`Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale breaks down qualifying for the Russian GP
Ambient 27° Track 35° Humidity 57% Wind 2.1 m/s
A leaden cement sky hung oppresively over the paddock at Sochi, deadening the photographers gaze but doing nothing to lower the rapidly increasing track temperatures and in turn putting added pressure on teams as the track morphed into an entirely different beast between sessions.
All eyes were looking to the battle between Renault and Red Bull, yes, I really did type that as after looking quite tidy yesterday, and despite his mirror mishap in FP3 Ricciardo looked to be giving Verstappen quite the run for his money as to who exactly would fetch up behind Bottas at the end of the session.
The midfield was its usual, impenetrable thicket, though of note both Norris and Stroll racing with the latest updates seemed to be doing less well than their teammates thus far, with all updates apparently not being created equal...
Of course, with Hamilton going for a record tying win it was natural that Netflix would be chilling in the Mercedes bubble, but given how badly they did last year there was more than a wee bit of talk about the "Netflix curse" flying about the internet. Of course, no one REALLY believes in that sort of thing, do they....
Green Light!! First out of the gate was Russell, on the Medium tyre and clearly up to something, though making it to Q2 on the that tyre was clearly not going to happen. As he circulated on an outlap, and then started on a hotlap, the rest of the teams lazed about, lolling listlessly in their garages as the Williams driver missed T2 and carried on. Finally, at the 16 minute mark competitors began to bounce out of their garages, Bottas and Hamilton leading the way. Raikkonen and Giovinazzi were next up and then the deluge, HAAS, Alpha Tauri Racing Point and finally Red Bull, with Verstappen at the end of the gaggle, as Russell bailed into the pits and only Renault seemed to have a different plan.
AS the first blows were traded, it was Bottas lighting the board up purple and coming away with the early victory, with a 1:32.656 and nearly 1.6 seconds up, meaning something went rather wrong with Hamilton's lap... and a missed Turn 2 and deleted lap time later it was Kvyat, Grosjean and Raikkonen behind the Finn. Stroll was the first to jump the line and go P2, then his teammate pulled the same trick, taking nearly 0.8 seconds out of Lance even as he sported the latest Racing Point bits. Leclerc went P3 and then Sainz, also running old kit to Norris' new, took the third step away from the Ferrari driver.
With just 10 minutes left, Renault poked their nose out on the Medium tyre (saving Softs for Q3 one might think) as Verstappen finished up his run with a somewhat average P7 and Albon was out to set his time in tandem with the squad from Enstone. P11 for Ocon and P5 for Ricciardo, who also had the shiny new bits on his car this weekend. As the rest of the teams considered rolled in, Hamilton was back on it going for a second lap on the same tyres, and going P2, just 0.2 seconds off his teammate after his first time was deleted.
Albon rocked up to P8, with Gasly one step ahead, and then Russell, who emerged on a set of Softs to set a time, was up to P13 and as the dust settled, it was Ocon, Raikkonen, Giovinazzi, Grosjean and Latifi on the outside looking in, and Grosjean and Latifi with the further insult of having had their times deleted for being naughty at Turn 2...
4 minutes to go and the pitlane burst into activity, Latifi leading the way onto the track followed by Ocon, Raikkonen, Giovinazzi and Ricciardo. Norris Grosjean and Bottas (?) were next up, then Vettel Magnussen and Kvyat. Stroll, Gasly, Verstappen, Albon and Russell completed the picture and it was all there waiting to be seized as the hotlaps got underway.
Latifi was first across the line and he managed P15, which was better than no time at all, but almost ensured his eventual doom. Ocon was next to hit the line and up to P3 he went, the Soft tyres working their magic for the Renault driver. Ricciardo went P4 and Giovinazzi put Latifi out of Q2 with a P14 and he was almost immediately bested by Grosjean and dropped down into the hotseat.
Vettel put Giovinazzi by going P11 behind Leclerc and then Stroll bounced to P9, remarkably far off his lesser equipped teammate and Verstappen made it P5 whilst Kvyat had magicked his way all the way up to P3, ahead of Ocon. Albon could only manage P11 while Gasly made P8 his home and last across the line, Russell once again escaped the dropzone with a P13, sending Grosjean out as the Ferarri powered teams looked to be battling with Latifi for the lanterne rouge once again. On replay one of the Alfas had a momen and oooh and that spin was the end of Kimi's day, not that they seemed to be well equipped for this track in any event.
Thus going no further and off in search of some borscht to cure their ills were Grosjean, Giovinazzi, Magnussen, Latifi and Raikkonen as the rest prepared themselves for the glories of Q2. Nice Job by Russell with his new routine to rock onto Q2 and clearly an issue for Grosjean with his front right as the panoply of post session radio messages blared through the airwaves.
Q2 kicked off with a big party, led by Bottas, Vettel and Norris, with Hamilton at that back of that train and Mercedes on the Medium tyre. Leclerc, Sainz, Ocon and Kvyat were next up followed by the duo of Perez and Stroll. Verstappen had a nice bubble to himself then Gasly, Ricciardo and Albon last to hit the track. The duel at the top was much closer, at least until the second sector where the Finn encountered some offscreen issue and Hamilton rocked to the top. Well, that was until his laptime was deleted (again!!??) for going too wide at the final corner and as the times rolled in, it was Ricciardo winning the battle of the Softs with a 1:32.208 and half a second clear of his closest challenger, and Bottas drifting down to P4 as the dust settled. Between, Sainz and Perez filled the top 3 and it sounded like some derating was the issue for Bottas on his lap. Verstappen managed a P7 on Medium and looked likely to run a set of Softs for his second go and as the teams turned it around for a final shot at the hallowed grounds of Q3 it was Albon, Stroll, Vettel, Hamilton and Russel on the outside looking in.
Russell was first out, followed by Bottas and Hamilton again on the Mediums. Vettel and Leclerc emerged next then Kvyat, Russell, Gasly and Ocon. Norris and Perez were next up then Sainz and Albon as Russel turned in a decent effort as Mercedes rocked onto the their hotlaps facing rather a lot of traffic. Fastest first sector for Bottas and as the drama unfolded Vettel put it hard into the wall at T4 and out came the red flag with 2:15 to go, before Hamilton put in a time..... And then the wait to see if the session would restart (likely) and Hamilton, looking for his record tying win would have at best one final chance at Q3. On replay, Leclerc was very nearly collected by the stopped Vettel on his own lap and eeek, it was all to play for and no guarantees for anyone at this point...
Not surprisingly there was a massive queue to get out and get a time in with Red Bull at the front, Albon in the lead, and easily 8 cars before Hamilton, now on Soft tyres waiting rather impatiently. On replay lining up, Verstappen actually overtook an Alpha Tauri as he was on his way to lineup.
Green Light! And off they went, with Stroll having had an issue in the queue and having been wheeled back to the garage just before the drivers were released to the track. After the Red Bulls it was Gasly and Kvyat, Leclerc, Norris, Ocon and then Hamilton who looked frighteningly like he wouldn't make the start, missing the turn exiting the pits and going the long way round, losing even more time.... and he just squeaked in, with a literal second to spare. Sainz and Perez failed to get there on time and there were just going to have to play the cards they'd been dealt.
And it was a very much less than ideal lap for the Mercedes driver, ultimately going P4 and likely taking a deep breath or two on his inlap. Albon was up to P7 and as the remainder rolled across the line it was Leclerc bailing on his lap and Ocon taking the final transfer spot. Wow, the Netflix curse continues to take some shots at Mercedes.
Done like a dinner were Leclerc, Kvyat, Stroll, Russell and natch, Vettel, off in search of some vodka to chill the pain as the rest reset for the ultimate palmares of Q3. Of course, with Hamilton now starting on the Soft tyre tomorrow thanks to the drama, there was a guarantee that Mercedes would now be running 2 different strategies during the race, which should spice things up a bit. Stroll was toast as he had an issue that meant he was deprived of a final run in Q2 and his weekend was not visibly improving as his teammate continued to do well...
Q3 started with another massive queue, Renault at the front, Ocon leading Ricciardo, then Gasly, Norris and Sainz. Bottas and Hamilton were next up then Albon and Perez. Verstappen was last out just as Ocon was twisting through the final turns, getting ready for his first go....
Ricciardo won that battle, with Gasly behind Ocon and Sainz just ahead. Bottas then jumped to the top but it was Hamilton, again winning the battle of the bankers after an exceedingly rough Q2. As the last of the field hit the line it ws Verstappen, displacing Ricciardo by a mere 0.004 seconds. Albon rocked up in P8, just behind Ocon then Gasly and Norris were the last of the top 10 as the field retired for the interval and prepared for their last runs in the ultimate Saturday prize...
4 minutes to go and again the pits exploded into action, Mercedes leading the way, Bottas ahead of Hamilton, then Gasly, Ocon and Norris. Ricciardo and Sainz were next out, then Perez and nearly a minute wait before Red Bull emerged, to miss the traffic jam, Albon ahead of Verstappen. On the outlap both Ocon and Gasly got in between Bottas and Hamilton. Again, though, it was Hamilton that seemed to have the advantage, S1 falling to him by nearly 3 tenths. S2 again the bleeding continued and there was to be no mercy at all from Lewis as it was by more than half a second the Mercedes driver won the battle for the top step. Behind, it was Verstappen, crushing it and nipping Bottas for the front row, which, to be fair, might be a strategic miscue if one thinks back to the Ferrari start last year. OR strategic cleverness if one is taking Bottas' point of view.
Perez managed to pick up P4 from Ricciardo and that battle looked to be juicy on the morrow indeed along with the Sainz/Ocon battle just behind. Norris, Gasly and Albon filled out the rest of the roster, as the grid finalized for tomorrow's race.
Welp, no end of drama today and it was was far from over as a multitude of drivers were being called in to discuss not following the off track directions at Turn 2, including Hamilton, along with Grosjean, Magnussen and Latifi. Likely just a warning, but still adding to the fun.
More entertaining will be the fact that Mercedes will now be running 2 different tyre strategies at the start, with Bottas on the Medium tyre and Hamilton on the Soft. Of course, last year, Ferrari, with Leclerc on pole, used the slipstream to launch Vettel into P1 from P3 and one might guess that Mercedes will want, at the very least, to try and get Bottas ahead of Verstappen using the same tactic, although naturally Red Bull will have other ideas. The Soft tyre gives Lewis the slightest of advantages off the line, but with tomorrow predicted to be even hotter than today, there is a genuine question mark over the first phase of the race and how Mercedes will manage the differing strategies without giving either driver what might be perceived as an unfair advantage...
The midfield also did not disappoint, with Perez and Ricciardo dueling it out for best of the rest whilst Albon will be looking to move up the grid and reclaim some honour for Red Bull. With the tyres being exceedingly sensitive to the thermal window at this track, tomorrow's hotter temps will no doubt account for a big chunk of performance, testing both teams' and drivers' abilities to manage the elusive window where the tyres yield maximum performance.