Lewis’s to lose

F1 Racing - - FINISHING STRAIGHT -

Hamil­ton left Sochi 66 points clear of his near­est ri­val. He could al­most touch that third cham­pi­onship

The sun was about to set on Sochi when news ltered through that Kimi Räikkö­nen had been given a 30-sec­ond penalty for his clash with Wil­liams’ Valt­teri Bot­tas. This dropped Räikkö­nen’s Fer­rari from fth to eighth, los­ing him the six points that would have kept Fer­rari – just – in con­struc­tors’ cham­pi­onship con­tention.

Mercedes were the benecia­ries, and were duly crowned cham­pi­ons af­ter their ri­vals had al­ready left for their ights home. In Toto Wolff’s own words, it was a “bit­ter­sweet” week­end for Mercedes. Lewis Hamil­ton had won com­fort­ably, tak­ing his 42nd grand prix win, but his team­mate Nico Ros­berg (who’d looked quicker all week­end) re­tired in the early stages, which ef­fec­tively ended his ti­tle chal­lenge.

“I had so many com­ments be­fore the race ask­ing me if we’d printed cham­pi­onship-win­ning T-shirts,” said Wolff, be­fore he knew of the stew­ards’ de­ci­sion. “But the T-shirts will go back into the box and they go back home. We’ll un­pack them once it’s done.”

Had Ros­berg not re­tired and had both Mercedes nished one-two as looked likely early on, team cel­e­bra­tions would have been in full swing late on Sochi Sun­day. But Ros­berg did re­tire, from the lead on lap 8, due to a mal­func­tion­ing throt­tle that re­fused to re­turn to ‘zero’ when he lifted off.

As the Mercedes driv­ers left the start­line, Ros­berg found him­self on the in­side, but as they ap­proached Turn 1, he judged his brak­ing to per­fec­tion to stay ahead of his team-mate. Lewis was back on the at­tack at Turn 3, but then their race was cur­tailed when the Safety Car was de­ployed fol­low­ing a rst-cor­ner shunt fur­ther down the eld. Force In­dia’s Nico Hülken­berg had spun into the path of Max Ver­stap­pen, punc­tur­ing the left rear of the Toro Rosso, and was col­lected by the Sauber of Mar­cus Eric­s­son.

The Safety Car stayed out for three laps, but Ros­berg could feel that lazy throt­tle wors­en­ing as the pack toured slowly. Back at race speed, it left him un­able to con­trol his W06. Hamil­ton soon passed him for the lead and Bot­tas fol­lowed. One lap on, Ros­berg pit­ted, his bid for the ti­tle ef­fec­tively over. The once-bul­let­proof W06 had now failed to nish in three of the last four races.

“Af­ter the restart, the prob­lem with the throt­tle occurred and from then on I couldn’t come off throt­tle any more,” said a dis­con­so­late Ros­berg. “I was cor­ner­ing with the throt­tle on and try­ing to take my leg off the pedal, but then my knee would come up and I couldn’t steer. It’s tough, af­ter such a strong week­end. I was look­ing to close the gap to Lewis, so it’s very dis­ap­point­ing.”

With Ros­berg out, Hamil­ton’s run to the ag was com­fort­able, de­spite a late drama with a stalling rear wing, no­tably when he was in trafc or us­ing DRS. “I’ve been in­cred­i­bly grate­ful for the car hold­ing to­gether,” he said post-race, “and in the last few laps I was just rub­bing the cock­pit.” Turn­ing to look at Se­bas­tian Vet­tel, he added: “You know what it’s like when you’re just hop­ing the car holds to­gether.”

“I wasn’t rub­bing any­thing in the last couple of laps…” Seb twin­kled.

From fourth on the grid, Vet­tel had fought to sec­ond, thanks to a strat­egy that kept him out ve laps longer for his sole stop than the Wil­liams and let him re­join ahead. The nal podium po­si­tion would thus be­come a duel be­tween Bot­tas and his Fin­nish com­pa­triot Räikkö­nen… but there was an in­ter­loper.

On lap 12 the Safety Car was de­ployed once more, fol­low­ing a heavy crash for Ro­main Gros­jean. He’d lost con­trol of his Lo­tus at Turn 3, at 160mph, and con­nected hard with the bar­ri­ers, break­ing his seat in the im­pact. He was okay, but it took time to clear up the in­ci­dent.

At that mo­ment, four driv­ers de­cided to make their manda­tory stop: Ser­gio Pérez, Daniel Ric­cia­rdo, Car­los Sainz and Jenson But­ton all changed from su­per­softs to softs. One lap later, Fer­nando Alonso pit­ted, switch­ing from the soft to the su­per­soft. Their plan was to run the nal 40 or so laps with­out stop­ping again.

As the fron­trun­ners even­tu­ally made their own reg­u­lar stops later in the race, Pérez found him­self in third. His chal­lenge: keep the faster, gain­ing Wil­liams and Fer­rari be­hind him. This he did with con­sum­mate skill, but by lap 52, there was sim­ply no grip left on his hard-worked Pirellis to al­low him to re­pel his ag­gres­sors.

Bot­tas passed Pérez into Turn 13 and Räikkö­nen nipped through too. A podium nish for Force In­dia seemed to have been snatched away. But on the nal lap, Räikkön­nen lunged at Turn 4, lock­ing up his front right, un­der­steer­ing into Bot­tas and tak­ing the Wil­liams out of the race. Sus­pen­sion de­ranged, Räikkö­nen was a sit­ting duck for Pérez, who re­claimed P3.

Other benecia­ries were Felipe Massa, who in­her­ited fourth, and Daniil Kvyat, who took fth for Red Bull, his team-mate Ric­cia­rdo, an ear­lier con­tender for third, hav­ing re­tired on lap 47 with sus­pen­sion trou­ble. Sauber’s Felipe Nasr was sixth, ahead of Lo­tus’s Pas­tor Mal­don­ado.

With Räikkö­nen pe­nalised to P8, McLaren were set for a dou­ble points nish, but Alonso re­ceived a ve-sec­ond penalty for ex­ceed­ing track lim­its, so Max Ver­stap­pen took the re­main­ing point. His Toro Rosso team-mate Car­los Sainz had im­pressed, and was due to bag P7, but re­tired with a failed left-front brake disc, caused by over­heat­ing due to blocked brake ducts.

No such trou­bles aficted Hamil­ton, serene in the lead. With a 66-point buf­fer to Vet­tel in the driv­ers’ cham­pi­onship, he left Sochi look­ing all set for an Austin corona­tion.

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