Under sunny skies at Sochi, at a location where Mercedes have not lost since the first race in 2014, lap 1 proved to be a yellow flag magnet. Daniel Ricciardo and Romain Grosjean both were tapped, with the Australian suffering a deflated left rear, whilst Grosjean was pushed into the barrier by the impact. This came after Sebastian Vettel had a blinder of a start and would lead the field inside thirty seconds.
Antonio Giovinazzi was a meat in the sandwich as it looked as he tried to split Grosjean and Ricciardo, with his front right tapping the rear of the Renault. This showed the fragility of the rubber as Ricciardo’s tyre exploded immediately. Gosjean was unlucky as his car was unloaded and forced into the barriers. The stewards would shortly declare the impacts a racing incident.
Vettel was quick however his team mate, pole sitter Charles Leclerc, would hang on in the initial stages. Lewis Hamilton in 3rd would find himself a full two seconds from Vettel. In an odd decision, the Ferrari team advised both drivers, with Vettel 1.4 seconds ahead, that the German would let through Leclerc. Vettel, naturally, disagreed with that call. Max Verstappen was caught in traffic and fell through to 8th, and it would be lap 8 when he finally managed to regain a spot with a clean pass on Sergio Perez.
Kimi Raikkonen copped a drive through penalty as a result of an over-eager start. The penalty came through on lap 9 and would not affect his 14th position at the time unduly. Valtteri Bottas on medium tyres, behind his team mate on the same rubber, was 12 seconds from the lead by lap 12. Verstappen would push hard and hit 6th in lap 12. Vettel? Consistently laying down fastest laps, lap after lap. Ricciardo was back into 16th by the same timer, with Nico Hulkenberg untroubled by traffic to be 9th in lap 14. Vettel was 3.7 seconds ahead, with Hamilton 3.2 seconds behind Leclerc. Verstappen’s pace was rapid, and on the sort rubber would challenge Carlos Sainz for 5th by lap 17.
Hulkenberg was brought in for a swap on lap 18, dropping back to 17th, with Ricciardo up to 15th. Alexander Albon had put a challenge to Pierre Gasly, with a pass getting the Red Bull driver into 11th, only to have Gasly, the former driver of Albon’s car, regain the position shortly after. Lap 20 and Vettel’s lead was out to 4.3 seconds, with Leclerc extending his gap to Hamilton to three seconds. Vettel’space had him within sight of tailgunner Rocbert Kubica. Lando Norris pitted on lap 21 in his McLaren and came back out in 13th from 9th. Sainz in 6th pitted on the next lap, and regained the track down in 12th, entering the track just ahead of his team mate Norris.
Ferrari pitted Leclerc on lap 23, and Leclerc would be put into a position that allowed him to “undercut” Vettel. The gap that Leclerc had was good enough to bring him out in 4th. Hamilton was bumped to 2nd, whilst Bottas would now be 3rd. Perez came in and would drop five positions, allowing Lance Stroll and Kevin Magnussen to grab 8th and 7th. Lap 26 and Ricciardo was pitted and garaged, with underlying damage to his car. Vettel was called in on the same lap for a rubber swap, putting Hamilton and Bottas into the lead two positions. Leclerc’s undercut paid off as he passed Vettel before the German exited pit lane. Barely twenty seconds later Vettel would call in and say his “K” was gone, with this making Vettel’s first DNF since 2018’s Germany round. This is the kinetic recovery section of his driveline, and suddenly the pressure was off Leclerc. The Virtual Safety Car was called and the pit lane was a flurry of cars in for rubber swaps. Hamilton would come in, as would Bottas and Verstappen.
Somehow George Russell, who had also pitted, lost brake pressure and drove straight into the tyre barriers, and a full course safety car was called. This played into the hands of Leclerc as the field was bunched up. Robert Kubica retired shortly after and suddenly Williams would have a double retirement. Lap 31 and Leclerc was brought in again. His re-entry had him back out in 3rd. Verstappen was in 4th, Sainz in 5th, Magnussen in 6th. Norris, Perez, Stroll, and Albon made up the rest of the top ten. Kimi Raikkonen’s stop was marred by a faulty frong jack, costing him a vital five seconds.
Restart and Hamilton had the jump on Bottas and Leclerc. Verstappen was caught napping, too, and would find a gap of six seconds between he and Hamilton. Lap 36 and Hamilton lays down a 1:37 as Leclerc closed on Bottas. Magnussen was looking good for a top five finish, with Sainz a bare second ahead. Gasly charged hard on Kvyat and missed a braking point, and his team mate, by mere centimetres, falling to 14th. Meanwhile, Hamilton was now into the 1:36 bracket and leading Bottas by three seconds. Leclerc was desperately trying to find the line to get past Bottas and on lap 40 was under a second shy.
Ten laps left and Nico Hulkenberg was in a position to hunt down Norris. Perez was in 8th and had Magnussen go wide, allowing Perez into 7th. Magnussen’s drive would be crueled by a five second penalty as a result of being deemed to have not re-entered the circuit appropriately. Sainz, in 5th, was all on his own and had plenty of race space ahead of him but would see Albon, who started from pit lane, close to within a couple of tenths with just a few laps left before Albon pushed past on Turn 4. Hamilton’s lead on lap 46 was well over four seconds ahead of Bottas whilst Leclerc’s charge seemed to have run out of legs, with his gap to Bottas 1.3 seconds.
With just two laps to go it was game over for Leclerc as Hamilton put down a 1:35.761. Bottas, five seconds adrift, was two seconds ahead but importantly would bring home second and extra manufacturers points for Mercedes. Hamilton would take the win ahead of Bottas and Leclerc, with Leclerc 1.3 seconds behind the Finn. Verstappen, Albon, Sainz, Perez, Norris, Magnussen, and Hulkenberg filled out the top ten. Stroll, Kvyat, Raikkonen, Gasly, and Giovinazzi would round out the field.
Hamilton would say afterwards: “This win feels like it has been a long time coming and it was just an incredible job from the whole team: never giving up, pushing forward, always trying to be innovative. It’s incredibly inspiring to be part of that and amazing to have this result today considering how quick the Ferraris were in that opening stint.” Vettel’s disappointment was obvious: “Today, we are very disheartened. We wanted to finish first and second, but all we got was a third place. It’s not the result we were hoping for.”
Of the opening lap impact, Ricciardo was philosophical: ” It was a bit chaotic through Turn 2 and I had the inside line for Turn 4 where I thought I was safe. I got hit and had a puncture and damage to the floor. I’ll look at it with the perspective that if I qualify higher up the grid then I’m less likely to be in the bad stuff. I’ll take responsibility for that, but in terms of the accident, I was just a passenger.” And a very annoyed Grosjean understated with: ” I had no chance to react. It’s a bit of a disappointing afternoon. It’s hard to digest as I felt this was the weekend we could score. To be taken out on the first lap is very hard.”
F1 heads to Suzuka in Japan in two weeks time.