Lewis Hamilton is on pole to match Michael Schumacher’s record 91 Formula One victories, but his route to the front row was as tortuous as his path to the top step is shaping up to be.
The defining lap of Hamilton’s qualifying wasn’t his new track record to take pole, it was his first flying lap of Q2. The Briton was shod with the medium tyre, as was teammate Valtteri Bottas and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen, to set it as his race-starting compound after the soft proved delicate in the Sochi heat.
Mercedes comfortably had the pace to run the yellow tyre in Q2, and Hamilton duly set a competitive time, but his lap was deleted for exceeding track limits out of the last turn.
No matter. He returned to the pits for a fresh set of mediums and embarked on what was looking like a competitive time only to have his lap neutralised by a red flag called for a Sebastian Vettel smash.
Only two minutes and 15 seconds remained in Q2 and Hamilton hadn’t set a time.
He had just enough time to set an out lap, but there were several complications to overcome. The medium tyre needed specific preparation, which Hamilton could only get by starting at the front of the queue of drivers that would form in anticipation of the resumption, but queuing would send engine temperatures skyrocketing — the Mercedes engine, unlike its rivals, can’t be switched off and on with electrical power; it must be started in the garage.
Only the soft tyre would allow Hamilton to set a decent time without too much warm-up from the back of the queue. It worked — only just; Hamilton ran wide at turn two out of the pits and started his lap with less than two seconds remaining — but confirmed the soft as his starting compound.
Verstappen, starting from second, and Bottas, starting immediately behind from third, will both benefit from the medium tyre off the line, putting Hamilton at a strategic disadvantage — not to mention the difficulty of defending against the powerful lap-one slipstream from pole.
So while it looks like Hamilton’s job is half done, he has a battle on his hands to convert his qualifying dominance into a record-equalling victory.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 5.848 kilometres
Lap record: 1:35.761 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2019)
Track record: 1:31.304 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2020)
Lateral load: medium
Tyre stress: low
Asphalt grip: medium
Asphalt abrasion: low
Safety car probability: 80 per cent
Pit lane speed: 60 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 414.2 metres
Pit lane time loss: 24.852 seconds
Fuel consumption: 2 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C3 (hard), C4 (medium), C5 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.6 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.7 seconds
Hamilton will be eying a soft-hard strategy, which Pirelli actually rates as the fastest route to the flag, albeit without taking into account the time it might take the Briton to navigate through traffic.
The soft tyre is rated for only 12 to 15 laps, by which time there’s unlikely to be enough of a gap of the midfield to prevent Hamilton from dropping into a gaggle of cars he may not find easy to pass around this circuit — although, that said, his qualifying-topping speed trap data suggests he might back himself to run aggressively.
But even if he were to clear traffic with minimal delay, Bottas and Verstappen would still have the advantage of considering how all three compounds are behaving early in the race in forming the strategy for their first stops. Logically they’ll swap from medium to hard, but if the soft looks like it’s holding up better than expected, an extension to switch to the red-marked rubber late could be on the cards.
This in the first place assumed Hamilton is in the lead after the second turn — pole is a notoriously poor place to start in Sochi with the 800-plus-metre run from the start to the first braking zone.
In the past both Mercedes and Ferrari have attempted to coordinate their drivers at the start to ensure at least one of them ends up in the lead — Ferrari infamously moved third-placed Sebastian Vettel past polesitter Charles Leclerc and into the lead last year to prevent second-placed Hamilton doing likewise, although that plan unravelled in a scene of insubordination.
Might Mercedes attempt something similar? Bottas, starting third, is best placed to capitalise on Hamilton’s slipstream while also depriving Verstappen of the draft. Plan or not, he’s arguably favourite to find himself in the lead at the end of the first lap.
From there it may be a battle between the Finn and the Dutchman, and even if Hamilton is running out of sync, the absence of Verstappen’s teammate, Alex Albon, may again bite Red Bull Racing strategically. The Thai would’ve been the perfect spoiler for Hamilton’s strategy, but starting a penalised 15th leaves him destined to spend his afternoon battling midfielders, leaving Verstappen to fight with an arm behind his back.
That may be the only glimmer of optimism for Hamilton, who otherwise must overcome both tyre strategy and a slipstream disadvantage to win this race.