Lewis Hamilton notched up his 100th grand prix victory, but the milestone will give him only so much solace after failing to exact maximum damage on title rival Max Verstappen on a crucial weekend.
This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.
No team other than Mercedes has ever won a grand prix in Russia, but McLaren ran the German marque close in an unexpectedly nailbiting race in Sochi.
Lando Norris was threatening to breach the Mercedes citadel. Flawlessly taking his maiden pole in the damp, he spent most of the grand prix comfortably in control of the field.
With six laps to go the Briton could probably just about taste the champagne. But the bottle was about to slip from his grasp.
Rain struck the Sochi Autodrom, light at first but intensifying late. With so few laps to run both Norris and Hamilton, engrossed by an exclusive battle, refused team requests to pit for intermediate tyres, neither wanting to blink.
But almost the entirety of the field was peeling into the pits by lap 48 of 53, including Max Verstappen, the then title leader and the man Hamilton really had to beat.
Mercedes upped the urgency on team radio and Hamilton relented. Norris, however, refused to heed McLaren’s calls.
Hamilton came in on lap 49 and retained second place. On lap 50 conditions deteriorated further, and on lap 51 Norris spun off the track, rotating backwards just in time to see Hamilton sail through the corner and into the lead.
The young Briton pitted at the end of the lap and finished a despondent seventh.
“I don’t know where to start,” Norris said, clearly emotional. “Obviously unhappy, devastated in a way.
“I knew I was capable of [winning] — I’ve felt capable of doing it for a while … just a bit of heartbreak.”
Hamilton, buoyed by the result, was effusive in his praise for his compatriot.
“He’s so young, he’s got so many more wins up ahead of him,” he said. “He’s doing such a great job leading that team … they’ve been very hard to beat for us.”
Hamilton was of course pleased with his victory ton and to return to the championship lead with a two-point margin, but when he and the team return home from Sochi it’s sure to be with a pang of disappointment.
Italy and Russia were supposed to be two of the team’s strongest circuits and give Hamilton a chance to build a crucial buffer over Verstappen to weather the autumn rounds of the championship against the marginally faster Red Bull Racing car.
But both rounds were fumbled. Hamilton qualified fifth in Monza and failed to score after a race-ending crash with Verstappen. In Russia he crashed in pit lane in the pole shootout and dropped to seventh on the first lap, taking victory only thanks to the rain.
Worse still, Verstappen’s recovery to second place from a back-of-grid penalty for an engine change meant Hamilton lost another opportunity to open a points gap.
Combined the two Mercedes stronghold races saw a measly five-point turnaround in Hamilton’s favour when the team would have been hoping for between 14 and 20 to the Briton.
Of the seven remaining races Red Bull Racing can reliably count Mexico and Brazil to its column plus probably Turkey and the to-be-announced race in Qatar. Mercedes typically excels in Abu Dhabi — though the circuit is being redesigned for this year — and Hamilton has a formidable record in the United States. The brand-new super-fast circuit of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is difficult to call.
Hamilton also faces the prospect of an engine-change penalty in the near future, with Mercedes worried about reliability.
“Undoubtedly it’s going to be tough,” Hamilton said. “I think they’ve got a good set of circuits coming up, and I anticipate it will just continue to be really close between us. I’ve just got to be hopeful of some good races.”
It’s going to take everything Hamilton’s got to win this title fight, and he won’t always be able to rely on the rain to seal the deal.