“Unpredictable” is THE key word in Formula 1. After 2014’s inaugural event passed us by quietly after relatively dull action on track and with the sad uncertainty of the fate of Jules Bianchi after his tragic accident in Suzuka, Japan at the previous race, this year’s Russian grand prix at Sochi didn’t hold much promise.
The script was supposed to go one or two ways and something like this. Because Sochi is a similar track to Singapore in many respects, people one side of the fence believed that Mercedes would struggle for performance, particularly with their tyres, whilst the Ferrari’s would excel. People over the fence predicted a dull affair with the two Mercedes’ of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg duelling each other 30 seconds up the road ahead of a chasing pack; neither scenario rang true.
Practice and qualifying
The weekend started slowly…in fact, there was hardly a car to be seen in both Practice one (P1) and Practice two (P2) on the Friday due to an embarrassing situation where a service vehicle leaked diesel all over one part of the circuit. After drivers found the circuit to be too saturated to carry on, it began to rain heavily and this affected the latter part of P1 and P2.
In a frustrating couple of sessions for all involved and especially the paying fans, running was limited for a handful of laps for some of the cars. F1 is reliant on the weather and with dry conditions forecast for both qualifying and the race, the teams felt it unnecessary to risk component wear and potential damage by sending cars out onto a saturated circuit. Testing dry setups in a rain soaked practice session is counterproductive.
P3 on Saturday morning was much more interesting. Drivers managed to get stuck into some good running that saw Rosberg top the time sheets with the Williams of Valteri Bottas in 2nd. Hamilton could only manage 3rd whilst the Ferrari’s of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel were 12th and 16th fastest respectively.
The whole F1 fraternity held its breath once again when Carlos Sainz Jr had a massive head on accident at turn 13 where he bashed the barrier on the front left and torpedoed head on into the steel barrier at 100mph. The biggest safety concern was that he punched straight through the Tecpro safety barrier and then got the broken front end of his Toro Rosso jammed underneath the steel barrier behind it. Carlos had to be dug out of his cockpit but thankfully made a full recovery to race on Sunday; full credit to the efficiency of the survival cell on modern F1 cars.
Qualifying was proof that the drivers had endured limited running all weekend. Many of them, including the front runners of Hamilton, Bottas and Vettel all had “moments” where they struggled for grip on a “green” circuit and they all rued the fact that they could have gone faster. Nico Rosberg managed to achieve pole whilst championship rival Hamilton could manage only second. Hamilton enjoyed playing mind games where he declared that 2nd was probably the best place to start at this circuit and that he “wasn’t bothered” that he hadn’t secured pole position.
There was action from the warm up lap. Rosberg flew off down the circuit whilst the midfielders dawdled. This led to an uncomfortable warm up where the front runners had to wait for the field to catch up. The start was fairly straightforward. Hamilton got away slightly quicker than Rosberg and managed to pull ahead after slip streaming down the long curved straight. Rosberg bravely held the inside line and Hamilton sensibly yielded into turn 2 to retake the lead. Further down the field Nico Hulkenberg in the Force India over steered onto the outside kerb and spun, knocking Max Verstappen into the barrier with a rear puncture and also collecting the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson.
The ensuing safety car meant that the race was neutralised for 3 laps. Drivers complained that the safety car was going too slowly and they couldn’t warm their tyres effectively. The restart was just as chaotic as the actual start when a punchy Bottas blasted past Kimi Raikkonen to take 3rd at turn 2 at the end of the straight. This was a stark reminder that despite Ferrari’s new found pace in recent months, even a second grade Mercedes engine (that Williams use) was still clearly faster than the Ferrari engine.
Towards the end of lap 5 Rosberg reported a sticking throttle. He was asked to manage it but unable to slow the car down, particularly in the high speed sections, he quickly lost time and after a number of offs where Hamilton along with the remainder of the leaders over took him, he called it a day and retired. Unfortunate for him but a bad day at the office which, apart from further damaging his own world title challenge, it put the imminent award of a 2nd constructors title for Mercedes out of reach for this particular weekend if results remained as they did.
Hamilton controlled much of the race at ease at the front whilst the rest of the field enjoyed some interesting battles. Raikkonen seemed to be back on form and raced like a man possessed. At one stage he had the better of Vettel in the initial stages of the race but was soon overtaken. Raikkonen was very aggressive and least not towards his team mate who he squeezed uncomfortably close at one stage and almost made contact.
The McLaren’s of Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button enjoyed a better race, especially in terms of reliability. After some tough one on one battles, hard graft and benefitting from retirements, both drivers finished in the points with Button 9th and Alonso 10th; a tremendous effort and a great morale booster to the distraught team. Unfortunately, Alonso’s 10th position was taken away from him after he was penalised for cutting a corner.
Romain Grosjean and Carlos Sainz Jr suffered scary accidents resulting in retirements. Grosjean ran wide onto the marbles at turn 3 and at high speed which slammed him into the barrier. The force of the impact span him around twice, ripping the car to shreds before resting in a smouldering heap on the circuit.
Sainz Jr suffered a scary brake failure towards the end of what had been a good race for him, especially after being hospitalised the day before after his high speed accident. The tell-tale puff of black smoke in the braking zone and the inconsistent glow of the front left brake disc proved the game was up and he went off. Alarmingly, and perhaps stupidly, Carlos re-joined the track and drove at full speed before braking heavily and violently spinning off at the next corner. This time he was lucky and only reverse ended the barrier. Bizarrely he re-joined the track a second time, depositing broken pieces of rear wing and carbon fibre all over the track before being ordered to pull over and retire.
I’m a huge fan of Sainz Jr. He has a weight of expectation on his shoulders what with the reputation of his WRC ace father, Carlos Sainz Snr and his team mate, the young Max Verstappen is a special talent who receives a lot of positive attention. Despite all of this I believe that Carlos is just as good a driver as Verstappen and the pair are doing well. I think they each have their pros and cons. Verstappen is very naturally gifted but often shows immaturity in the way he communicates. Sainz Jr perhaps is a little less smooth on the steering wheel than Verstappen but is made of tougher stuff both mentally and physically. His father had the nickname “El Matador” after showing ridiculous courage by actions such as winning a rally with a broken ankle. It seems that Sainz Jr has inherited that particular gene.
I do think that Sainz Jr could have handled the very end of the race a little better. I am concerned at his behaviour and feel that he created a risk to others by attempting to get back on track with fried brakes. If his own feel/instinct in the car didn’t tell him to just park it after the initial failure, or if the wealth of alarms/lights on his dashboard didn’t tell him anything then his team should have done. His miraculous recovery to drive the day after his accident put him in hospital is nothing short of heroic, especially as he is a young rookie. On the flipside I simply cannot believe that he re-joined the track after a brake failure, not just once, but twice. It’s idiotic and hopefully something that he has learned from.
Perhaps the star of the show today was Force India’s Sergio Perez. Known as a master of tyre preservation from his days as a Sauber driver, Perez (who qualified 6th) managed to complete the race on one stop doing 40 laps on a set of prime tyres. He kept the chasing pair of Bottas and Raikkonen at bay for longer than expected but 1 lap from the end he fell victim to his poor grip and the pair mentioned.
Bottas and Raikkonen powered away leaving Force India to rue a 3rd ever podium for the small team…that was until Raikkonen’s persistent aggression changed things. After the pair of Bottas and Raikkonen passed Perez, the two were giving it their all. Bottas had been ordered to maintain maximum fuel flow and with the power disadvantage of the Ferrari all too obvious, Raikkonen had to act quickly. In the approach of turn 4, Bottas had the racing line and was making his way around the corner when Raikonnen came out of nowhere and slammed into the rear right of him, spinning him into the barriers and taking him out of the race. Raikkonen managed to limp home with sparks flying from his broken Ferrari whilst Perez cruised passed to claim his well-deserved podium.
Despite Hamilton enjoying a trouble free race for the most part there was brief cause for alarm at the end when he reported that the rear of the car felt strange. Data on the pit wall showed that there was an issue with the rear wing and he was told not to use DRS anymore. With a 15 second advantage over Vettel he slowed his pace and finished 5 seconds ahead to claim his 9th victory of the season.
Despite reliability improvements compared to last year, the Mercedes car is still hindered by odd little issues that manifest themselves into larger ones. Hamilton’s retirement in Singapore was attributed to a tiny metal bracket, whilst the throttle failure of Rosberg on Sunday was also a result of a small clip failing. They need to sort this.
This race had been a fantastic affair that was unexpected. It now has itself a reputation to uphold for the years to come. The layout of this circuit has led to some great racing this year, particularly the overtaking opportunities at turns 2, 4 and 13. Turn 3 is already beginning to establish itself as one of the legendary corners on the current F1 calendar. Will its reputation exceed the famous “Turn 8” at the Istanbul circuit in Turkey? (Now unfortunately left out of the championship calendar for the foreseeable future). We’ll have to wait and see, Thank you Russia.
With Rosberg retiring and Hamilton winning we were cheated out of what could have been an epic battle upfront, particularly judging by the intensity of the action on track elsewhere. Significantly, Rosberg dropped from 2nd to 3rd in the championship to Vettel, whilst Hamilton extended his title lead to 66 points. Hamilton now only needs to beat Vettel by 9 points and Rosberg by 2 to wrap up his 3rd drivers title in Austin. It’s fair to say that with Hamilton being an ace at the Austin, Texas track and with Rosberg likely to be faster than Vettel in the races to come, it’s highly likely that Hamilton will be crowned champion in a fortnight.
Hamilton has also beaten his hero’s, Ayrton Senna’s winning record and now equals Vettel with 42 victories. It’s looking likely that he will beat Vettel’s record by the end of this season. In 2016 there is a possibility that Ferrari could be closer to Mercedes. This is a mouthwatering prospect. With Vettel enjoying the better fortune over his team mate, next year could be the first year in a long time where two multiple world champions in different teams get the chance to go head to head to fight for a title. Another special milestone to keep them both motivated will be to score the second record amount of career wins over 4 time world champion Alain Prost with 51.
As fans we like to see a title race go to the wire but in all fairness, Hamilton has had enough heart in mouth moments in final race showdowns before. 2007’s gravel trap retirement towards the very end of the season at the Chinese grand prix shockingly prevented him from claiming the title in his rookie year. The famous final corner, last lap over take on Toyota’s Timo Glock in Brazil in 2008 was perhaps the most epic, whilst last year’s finale at Abu Dhabi was less harrowing but reliability concerns were raised after Rosberg cruelly suffered with problems. Hamilton has deserved the title this year and I don’t think too many fans would deny him a “smoother” attempt than he’s endured in comparison to other years.
Perhaps the most significant part of today’s events were the permutations for the constructors’ title. It looked as though Mercedes would have to wait for their 2nd successive trophy after Rosberg’s retirement, but in a weird twist of fate, Raikkonen’s collision with Bottas earned him a penalty in which he dropped to 8th in the race. Because Ferrari are Mercedes’ nearest challengers that meant that the loss of Raikkonen’s points now make it impossible for them to beat Mercedes with 4 races left.
Mercedes are deserving champions. Teams who dominate often become resented in F1 but nevertheless, you cannot deny Mercedes the accolades they deserve. They returned to F1 as a works team after 50 years in 2010 and since then have gently improved year on year. They coaxed 7 times world champion Michael Schumacher out of retirement to race for 3 seasons and his input was invaluable. With F1 heavy weights in Ross Brawn (who left in 2013), Toto Wolff, Niki Lauda and later Paddy Lowe at the helm, they enticed Hamilton to join with the prospect of success in the new hybrid era and have built their own success and dominated. They’ve worked the hardest and performed the best and are deserved winners, congratulations to them.