Aka, Duncraig Dan 2021, Chapter 15: How Mercedes are still unbeaten in Russia after 108 years
Images/GIFs belong to Formula One Management/Liberty Media
Get ready everyone, for a summary of the wildest ending to a race with changing weather since the 2008 Belgian Grand Prix:
As he had done most of the afternoon from his maiden pole position, McLaren’s Lando Norris led the Russian Grand Prix by just over a second from Lewis Hamilton, with Norris on course for his maiden Grand Prix victory, and Hamilton pursuing his milestone 100th win.
But, as forecast, the rain had finally arrived in Sochi and parts of the track were becoming slippery, right as Sergio Perez passed Carlos Sainz for 3rd down the back straight, Fernando Alonso had just passed Daniel Ricciardo for 5th, and Max Verstappen, after starting 20th due to taking on a fresh engine, had made up huge ground to 7th on Medium tyres that were nearing the end of their life, Charles LeClerc was 8th in the sister Ferrari, and the Aston Martins of Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel were 9th and 10th.
This weather event was also noteworthy, as there’d never been a wet running of the Russian Grand Prix in the 7 editions of the race.
The first drivers to react to the changing conditions were George Russell (11th), Kimi Raikkonen (13th) and Valtteri Bottas (14th) – Between the three of them, Russell told his engineer to “Get the Inters ready” and was the first driver in the field to get proactive, Raikkonen made the decision to pit by himself and forced Alfa Romeo to get ready for him, which is Kimi being Kimi, and Bottas came in after being told to stay out one lap earlier, a decision that would later cost the Mercedes driver a miracle shot at a podium.
Yuki Tsunoda would also pit at the end of the lap and dropped to 17th, but for some inexplicable reason, AlphaTauri put him on the Soft tyre, only for Yuki to realise the track was way too slippery, and he would be back in 2 laps later with his tail between his legs.
So at the start of Lap 48, the order looked like this:
Hamilton received the initial message from engineer Peter Bonnington to box for Inters on Lap 49, but Lewis probably trusted his 15+ years of wet weather experience and stayed out (“It’s stopped raining man!”), while Norris, relatively inexperienced in wet conditions, slid off again, but maintained the lead.
Considering the race was being run in a Winter Olympic host city, perhaps it was fitting that the track was starting to resemble an ice skating rink.
Aston Martin noted to Sebastian Vettel that the rain was going to get worse and that they should consider a tyre change, but right as Vettel got that message, he banged wheels with teammate Lance Stroll at Turn 10:
Stroll then gave Pierre Gasly a love tap and put the AlphaTauri in a spin, then the Canadian, right as he said he could continue on slicks in the conditions, fell out of the points for good after sliding off at Turn 7 with a damaged front wing, making light contact with the barrier in the process, but luckily he was still able to continue:
Somewhat hilariously, Stroll asked to pit for slicks, despite the fact he’d just slid into the wall as a result of being on slicks, but AM overruled him and switched to Inters, but the time loss from those incidents would cost Stroll dearly.
Still down in 7th, Verstappen, who has a reputation as a four-wheeled Pieter van den Hoogenband, decided to stay out driving on slicks on the wet track, and he passed both Sainz and Ricciardo, who both went off the track, to move up to 5th:
The combination of losing time and seeing drivers sliding off led to Max’s radio call to change on to Inters, and as fate would have it, Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren would all make tyre changes at the end of the lap, with the three drivers emerging with an 8 second gap to Bottas.
Three decisions that would pay huge dividends for all three drivers, Verstappen especially, while down in 12th, Esteban Ocon had the chance to pit at the end of Lap 48, but he told his engineer that the track wasn’t wet enough yet.
If he had, there’s a chance Alpine could’ve had a double points finish.
McLaren asked Norris “What do you think about an Inter?” but the response was a clear “NO!” from the race leader, while conversely, after being told explicitly by Bono there was more rain coming, Hamilton finally pitted for Inters from 2nd place at the end of Lap 49:
So while Hamilton and Mercedes made the right move, McLaren and Norris made the fatal error of staying out on a deteriorating track, albeit with a 25.8 second lead, and the danger signs were there for McLaren when Nikita Mazepin, in the Haas, on the Inters, was able to comfortably un-lap himself down the back of the circuit, as the race leader started to resemble, as David Croft described him, “Bambi on ice.”
McLaren had already lost the race… they just couldn’t accept it yet.
Verstappen, Sainz and Ricciardo all passed Vettel, who had tried staying out on Hard tyres, a fight he lost in a 1st Round knockout when it began raining even harder, while Perez, Alonso and LeClerc all decided to stay out for another lap, which led to Alonso and Perez exchanging 3rd place on track as the Inter runners started to mow them down.
At the end of the lap, Verstappen had moved up into 3rd place after passing the slick tyre trio before the penultimate corner, which led to Perez and Alonso finally pitting, but following some indecisive discussions with his engineer, LeClerc made his own call to stay out on Mediums, which led to the Ferrari plummeting out of the points altogether after the Monegasque driver could barely keep his prancing horse on the track.
So that meant Verstappen was now pretty much guaranteed a podium finish that at one stage looked as unlikely as an Oasis reunion, with Sainz and Ricciardo moving into the Top 5, while Bottas and Raikkonen’s ‘early’ wet tyre switch had propelled them up to 6th and 8th respectively.
More importantly, Norris’ lead over Hamilton was down to just under 15 seconds, but McLaren still didn’t pit the race leader, a move that cost Norris a guaranteed 2nd place finish, given he had been well over a minute clear of 3rd-placed Verstappen, with the time loss in the pits being roughly 26 seconds.
By now, the rain was so heavy that the cars were beginning to kick up spray, and in the moment that decided the race, Hamilton caught up to Norris by Turn 5, although it turned out Lewis never even needed to make a racing move for the lead, because Lando aquaplaned off the track and did a half-spin at Turn 5, just avoiding the barrier in the process!
That was the first time all afternoon that Hamilton had led the race…. He never looked back.
Completing this horrific turn of events for Norris, his 1 minute advantage over Verstappen was completely gone by the time he arrived at the pit entry to make the overdue change for Inters, by which point the horse had bolted so far that it was already in Turkey, and Norris dropped all the way down to 8th behind Raikkonen, and to add further insult to injury, the Brit crossed the white line on the pit entry and would’ve earned himself a slam dunk 5-second time penalty in dry running, but he ultimately got away with a reprimand due to the conditions, the fact that he’d slowed down considerably, and had only crossed the line due to losing control and sliding out of the pit entry.
If Lando was trying to take a leaf out of Brad Binder’s book from the Austrian MotoGP, then he was obviously reading the wrong book.
So all of those events for Norris now meant Hamilton had a whopping lead of 52.6 seconds to championship rival Verstappen, with the landmark 100th Grand Prix win for Lewis his for the taking assuming he could keep the Mercedes pointing straight, Sainz was back in the podium places a few seconds ahead of Ricciardo, with Bottas into 5th after looking set to miss the points not even 10 minutes earlier.
Meantime, some of the final slick tyre holdouts decided they’d suffered enough and stopped at the end of Lap 51, among them Ocon, Gasly and Giovinazzi, while LeClerc kept going, knowing he was already well and truly screwed no matter what he or Ferrari did.
After Norris finally changed tyres on Lap 51/52, LeClerc, who had already fallen a lap down just by losing so much time staying out on Slicks, made the final tyre change of the race, going to Inters with 1 lap to go, falling down to 15th after being in 8th prior to the rain hitting.
To me, it’s funny how Ferrari and McLaren basically made the same strategy calls on both their cars – On one hand, bringing in Sainz and Ricciardo for Inters with a few laps to go was a sensible decision and got them both into the Top 4, while LeClerc and Norris decided to make the ultimate gamble and stay out on slicks, and like a crap poker player, they both lost it all.
So the least eventful of the final 6 laps was the last lap of the race, with the only positional change in the Top 10 being Norris passing Raikkonen for 7th, and in what was the biggest race win (In terms of time) since Britain in 2008, Lewis Hamilton won the Russian Grand Prix, keeping up Mercedes’ perfect record in Sochi, and not only did the 7-time champion reclaim the championship lead, he could raise the bat for his landmark 100th Grand Prix victory!
53.271 seconds was the final gap from Hamilton to Verstappen, who had come from last on the grid to 2nd, a case of damage limitation that even Red Bull couldn’t have dreamed of, given Hamilton’s championship lead is only 2 points instead of being 10 if Max had finished 5th, while Carlos Sainz did convert his first career front row start to a third podium finish of the season.
There’s an odd stat that every time Sainz has finished on the podium, his current teammate Charles LeClerc hasn’t scored a point (Brazil 2019, Italy 2020, Monaco 2021, Hungary 2021, and now Russia 2021).
Daniel Ricciardo went from 6th prior to the rain to finish in 4th, just 3.2 seconds off the podium, Bottas gained 8 positions in the final 6 laps to finish 5th, although the Finn was still left wondering about what could’ve been if Mercedes had changed on to Inters 1 lap earlier…
Alonso’s great wet weather skills helped him save 6th place after stopping too late and missing the podium fight as a result, Norris was easily the biggest loser of the changing weather, Raikkonen returned to racing with his best result of the season, Perez fell from 3rd to 9th in the tyre changes, and after starting 3rd, George Russell ultimately finished in the Top 10 for the fourth time in 5 races, even if he couldn’t get the Inters to work.
So oddly enough, the conditions that helped Hamilton jump Norris to bring up the 100th win, also helped Verstappen keep the points loss in the Drivers’ Championship down to the bare minimum.
So from those final 6 laps and the switch from dry to wet
Biggest Winners = Hamilton & Verstappen
Big Winners = Sainz, Ricciardo, Bottas, Raikkonen, Russell.
Losers = Alonso, Ocon, Tsunoda, Gasly
Big Losers = Perez, Stroll, Vettel, LeClerc
Biggest Loser = Norris
Nothing: Giovinazzi, Mazepin, while Latifi & Schumacher both retired.
Before we finish, here’s the lap chart…. everything from Lap 45 onwards looks like the heart rate of every Formula 1 fan during the closing laps:
And finally, Lando….. Oh Lando, why didn’t you just pit when it rained?