Lewis’s to lose
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 beneciaries, 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 trafc 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 beneciaries 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 aficted 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.