Valtteri Bottas has fond memories of Sochi, having earned his maiden Grand Prix victory at the Russian venue last year. But the Mercedes driver was asked to play the team game on Sunday, allowing Lewis Hamilton to ultimately claim a victory and extend his championship lead yet further over Sebastian Vettel. It was, by the Finn’s own admission, a result that, whilst great for the team, was difficult to accept…
Bottas, who’d captured a superb pole on Saturday and was searching for his first win of the season, was asked to cede the lead to Hamilton with less than half of the race completed as the Silver Arrows looked to inflict maximum damage on Vettel and Ferrari in the title race. The Finn selflessly obliged, sacrificing personal glory for a result that not only ensured Mercedes retained their 100% record in Sochi, but allowed Hamilton to stretch his championship lead over Vettel, who came home third, to a massive 50 points.
Hamilton, who, after falling behind in the pit stops, was forced to pass Vettel on track en route to what was his third victory in Sochi, later hailed Bottas ‘a real gentleman’, while Mercedes chief Toto Wolff also praised the Finn’s actions.
Behind the front three, Max Verstappen – celebrating his 21st birthday – starred, climbing from 19th on the grid to fifth in just eight laps, which soon became the lead when the tyre strategies began to play out.
The Dutchman ended up leading the most laps of anyone, but ultimately came home fifth, behind the second Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen but ahead of his Red Bull team mate Daniel Ricciardo. Unsurprisingly, Verstappen also picked up Driver of the Day honours with a huge majority.
Sauber’s Charles Leclerc was another to shine, the future Ferrari driver finishing seventh ahead of Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, while the Force India pair of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez kept their noses clean this weekend to round off the top ten.
How the race unfolded…
Having slipstreamed into the lead from P3 on the grid last year, Bottas knew he needed to get off the line well – and that he did, with Vettel mounting an attack on Hamilton for P2 until the Briton picked up a tow from his team mate and stood firm into Turn 2 to keep the German at bay.
Behind them, Verstappen was on a mission. The Dutchman started 19th on the grid, having landing a hat-trick of penalties this weekend, but made up 10 places in less than three laps, slicing through the midfield order with ease.
But elsewhere in the Red Bull stable there was disarray as Toro Rosso endured a nightmare start. Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley suffered copycat spins early on, and the Italian squad soon retired both cars to the garage before five laps were up, with apparent brake issues on both machines.
By Lap 8, Verstappen had fought his way all the way up to fifth, behind both Mercedes and Ferrari cars. At this stage, Hamilton was hot on the heels of race leader Bottas, trailing his team mate by 1.4s, while Vettel loomed close in his title rival’s rear-view mirrors, 2s further back.
The Silver Arrows were the first frontrunners to roll the dice from a tactical point of view, bringing in race leader Bottas at the end of Lap 12 and replacing the Finn’s ultrasoft tyres for softs. Ferrari immediately hit back the following lap, calling Vettel in for the same tyre switch, with Hamilton following suit a lap later – a decision which went against the championship leader.
As Hamilton prepared to return to the track, Vettel came flying down the pit straight, and the German managed to get his nose in front going into Turn 2 to split the Mercedes.
‘Guys, how did that happen?’ Hamilton asked his crew despondently – but he wouldn’t be behind for long. Intent on quickly reclaiming his position, Hamilton almost ran into the back of Vettel heading down to Turn 2 on lap 16 as the Ferrari driver closed the door in no uncertain terms. The stewards investigated the incident but deemed no further action was required – and by that stage Hamilton had already got back through, the Briton diving inside his fellow four-time world champion at Turn 4 after a brilliant pursuit through the ultra-quick Turn 3.
That battle wasn’t the only one keeping fans on the edge of their seats, though. Force India, who had implemented stricter team orders after their Singapore saga, were finding it hard to get ahead of Haas’ Magnussen, all the while knowing they needed to up the pace to avoid being jumped by Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, who had started on soft rubber.
Perez, third in the queue behind Ocon, asked if he could pass his team mate and have a go at Magnussen. The switch would eventually happen, but not before an even more significant one…
That race-defining moment came on Lap 25, after Red Bull’s Verstappen inherited the lead when Ferrari pitted Raikkonen. The Dutchman was proving a distraction for the Mercedes pair, allowing Vettel to gain on them. And with Hamilton’s rear tyres beginning to blister, the call went in from the Mercedes pit wall to Bottas, asking the Finn to let his team mate past.
Bottas duly obliged, and that strategy was replicated by Force India moments later, with Ocon giving Perez a chance to fight past the Magnussen. Ultimately the Mexican was unable to do so, and after nine laps – on Lap 35 – the Silverstone squad gave the position back to the Frenchman.
Up front, Hamilton reported engine and tyre issues – but those concerns didn’t play out into anything significant, whose only concern was a half-move on Verstappen with 11 laps to go, which was repelled by the yet-to-stop Dutchman.
Hamilton finally had the lead for the first time in Sochi when Verstappen, having driven 43 superb laps on the soft rubber, came in to pit, the birthday boy returning to the action in fifth ahead of Ricciardo – who was given a new nose when he made his one and only pit stop three laps before his team mate.
Mercedes – knowing a race win for Hamilton was crucial for both championship quests – allowed their reigning world champion to keep top spot, with Bottas – who had asked if the positions would be reversed – forced to settle for second on a track he has enjoyed much success at.
Vettel came home where he started, and he now trails the Brit by 50 points with just five races of the season remaining…