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
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..
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.
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