The Russian Grand Prix was delicately poised between three drivers on different strategies, but a double penalty for poleman Lewis Hamilton before the race had even started snuffed out any hopes of an exciting finish.
Instead Valtteri Bottas recorded a comfortable victory after inheriting the lead from his penalised teammate, easily covering Max Verstappen in the slower Red Bull Racing machine with an identical strategy.
Hamilton had the odds stacked against him even before his penalties, forced as he was to start on the delicate soft tyre. However, even on that unfancied alternative strategy he looked quick — indeed it was theoretically the fastest way to the flag — and he recovered to finish on the podium.
While Bottas was able to claim a confidence-boosting win at a circuit he tends to perform well at, it’s hard not to see this as a race lost by Hamilton rather than one won by the Finn.
Pirelli brough its softest compounds to Sochi, a step softer than was the case last year, when the race was run to a comfortable single stop. Though one stop was still the way to go, the relatively short life expectancy of the soft and its mandated use by most of the top 10 at the start of the race at least brought some variability.
The safest way to the flag was to start on the medium tyre to make a simple half-distance switch to the hard. That was the plan for Mercedes and Max Verstappen, but from Q2 Hamilton’s weekend began to sour.
His first medium lap time was deleted for exceeding track limits and his second was interrupted by a red flag. With little more than two minutes remaining on the clock and without a lap time, he was forced to use the soft tyre just to ensure he made it to Q3, where he would take a dominant pole.
Bottas and Verstappen weren’t so troubled and were set to start the race on mediums, a potentially major strategic advantage over the championship leader.
Ironically Pirelli theorised starting on the more delicate soft would be the fastest strategy —assuming you weren’t caught in traffic by making the necessary early stop. Unfortunately Hamilton’s double penalty for two improper practice starts on the way to the grid ensured exactly this.
It cleared the way for a straight fight between Bottas and Verstappen for victory.
Aside from Hamilton leaving the frame, the key to Bottas’s win was slipstreaming his teammate to turn two to move up from third to second by the end of the lap.
Third place in Sochi is arguably the best place to start the Russian Grand Prix. Directly behind pole, the third-placed driver can put himself immediately in the slipstream off the line while the driver starting second struggles with his getaway from the dirty side of the grid.
It’s exactly what happened here, with Bottas dragging Hamilton to the braking zone while Verstappen had to try to manoeuvre his way around both. The Dutchman ultimately missed the turn and had to take to the run-off area.
Bottas almost moved right into the lead with a bold move around Hamilton’s outside, but Finn went in too deep — he blamed a bee striking his visor as he tried to judge his braking distance — and had to consolidated second.
It was good enough to inherit the lead after Hamilton took his stop on lap 16, from when the clear air was crucial to him maximising his car pace advantage over Verstappen to ensure the Dutchman could offer no threat to victory.
Hamilton’s early stop and two penalties dropped him from the lead to 11th on lap 16, but it’s hard not to think even his compromised race wasn’t maximised.
The team appeared to stop Hamilton too early. Lap 16 was his preordained pit window, but a five-lap safety car deployed shortly after the race started should have been enough for the team to extend closer to lap 20.
Stopping after only 11 racing laps meant that not only was there life still left in the tyres, but the field had had five fewer laps to spread out and create a gap for him to pit into.
Hamilton himself begged his team to extend his first stint. Had he made it to lap 20, his stop — totalling a little less than 40 seconds thanks to the penalty — would have dropped him to fifth rather than 11th. He would have had 10 seconds of clear air to Daniil Kvyat and Charles Leclerc ahead, who would have likely stopped before he reached them anyway.
He would have been able maximise those fresh hard tyres to try to put himself inside Verstappen’s pit window — as it was, Verstappen emerged from his stop on lap 25 only five seconds up the road. Five seconds is roughly the time Hamilton lost to the two leaders between his stop and theirs.
That Bottas was a further 10 seconds up the road from Verstappen at his first stop only puts into context that the Hamilton should have been at least in victory contention without his 10-second penalty.
So why did Mercedes make an early stop?
This being a one-stop race at a circuit around which passing is difficult, it was crucial that Hamilton not be accidentally undercut by a midfield car at his own stop and wind up behind a slower driver.
Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo stopped early, on lap 15, and though he was well out of undercut range, the prospect of the rest of the midfield following suit and finding improved pace just as Hamilton might have been set to hit a performance cliff on used tyres was enough for the team to make the call and cut his losses.
It guaranteed he had to pass only one car on track, with the rest eventually pitting out of his way, but meant third was his maximum result.
After a shocking first lap for McLaren the battle for fourth boiled down to Sergio Perez and the two Renault drivers, but it was decided by Ferrari.
Perez had a poor start, dropping to sixth behind Esteban Ocon in fourth and Ricciardo in fifth. Ricciardo, feeling his rear tyres beginning to expire, stopped on lap 15 and lost time stuck behind Kimi Raikkonen, allowing Ocon to easily cover the potential undercut on lap 18.
Perez, meanwhile, renowned for his delicate touch with the tyres, stayed out.
Ricciardo got past Raikkonen to shadow Ocon but both became stuck behind Sebastian Vettel in seventh, who was on a long first stint on the medium tyre.
There they were stuck, the German, having started a miserable 14th, acting as a roadblock to the benefit of teammate Charles Leclerc who running third and was yet to pit.
Renault ordered Ocon let Ricciardo by to try to get past Vettel. They swapped on lap 25 and the Australian got through two laps later. It was just in time — Leclerc stopped on lap 28 and slotted into sixth between the two yellow cars, just two seconds behind Ricciardo and two ahead of Ocon.
It was job done for Ferrari and Leclerc, but the real winner was Perez. The Mexican had stayed out til lap 20, when both Renaults were still stuck behind Vettel, and rejoined barely two seconds ahead of the struggling Ferrari, pulling off the overcut.
Perez stretched that to more than 10 seconds by the time Ricciardo broke past Vettel, and with fresher tyres, the Racing Point driver’s job was done, securing fourth place.
Daniil Kvyat was a midfield standout as the highest-placed driver to score points on the hard-medium contrastrategy. The Russian started his home race 11th and ran until lap 30 before switching to mediums, emerging eighth behind Ocon.
He was faster than the Frenchman, but not by enough to make a move stick or force a mistake, and he crossed the line less than a second in arrears.
Pierre Gasly had an eventful end to the race battling with Alex Albon. The AlphaTauri driver was running ninth ahead of Lando Norris when a virtual safety car — called to replace the bollards at turn two after Romain Grosjean had crashed through them — gave his team an opportunity to make what it thought would be a free change for fresh rubber.
But the intervention was brief, dropping him instead to 11th behind Albon and Norris. Fortunately the fresh-rubber advantage was enough for him to muscle past Albon, who last stopped on lap 27, and he got past Norris when the Briton’s 46-lap-old hard tyres finally gave up, forcing the McLaren driver into an emergency late stop.
The net effect was Gasly recovered the position he lost to the late stop, albeit with a likely higher heart rate than would otherwise have been the case.
Valtteri Bottas: medium (used) to lap 26, hard (new) to lap 52.