using the bollards, had been clipped by Mazepin on the right as he passed by the last bollard. A small thing to watch for...
Albon starts from the pitlane after his shunt during qualifying yesterday and by way of explanation, Ferrari has made it's biggest performance gains in slow and fast corners, making the job of Mercedes just that ever little bit harder. The run to Turn 2 at the start features a quite usable slipstream (potentially a big advantage to Vettel) which could make things exciting and with track temps almost 5°C warmer than qualifying it could indeed be the thing that tips the needle Mercedes' direction.....
Lights Out!!!! Great Start by Vettel and Oh My Sainz!! both by Hamilton whilst Norris was by Bottas and then Vettel rocked by Leclerc who utterly failed to defend the inside and appeared to be caught by surprise as his teammate swanned by without a care in the world. Sainz went wide and right back went Hamilton whilst Ricciardo was tagged hard from behind and went dead into Grosjean, ending the HAAS drivers race.
Ricciardo carried on with a puncture as the Safety Car made an inevitable appearance. Kubica was in for the Hard tyre and looking down the field it was KMag up to P10 and Perez up to P7 the big winners at the start. On replay it was Giovinazzi into a disappearing wedge that was the cause of the collision. Radio call from Ferrari during the SC suggested that the Vettel pass had perhaps been orchestrated tactics to blank off any threat from Mercedes.
Giovinazzi was in for a new nose after his adventures and then on the restart it was status quo, with Sainz, interestingly, on the gearbox of Hamilton. Lap 4 and Kmag got the better of Hulkenberg for P9, a bit of good news for the HAAS team after losing Grosjean from P8 at the start. The following lap and Sainz had begun to fall away whilst Bottas had closed in on the plucky McLaren driver, his mission well defined, pass the Spaniard with as little time loss as possible.
Lap 6 and Hulkenberg was back around Magnussen and the radio call from Ferrari to Leclerc suggested that the following lap would be the switcheroo.... More germane, Bottas was still behind Sainz and making progress. Into lap 7 he finally got it done, but was left floundering 6.5 seconds behind Hamilton, himself 3 seconds back of Leclerc. Vettel argued for another few laps to increase the gap before the switch, which did NOT make Leclerc the least bit happy.
Given the situation, Vettel rocked off a fast lap and increased his lead by a tenth, but the obvious answer for Ferrari was to just undercut Vettel with Leclerc, as Mercedes continued to fall away from the two leaders. Verstappen, after having been caught behind Perez for a few laps, got the job done in neat fashion and was onto the gearbox of Norris as lap 10 headed towards the history books. At the back, his teammate had already worked his way up to P14, beginnning the journey of redemption for yesterday's massive quali error.
Lap 12 and a new problem had emerged for Ferrari, namely that Vettel was increasing his lead on Leclerc, up to 3 seconds. Further back, after another couple of laps, Verstappen rocked by Norris and was into P6 and closing the 4 seconds that separated him from Sainz. Kubica was in for a Medium tyre and Raikkonen, who had collected a penalty for a jump start, was in and out to serve his time...
2 laps later and things continued to go downhill for Leclerc, as Hamilton was now faster than him on track as the Softs appeared to not be lasting as well on his car relative to Vettel as all 3 cars set first sectors within a tenth of each other. Verstappen was warned his front right was marginal on temperature as Hulkenberg noodled round Perez and up into P8.
Looking at Magnussen's times, they had begun to drop again, suggesting that he had been undergoing a graining phase with his tyres and he was now back on pace with Perez ahead. Lap 16 and the pit window was officially open for the Soft tyres, and Hamilton was 0.2 seconds up on both Ferraris and it was ON!!!
The following lap Ferrari answered the call and Vettel matched Hamilton's time, and he had extended his time over Leclerc to 4 seconds, well outside the undercut. Hulkenberg was in lap 17 and that was going to kick things off in the midfield as the dominoes began to fall. Lap 18 and Hamilton was told to go target +15, meaning they were going to go for the Soft tyre and mega stint at the end.
At some point in all the excitement Verstappen had wandered past Sainz and Albon had moved up to P12. Bottas continued to fall away from the front runners, potentially a useful rolling chicane once Ferrari made their stops. As the laps continued to fall away, the race rapidly looked to be between Hamilton and Leclerc for P2, barring some catatstrophe for Vettel during the pitstop.
Lap 21 and Norris was in for a set of Mediums, emerging behind Kvyat who was rocking a set of Hards and had yet to stop. The following lap and in came Sainz, for the same tyre and easily into the gap between Norris and Kvyat. Vettel had begun to lap traffic on lap 23 and in came Leclerc. Mediums for him and out he went P4, 10 seconds back of Bottas and a mere second inside Hamilton's pit window. His first lap saw him chunk nearly a second out of Valterri as Vettel recognised the danger and began to not so subtly suggest he needed to pit as well. Perez was in lap 24, back out behind Norris. Kvyat was having a go at his teammate as Albon rocked by the both of them and took P8.
Vettel's pace was beginning to flag and to help matters, Leclerc set fast lap, nearly 2 seconds up on his teammate. Renault chose to retire Ricciardo due to damage on the first lap incident. Lap 27 and Ferrari blinked, calling Vettel in and out he went on the Mediums, BEHIND Leclerc. Half a second slower was his stop and it was now time for the big push to keep Vettel inside Hamilton's pit window....
And then it all went sideways, with an MGU-K fail and Vettel being told to immediately stop the car. This brought out the Virtual Safety Car and opened the door for Hamilton to pit and emerge AHEAD of Leclerc.....Oh freaking my!!!!
Lap 29 and in he came, along with Bottas and Verstappen. Magnussen was a big winner as well and it was Hamilton, Leclerc, Bottas with both Mercedes on the Soft tyre and 23 laps to go. Somehow, during the action, Russell managed to find the wall on the exit of Turn 8 and then there was the full Safety Car. THAT was huge for Red Bull as it was going to park Verstappen just astern of Bottas and give Leclerc a shot.
Albon was in and SO WAS LECLERC????!!! Yes and onto the Softs he went and behind Bottas now and just in front of Verstappen. Lap 31 and it was all going to get interesting once the Safety Car was lifted. Kubica was retired for good and it was a brake failure for Russell that caused all this kerfuffle. The Safety Car put Magnussen up into P6 and lap 32 saw the lapped cars sent round to overtake.
On the restart Hamilton went early and Bottas was caught napping, Leclerc closed it down massively into Turn 2 but wasn't quite there and he sensibly reset. Into Sector 2 they sailed, Leclerc less than half a second back of Bottas with no DRS available. Less than half a second the next lap round but Bottas again deployed carefully and was able to keep the Ferrari just far enough back.
Lap 34 and DRS was on and Bottas most clearly was a sitting duck whilst ahead, Hamilton was making no gains. But Leclerc dropped back a bit into the 3rd sector and it was nothing doing... the following lap and he had nibbled it back down to half a second, but again Bottas pulled out the gap through the last few turns and bought himself just enough time to keep Leclerc at bay.
Lap 36 and a mistake from Leclerc saw him slide outside DRS and that was that for the moment. Gasly had a massive dive on Kvyat and went wide, dropping him behind not only Kvyat, but Raikkonen as well... Hamilton had begun to extend his lead on Bottas whilst Leclerc was hanging around a second back of Bottas, no doubt cooling his tyres after that first effort at overtaking.
Hulkenberg had diligently worked his way up to P10 and it was Magnussen, suddenly able to keep pace with Sainz at the front of the midfield, rolling around a second and half back of the McLaren....
Lap 39 and a purple Sector 1 was perhaps an indication of a renewed attack by Leclerc on Bottas. Sector 2 also purple seemed to be a giveaway and then a lockup into Turn 15 spoiled it. 2 laps on and again, Leclerc began to wind it up a bit, but again in the middle sector he was unable to keep the rears from sliding and had to back out of it. The difference this time being he kept it pegged and again rocked a purple first sector, gaining 0.3 seconds, but then giving up a tenth in the following sector, and a further 0.3 seconds in the final sector. Which, if you have been adding in your head, means that he was beginning to lose time to the Mercedes.
Albon, stuck behind Magnussen for ages, finally rocked by him on lap 43 and began having a go at Sainz. The defense had cost the Dane, and it was Perez by as he went wide and let Perez easily by. This also opened the door to the rapidly approaching Norris/Hulkenberg battle and it looked to be that his tyres were done....
Lap 47 and Kmag's times had stabilised in P8 with a 2 second advantage over Norris, perhaps another graining phase, or just dirt from being off piste finally scrubbing off. Regardless, a bit of relief in the HAAS garage was in order. Leclerc had demanded the kitchen sink on the same lap and off he went. Purpled the first sector, gained in the second sector as well and only 0.2 second loss in the final sector. 1 second then and with 5 laps to go and why not.....
Lap 49 and Albon rocked by Sainz and into the top 6, job done there as Hamilton put in fast lap, though Verstappen was looking likely to have a go before the end of the race as he had a free stop..... Nothing doing for Leclerc, as he just was losing too much time in the last two sectors.
Kmag was dinged with a 5 second penalty for missing the bollard at Turn 2 and it was a race for P10 now, as he was dead on 5 seconds ahead of Stroll in P11. Ooops no more free stop for Verstappen as Albon was enjoying the full bennies of having free air to run into, and a car set up entirely for the race. Hamilton took advantage of that and rocked in a fast lap with 2 laps left to go....
That left Leclerc to have a go at fast lap and he was off to a good start, purpling the first sector and it looked to be a great drive from Kmag as well, saving P9 for the team with a set of excellent laps. Nothing doing for Leclerc, his effort woefully short and that was going to be that as Lewis rocked through the first sector for the final time....
Checquers then and it was Hamilton, Bottas and Leclerc, a disastrous day for the Scuderia who really did themselves in by trying to be too clever by half, perhaps aided to some large degree by Vettel's intransigence during the first phase of the race. Excellent recovery, aided by the Safety Car, for Albon as Honda's home race approaches.
Brilliant race from Sainz, again best of the rest and a sneaky P7 from Perez helping keep morale high at Racing Point. Norris benefitted from the Magnussen penalty, but it was still quite a drive for HAAS to keep the P9 and perhaps a bit of a marker that they might yet be able to salvage something from the end of the season.
Not so brilliant from Renault, with Ricciardo out and Hulkenberg barely snagging a point as the Safety Car wreaked more than a bit of havoc on the strategies of more than a few teams.
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