Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale walks us through the ins and outs of the Russian GP
Ambient 28.5° Track 41.5° Humidity 52.4% Wind 1.6 m/s
The sun hammered down through the azure heavens bereft of clouds, inflicting blistering temperatures on the sweltering paddock as the teams got to their last minute preparations for the impending race. Albon and Latifi received new gearboxes for their efforts yesterday, which came with a bit of a sting, a 5 spot dinger moving Albon to P15 and Latifi to the end of the grid. But that was hardly the end of the pre-race drama as Lewis Hamilton, chasing his 91st and Schumacher record tying win, was apparently not content with nearly missing Q2 yesterday and made a practice start from a location that the stewards deemed potentially illegal, resulting in an investigation that will not be resolved till after the race start....Netflix I tell you, it's a thing....
Also worth noting is Pirelli's prediction is that the Softs that Hamilton starts with will go between 12 and 14 laps vs 22 laps for the Mediums that both Verstappen and Bottas start with, and that gap that might indeed be exacerbated by the fact that track temps are 5C higher on race day than in quali. Those 8 to 10 laps will be crucial for the course of the race, and the fact that all the cars with free tyre choice have chosen the Medium, with the exception of Kvyat who was on the hard, should tell you everything you need to know about which cars will have the advantage in the first phase of the race.
Even more drama as HAAS had an engine issue that required Magnussen to power cycle (cut it off and on again) the car as the formation lap got underway and Hamilton's fate hung in the balance....
Lights Out!!!! Great start by the top 3 and it was Renault with a cracking start as behind Sainz was into the wall at the exit of Turn 2. AS the race to Turn 2 continued it was Verstappen going wide trying to stay ahead of the pair of Renaults and it was a bit of work for him to recover P3 as behind Stroll put it into the wall, bringing forth the Safety Car and neutralizing the race. On replay, Sainz clipped the wall trying to follow the polystyrene barriers rejoining the track and that apparently caused his difficulties and as things stabilised under the Safety Car, it was Ocon AHEAD of Ricciardo and HAAS with the best of the starts, with Magnussen up 9 and Grosjean up 6 to P9 and P10.
Russell, Albon and Norris all chose to pit for the Hards and as the Stroll incident was looked at by telly it was a tap from behind that sent Stroll spinning across the track, Leclerc according to Racing Point. Naturally, the Safety Car was doing nothing to hurt Hamilton's chances and the longer it lingered the happier his side of the garage was going to be... Norris was unhappy with the steering on his car, saying it was going light and then heavy, an ominous thing to hear for Macca fans given Sainz was already out of the race.
And there you go, confirmed damage for Norris from the team and they were looking at it as on lap 6 as the Safety Car was coming in...
Once again the race was on and Hamilton was off early, in between Turn 15 and Turn 16 and as a result it was status quo at the top of the field as they flashed across the start/finish and the race was back on. AT the end of the first racing lap it was Norris, pipping Albon for P17 that was the end of the fun, as the Red Bull was apparently taking it's time getting those Hards up to temperature.
And then the other shoe dropped, 5 second penalty for Hamilton for a start penalty violation times 2!!! So 10 seconds one might think and now the parameters for the win were firmly set and the only question was whether or not he could serve them both at his one pitstop or not....
Lap 8 and Kvyat nocked a position, displacing Grosjean but the real story was Verstappen, beginning to struggle and not able to get away from Ocon rapidly, though it was Ricciardo who was pushing his teammate. By lap 11 he was firmly in DRS on Ocon and the battle was on as Verstappen was beginning to eke out several tenths per lap as the Renault driver shifted to defensive mode.
AT the back, Norris saw Albon and Russell back round him, as the slipstream to T2 cost him dear as he had no DRS unlike the other two and was defenseless. Lap 13 and a big lockup from Russell and off Albon went as at the front, Bottas was told to start closing up as the official pit window was now open, though with the Safety Car it was not likely they would be jumping in at the earliest opportunity. Hamilton was told to lift the pace and clear his pit window as the gap to Leclerc, first midfielder on the Mediums was just 15 seconds back.
Ocon's pace had pushed Ricciardo into the relentless maw of Perez and the Mexican wasted no time getting to grips with the Renault's gearbox and lap 15 he got the job done, bringing Ricciardo into the pits as his extreme set up was apparently not doing the job with tyre management, though it was indeed fast in quali. Perez was looking at a 3 second gap to Ocon as Hamilton was pleading to go as long as possible. Lap 17 and it was on, Hamilton in and dice thrown.
Tick tock, tick tock it was an endless wait for the leader of the championship and he was out behind Vettel in P11 but crucially ahead of Ricciardo who had chosen to go onto the Hard tyre for the remainder of his race. Bottas helpfully set fastest lap and it now the speculation was about penalty points as Hamilton currently had 8 and added 2 with his multiplicity of penalties so was up to 10 with 12 equaling a race ban.
Lap 19 and Ocon was in for a set of Hards and he was out just behind Vettel, as Hamilton had just gotten round Vettel as the Renault emerged from the pitlane. Mercedes thus looked to have brought Hamilton in to protect from the undercut from Ocon who was in DRS on Vettel but not quite able to catch him by the end of the straight onto lap 20.
Perez was in and he was out just ahead of Vettel meaning that Racing Point had managed to overcut for P4 and now Ocon was stuck behind Vettel with Ricciardo, now clear of Raikkonen chasing down for 2 seconds behind. Albon had quietly rocked his way up to P11 as his long run strategy began to pay dividends.
Lap 25 and Ricciardo had closed the gap to Ocon, which was not good news for the leading Renault driver as his inability to get round Vettel had now brought him into conflict with his quite racy teammate. Lap 25 and it looked rather like Ocon was told to let Ricciardo by but he did go behind the sausage kerb and now was at risk of a 5 second penalty. Confirmation Ocon was told to let him by as Verstappen was into the pits and out 6 seconds ahead of Hamilton.
Lap 27 and Bottas was in and out on a set of Hards, 15 seconds up on Hamilton and 9 seconds ahead of Verstappen as Ricciardo was now under investigation. Realizing his danger, Ricciardo immediately had a go at Vettel but much like his younger teammate, he was not able to get the job done as the Ferrari had enough of an advantage to defend yet another lap.
Around the outside of T13 on lap 28 he did get the job done and Ocon was then easily able to follow through. Lap 29 and Leclerc was in and able to split the Renaults and now his race was at risk if he could not get round the Ferrari. Lap 30 and Hamilton was in DRS of Kvyat and sensibly was brought in for new tyres and was out behind Ocon and on a set of Mediums to boot.
Ricciardo was informed of his penalty for the Turn 2 incident and responded by saying it was his fault and he would make up for it. The problem for him was Leclerc was just 2 seconds behind and he had a 5 second penalty for violating the race director's decree. On the radio it was Ocon, saying he had no grip and asking for some direction from his team. Lap 34 and Gasly was by Raikkonen for P9 and Albon had given up the ghost and snuck into the pits on lap 29 when no one was looking for a set of Mediums to run to the end.
Further back a race was emerging for P10, with Magnussen, on 15 lap old Hard tyres was nearly a second faster than Norris ahead in P11, which became P10 when Raikkonen was in on lap 36 for a set of Mediums as his tyres were done. And a problem in the pits delayed him an extra 6 seconds, which added insult to injury as he rocked out of a points paying position to get the new tyres.
And then it was all waiting as Norris was now matching Magnussen as his tyres were nearing their end of life, at least if one used Raikkonen as a guide whilst behind, Albon had now caught up to Grosjean and on lap 40 he got the job done, P12 and chasing Magnussen 5 seconds up the road.
Lap 42 and Hamilton was now just 9 seconds back of Verstappen for P2 and it was Vettel, up the inside on Grosjean into T2. Grosjean went wide, after a bit of contact, and behind the sausage kerb and plowed through the polystyrene barriers, thus demonstrating an attempt was made to follow the race director's decree, and there was much rejoicing amongst the drivers.
This brought out the Virtual Safety Car as the mess was cleared and Gasly took advantage to try and get a free pit stop, but it cost him in the end, out in P11 and behind Albon. Lap 45 and the Kvyat/Ocon duel continued to fascinate but the juicy story was Gasly on brand new Mediums now right behind Albon, who was generally rather stuck behind Norris on 43 lap old tyres. Lap 46 and Albon threw the kitchen sink at him and it all came to an end when he had a poor exit after having a go into Turn 7. The door was opened for Gasly and he drove through it with gusto.
The following lap it was Gasly round Norris and it was announced that Grosjean was under investigation for not following the race director's decree to drive through the bollards at T2. Apparently the HAAS' defense that he quite literally did exactly that and the wording perhaps should have been "around the bollards" prevailed and no further action was taken. Norris finally gave up his quixotic attempt to make the end of the race as even Magnussen was hauling him in and he was back out, P15, Medium tyres and 4 laps to go.
For the forensically minded, it was an 11 second gap to Bottas for Hamilton, though it was clearly academic as the Finn had most certainly put it into drive it home in one piece mode quite some time ago, in fact, the moment Hamilton pitted. The lure of fast lap drew him out, however, and lap 52 he crushed it with 1:37.030 and that pretty much put the final nail in the Russian Grand Prix, save Albon getting a 5 second penalty for not following the race director's decree....
Kvyat did make it a bit exciting in the final few turns as Ocon had a particularly slippery moment but there was not enough in it for him to have a go round the final turns and that was that for that, Bottas winning the race and adopting his new race win mantra "Eff you critics" would have to do for the Mercedes celebration as the Netflix curse continued for the Silver Arrows, albeit with a lighter touch than last year at Hockenheim...
Happy Days for Red Bull, Verstappen again splitting the Mercs on the podium and Albon already consigned to the super low probability strategy and an added 5 spot penalty finishing in the points was about the best that could be hoped for on the day. And despite the early exit of Stroll, it was a banner day for Racing Point as they carpe'd every last diem with their remaining driver and a stunningly boring drive to best of the rest. Renault will be rueing, perhaps, the start of the race as they clearly favored Ricciardo to have that spot, but all things given they had to be reasonably happy that Ocon was able to hold onto P7 and Ricciardo managed to outdrive his penalty to stay ahead of Leclerc, though perhaps in hindsight they might wish to have held Ocon out longer in order to get Vettel outside his pit window....
Another banner day for Alpha Tauri, who do seem to be coming into their own, both on strategy and pace, and finishing both cars ahead of the 2nd Red Bull will no doubt continue to impart some momentum to the junior team, with Kvyat and Gasly back to back in P8 and P9... Ferrari will be pleased that their strategem of pushing Vettel long to hold off Ocon and Ricciardo succeeded well enough for Leclerc to finish P6 in between the pair and that their updates were working well enough that even underpowered and against a Renault that was exceedingly slippery in a fast line, they were able to generate enough of a gap through the final turns to keep at least one of them at bay.
Giovinazzi in P11 was happy days for Alfa, a decent consolation for having completely ruined Raikkonen's pit stop and thus putting him out of the running. And even lowly HAAS had a bit of cheer as Magnussen's start alone (up to P9) was remarkable but their 12th place finish with a car that has seen no development and is currently picking parts out of last year's bin to save money was more than a bit remarkable, given their current circumstances. As for Williams, it was all looking good for Russell till it wasn't but perhaps the only saving grace is that the new owners chose to visit last week instead of this week.... Two weeks then till Germany and an October race in the mountains that sounds like nothing could possibly go wrong as the weather is always sunny and warm and oh wait, no, no, that's completely wrong it's unpredictable and makes Spa look like a beach holiday apparently so that should be some fun, along with all the other drama that the circus tends to bring...