DIS­OR­DER IN THE AU­TO­DROM

The pres­sure of the ti­tle bat­tle told in Sochi as Mercedes in­ter­vened to hand Lewis Hamil­ton a win that by rights be­longed to team-mate Valt­teri Bot­tas

F1 Racing (UK) - - RACE DEBRIEF JAPANESE GP -

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff re­vealed he strug­gled to sleep the night be­fore the Rus­sian GP, wor­ry­ing about the po­ten­tial need to im­pose team or­ders. Will he lose fur­ther sleep now that he’s done the deed?

Valt­teri Bot­tas had out­qual­i­fied team-mate Lewis Hamil­ton and led the early laps from pole. But when a strate­gic er­ror put Hamil­ton un­der threat from his main cham­pi­onship ri­val, Fer­rari’s Se­bas­tian Vet­tel, Wolff had to call upon Bot­tas to sac­ri­fice his likely vic­tory for the greater good.

Hamil­ton took his eighth win of the year in Sochi, cross­ing the fin­ish line just 2.5 sec­onds ahead of Bot­tas, with Vet­tel in third. Team or­ders se­cured him a net gain of seven points over his ri­val with five races left. Nei­ther Mercedes driver was happy, but Wolff ev­i­dently de­cided the move was worth the con­se­quent crit­i­cism..

QUAL­I­FY­ING

The per­for­mance of the Mercedes in prac­tice on Fri­day af­ter­noon and Satur­day morn­ing sug­gested that the bat­tle for pole po­si­tion would come down to a straight fight be­tween the two sil­ver cars. And so it came to pass.

On his first run in Q3, Hamil­ton was quicker in the first and fi­nal sec­tors of the 3.6-mile lap, but Bot­tas held the ad­van­tage in the mid­dle sec­tor. The mar­gin be­tween the pair was just 0.004s in Bot­tas’s favour. Hamil­ton knew he had to dig deep to over­come his team-mate and when the pres­sure was on, he made a mis­take on his fi­nal run and lost the rear of his Merc en­ter­ing Turn 7: lap aborted. Mean­while Bot­tas im­proved and took his first pole po­si­tion since Aus­tria, and his sec­ond of the year.

The Fer­raris of Vet­tel and Kimi Räikkönen took up the sec­ond row (Vet­tel was 0.556s off Bot­tas’s pole time) while Kevin Mag­nussen equalled his best re­sult of the sea­son with fifth in the Haas. An­other im­pres­sive lap came from Charles Le­clerc, who was sev­enth in his Sauber.

Their per­for­mances were flat­tered some­what by the fact that the Red Bulls, Pierre Gasly’s Toro Rosso and the Re­naults sat out Q2. The rea­son­ing was that the Red Bull duo and Gasly were fac­ing grid penal­ties for power unit changes (Ver­stap­pen was also hit with a three-place penalty for fail­ing to slow for a waved yel­low flag for Sergey Sirotkin’s spun Wil­liams in Q1), while Re­nault wanted to en­sure they started out­side the top ten so they could run an al­ter­na­tive tyre strat­egy on race day.

RACE

As dis­cussed in Mercedes’ pre-race brief­ing on Sun­day morn­ing, both Bot­tas and Hamil­ton po­si­tioned their cars per­fectly off the start­ing grid. Their aim was to pre­vent third-placed Vet­tel from get­ting a tow and tak­ing the lead. As Hamil­ton ran in his team-mate’s slip­stream, he ex­pertly mus­cled the Fer­rari out of the way to snuff out any at­tack.

As the two Mercedes ap­proached the brak­ing zone for Turn 2, Hamil­ton pulled along­side his team-mate; but de­spite a late lock-up he wasn’t in a po­si­tion to chal­lenge for the lead. Bot­tas, Hamil­ton, Vet­tel and Kimi Räikkönen would re­main in their po­si­tions un­til the pit­stops.

So far so Sochi: a typ­i­cal tyre-man­age­ment grand prix around the Rus­sian re­sort. But it was dur­ing the pit­stop phase that Mercedes dropped the ball. Bot­tas pit­ted from the lead on lap 12 and switched from the hy­per­soft to the soft tyre, and Hamil­ton should have pit­ted the fol­low­ing lap – but, ow­ing to a com­mu­ni­ca­tion er­ror, he stayed out for one more tour.

“IN HIS BID TO GET PAST, HAMIL­TON HAD DE­VEL­OPED BLIS­TERS ON HIS TYRE. AF­TER A MOD­ICUM OF HAND-WRING­ING, WOLFF IN­STI­GATED TEAM OR­DERS AND DI­RECTED BOT­TAS TO MOVE ASIDE, IN EF­FECT SAC­RI­FIC­ING THE WIN

Wolff apol­o­gized af­ter the race, ex­plain­ing he was talk­ing to chief strate­gist James Vowles at the cru­cial mo­ment and they missed the op­por­tu­nity. Vet­tel did pit and when Hamil­ton fi­nally stopped a lap later, he found him­self be­hind the Fer­rari.

Re­al­is­ing their mis­take, Mercedes asked Bot­tas to slow down and back Vet­tel into Hamil­ton. On the ap­proach to Turn 13 on lap 15, Vet­tel was caught out and locked up, al­low­ing Hamil­ton to get a run on his ti­tle ri­val as they started the next lap.

Us­ing DRS, Hamil­ton closed on Vet­tel, but the Fer­rari moved to the mid­dle of the track, then moved again to the in­side to block the Mercedes in the brak­ing zone for Turn 2. Hamil­ton sim­ply fol­lowed Vet­tel around the out­side of Turn 3 and then out­braked him into Turn 4.

“Mercedes kept me out for an­other lap which I think was not the right de­ci­sion to make,” said Hamil­ton later. “Se­bas­tian came in, un­der­cut mas­sively, and I lost 0.6s or so. It was quite frus­trat­ing when I came out be­hind them both.

“I slip­streamed [Se­bas­tian] down to Turn 2 and pulled out. From my view, he moved and then moved again. At the time, if I didn’t brake I would have been in the wall and we would have crashed. It was a dou­ble move which we of­ten talk about, and that we shouldn’t do.”

In his bid to get past, Hamil­ton had de­vel­oped blis­ters on his tyre. Af­ter a mod­icum of hand­wring­ing, Wolff in­sti­gated team or­ders and di­rected Bot­tas to move aside, in ef­fect sac­ri­fic­ing the win. Max Ver­stap­pen was lead­ing on an al­ter­nate strat­egy run­ning long on softs, but when he pit­ted Hamil­ton was in the clear.

De­spite much crit­i­cism Wolff felt the de­ci­sion was right, since it put Hamil­ton into a 50-point lead over Vet­tel with five races re­main­ing.

“Look at Aus­tria, where we were 1-2 and we lost 43 points,” said Wolff. “I’ve seen freak re­sults be­fore in mo­tor rac­ing and it can hap­pen again. We can­not take our per­for­mance for granted for the rest of the sea­son.”

An early stop for Vet­tel (left) and an er­ror from Mercedes re­sulted in a suc­cess­ful un­der­cut for the Fer­rari driver (right) Hamil­ton quickly re­took sec­ond from Vet­tel (above) and, af­ter team or­ders, took the lead and the win from a dis­ap­pointed Bot­tas

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