If the Russian Grand Prix had been only 47 laps instead of the full 53, Lando Norris would have been heralded as having put in a complete weekend from qualifying to race to claim a sensational maiden Formula 1 victory over seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton.
Instead the final six laps saw the young Briton drop from a well-earnt lead down to the lower reaches of the points on his way to a dependent seventh place at the flag.
It was scant reward for his strong weekend to that point but a just result nonetheless: Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton had been more decisive at the crunch, even if only just, and reaped the rewards.
And for Hamilton the reward was great: his 100th Formula 1 victory, and a badly needed one in the context of the title race, which he now leads by two points.
But it’s hard not to think that Max Verstappen, second on the road, was the real winner in Russia. Having finally taken on a new power unit and served his back-of-grid penalty at a circuit Mercedes was expected to dominate, to finish second and minimise the damage to the greatest possible extent is a significant hurdle overcome in his bid for a first crown.
The weather in Sochi was the hinge on which the entire weekend turned, with both qualifying and the race affected by rain, albeit inversely.
Mercedes would have been hoping for a clean, straightforward weekend to land a decent blow in the title fight while Verstappen managed his penalty, and even in the wet of qualifying it looked set to do that — until wet turned to dry in Q3.
The final segment of qualifying started at the crossover point between intermediates and slicks, but whereas almost everyone else switched to softs after a single banker lap on wet rubber — George Russell, having no new inters left, didn’t even bother with a first timed lap — Mercedes played the session to cautiously. It prepared for a second flying lap on intermediates before finally realising it had to call in both its drivers, costing precious warm-up time in the chilly conditions.
And then things got worse: Hamilton lost control of the rear of his car entering pit lane and broke his front wing. The team obviously didn’t have a replacement nose ready on such short notice, and Hamilton and Bottas immediately behind him were cost yet more time as the team prepared a replacement nose.
The combination of all these things gave the two drivers just one warm-up lap on softs in the wet when others had two or even three, and resultantly Hamilton and Bottas qualified fourth and seventh respectively.
Lando Norris mastered the conditions to take pole ahead of Carlos Sainz, while George Russell, having spent the most time on slicks and therefore having built up the most temperature in them, outperformed his lowly Williams car to start third.
There was one further twist for Mercedes: Bottas was handed his second successive power unit penalty after the team found a problem with the engine he used in Monza two weeks ago, sending him to 16th after other drivers served an array of penalties.
The session itself may have presented as a disaster for Mercedes, but Hamilton fourth in the dry should have had little trouble winning the race nonetheless, and Verstappen starting at the back meant his points haul over his title rival was likely to be large anyway.
But overtaking was harder than expected for Mercedes. Most of the Sochi Autodrom does little to facilitate passing, with only the long front straight and the flat-out turn three giving cars a chance to run side by side. And in the cold weather grip was lower than anticipated, especially with the front graining experience on the medium tyre, exacerbating the understeer drivers get in the dirty air of leading cars.
That all conspired to leave Hamilton powerless to move forward in the first stint after dropping to seventh at the start. He recovered to third by lap 15 as Lance Stroll, Russell and then Sainz fought over the undercut, but he was then still caught behind Daniel Ricciardo, who lacked Norris’s ultimate pace and thereby allowed the younger Briton to build a handy lead.
Only when Ricciardo stopped on lap 22 was Hamilton able to unleash before his stop on lap 26, his tyres beginning to fade. Norris had no such tyre trouble, having benefitted from clean air for most of the race, and ran competitively until lap 28.
The pre-stop 13-second gap was reduced to eight seconds, and now on the hard tyre, which had shown itself to be much happier to take a beating, Hamilton closed that margin to less than two seconds with 15 laps remaining.
But passing remained hard, and Norris had been keeping some tyre life and fuel in reserve for a fight. Nine laps went by without a chance in the lead, Norris standing up to the challenge.
However, one final test was due for the would-be winner, and rain arrived with six laps to go.
At first it was only gentle and in the middle sector of the circuit. On balance slicks were still quick enough to beat inters on the balance of the track, and though Norris and Hamilton slipped and slide, neither desired a tyre change.
The band of rain passed, but behind it was a second downpour set to douse the track.
THE DEFINING MOMENTS
On lap 47 Mercedes brought Bottas in for intermediates. It was a somewhat speculative move given the radar wasn’t yet clear on how heavy the rain would be, but the Finn had been having a dreadful race and was bound to finish outside the points anyway, so he could at least serve as a useful data point at a minimum.
His lap times were good enough, and with a second band of rain now on the radar, Mercedes wanted Hamilton in on the following tour. But the Briton, seeing Norris squirm and having had several opportunities to get by already, ignored the call.
McLaren asked Norris whether he wanted to switch his slicks for intermediates, but the leader refused to sacrifice his lead when the weather appeared to be easing.
But his teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, did come in on lap 48. It was a self-initiated stop — the Australian was more than 45 seconds behind Norris on the road at that point and therefore hit the rain-affected part of the track as conditions intensified. To him the crossover point had clearly been reached.
Max Verstappen, just behind Ricciardo on the road, did likewise, and this was crucial to the outcome of the race. Mercedes had already been firming on its decision to order Hamilton into pit lane on the back of Bottas’s times, but with one eye on the championship picture, the team resolved it was better to throw away a potential victory if it meant staying ahead of Verstappen.
Hamilton relented and stopped at the end of lap 49. Norris, asked a second time if he wanted to change tyres, refused.
By then even Norris knew that the intermediates were probably faster, but were they fast enough to overcome time lost to a pit stop with the laps remaining?
On lap 51 he got his answer as he spun his car through the run-off zone at turn five and watched Hamilton cruise past. He boxed at the end of the lap and finished seventh at the flag.
In hindsight it was a clear mistake on the parts of both Norris and the team, but these calls are exceedingly difficult when you’re in the lead of the race, never mind on track for a first-ever victory. A leader has everything to lose and nothing to gain; the worst Hamilton would finish by pitting was second place.
But McLaren owns a greater percentage of the blame for lacking the forcefulness of Mercedes in the same situation and with the same data points. Both had their other cars on intermediates and could see the benefits, and both had the same radar information showing the second band of rain, even if any radar requires some interpretation.
Mercedes was prepared to order Hamilton into pit lane, McLaren wasn’t. Mercedes won the race.
VERSTAPPEN’S RISE FROM LAST TO SECOND
Though the rain decided so much of the finishing order, Verstappen deserves mention all on his own for being in a position to claim second in the late field jumble.
The Dutchman had started last on the hard tyre and had made ferocious progress through his first stint, rising to fifth before his first stop. Indeed he’s got as close to 2.5 seconds to Hamilton a little after lap 20, underlining how far into contention he brought himself.
For this he has George Russell and to a lesser extent Daniel Ricciardo to thank. Russell held third off the line in a Williams car that was slow for most of the lap but fast where it counted: down the straights. So slippery was his machine that no-one could pass him, meaning Hamilton and everyone else had to lap at a Williams-level pace for the first 13 laps, facilitating Verstappen’s rise.
Verstappen stopped on lap 26 and made similarly rapid progress in the first 10 laps on the medium tyre, but his charge quickly faltered afterwards. The medium tyre in the cool conditions wasn’t enjoying being put through its paces in traffic, and the Dutchman suffered the graining so many others had experienced earlier in the race, and he slipped down to seventh before the rain arrived.
Only an astute call to switch to intermediates at the right time saved his race.
THE BATTLE FOR THIRD
Completing the podium was Carlos Sainz, but the Spaniard was fortunate to secure the place after an early stop dropped him into the midfield and left him without the tyres to fight to the finish.
The lap-14 switch from mediums to hards while in second was to cover the Lance Stroll-initiated undercut from fourth place, the Canadian desperate to get ahead of the slower George Russell in third, who was proving hard to pass with unbeatable straight-line speed.
Sainz kept himself ahead, but he was dropped into the still congested midfield. Cutting through the midfield subsequently burnt up the best of his tyres, and though he rose back to third place well behind the lead battle, he was vulnerable to those with more balanced strategies.
Sergio Perez was the obvious candidate to deprive him of his fifth podium. The Mexican was on arguably the race’s best strategy, starting on the hard compound and running deep, until lap 36, before switching to the more delicate medium.
He was in the lead when he made his stop and should have jumped Sainz for third, but his tyre change was slow, and instead he dropped to fourth. Christian Horner insisted afterwards it wasn’t due to the technical directive that reduces the level of automation his team had perfected in recent seasons and instead down to the rear axle rotating during the change.
He eventually fought his way back to third place with a handy tyre offset, but he and the team decided to stay out during the rain until lap 50, splitting with the early-stopping Verstappen. It was too late for the conditions, and he finished ninth, promoting Sainz back into third.
Daniel Ricciardo had podium potential too, but the Australian has his push cruelled by a slow stop when pitting for the hard tyre from second place. Though off the pace of Norris in the lead, he was able to keep Hamilton at bay in the first stint, but the tardy tyre change dropped him into the midfield. By the time he recovered, Hamilton made his first stop and rejoined the race less than three seconds ahead.
With a quicker stop, Ricciardo would have been second battling Hamilton when the rain arrived, and it would have been interesting to see how McLaren would have dealt with the weather and the podium battle with both cars in contention.