Norris errs late to hand Hamilton the win.
Lewis Hamilton took his 100th career victory following a dramatic Russian Grand Prix that saw long time race leader Lando Norris make a crucial error in the rain to hand Hamilton a relatively comfortable win at the end. Hamilton’s championship rival Max Verstappen put in a strong drive and made the most of the chaos going on around him to finish a brilliant second after starting last. Front row starter Carlos Sainz scored another podium with a P3 finish.
McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo finished just outside the podium, fourth, while the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas had an impressive afternoon, climbing through the field to finish P5. Alpine’s Fernando Alonso, Lando Norris, Kimi Räikkönen, Sergio Pérez, and George Russell rounded up the points places.
Hamilton’s win sees him retake the championship lead, and Bottas’ charge through the field builds Mercedes’ lead in the constructors’ over Red Bull, with a 33 point lead. While Carlos Sainz’s podium helped Ferrari cut the gap to third placed McLaren, now trailing by only 17.5 points.
Rain was persistent throughout the weekend, even washing out FP3 but although gloomy, the showers stayed away at the start of the race. Maiden pole-sitter Norris got a good start, but front-row starter Carlos Sainz made the most of the slipstream from Norris to take the lead in the second lap. Hamilton also got off the line well but found himself squeezed out of the track and lost places, falling to seventh by the second lap. A fast starting Daniel Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso, and Lance Stroll all gained positions in the opening lap, seeing themselves in the top five. As good as the drama was upfront, it was similar at the back too. Hours before the race started, Mercedes announced Valtteri Bottas would also start at the back of the grid, as he will be taking a new power unit, and that left Bottas fighting Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Red Bull Max Verstappen at the back. Leclerc got the better start amongst the three and was up to P12 by the fifth lap with Bottas two places behind. Verstappen charged through too and was quickly on the tail of Bottas, and by lap seven, the Dutchman had no trouble sweeping past Bottas.
Sainz led up from, but it was Hamilton who was on a recovery drive after a horrible start, and the Brit knew, given Verstappen’s penalty, he could not afford to let a chance like this go. Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll, who had a smashing start, seeing himself run P4 for the opening few laps, was the first to pit on lap 13. As the rest of the teams were trying to get data about Stroll’s times on his new tyres, Norris attacked his former teammate on lap 14, and McLaren retook the lead from the Ferrari on the back straight before zooming away. Hamilton, meanwhile, had gotten past Ricciardo and was running in P3 and trying to catch Sainz. Daniel Ricciardo stopped on lap 24, and that let Hamilton after Norris with clear air in front. As soon as Hamilton had the McLaren of Ricciardo removed from his path, the seven-time world champion immediately got on the pace to chase down the leader and was lapping almost a second quicker than what he was doing behind Ricciardo. After two incredibly pacy laps on his starting medium tyres, Hamilton pitted on lap 27 and Red Bull reacted by bringing Verstappen on the same lap. Hamilton had a quick stop and joined in ninth, but Red Bull, who are known for the quick stops, had a slow stop that saw Verstappen join in 12th place, behind Ricciardo.
Within four laps, along with the drivers in front of him stopping for the scheduled stops and his incredible pace, Hamilton was back up to the fifth place and had reduced the gap to Norris to just seven seconds. By lap 35, Hamilton was P2, a mere four seconds behind leader Norris and his team egged him on by stating that he could win this over the radio. Verstappen, meanwhile found it hard to continue his charge as he found a blockage in the form of Fernando Alonso. The two time world champion was not going to make it easy for the Dutchman, and even though he didn’t have the superior machinery, Alonso showcased why he is the best in the business out there, not giving any opportunity to Verstappen to pass. By lap 40, Norris led from Hamilton, and a relatively dry afternoon was about to get wet as the teams conveyed to their drivers on track that there would be rain towards the end of the race. In about five laps, the rain did come and the track began to get wet, which meant the grip disappeared. Norris almost went off the track on lap 47 and was barely hanging on to the lead; both Norris and Hamilton were playing it out to see who pits first for a change of tyre.
Hamilton blinked first, though, coming in for the Inters on lap 50, but a comfortable gap to the third place meant he rejoined in second place, albeit 25 seconds behind Norris. Norris and his team decided not to come in and see out the race on the Mediums, which eventually was their downfall. On lap 51, Hamilton was already making the most of his Inters, cutting the lead down to 14 seconds as the rain started getting heavier. Eventually, Norris slid off the track, which allowed Hamilton to take the lead of the race while the rest of the field behind him were frantically calling their drivers in for the Inters. Norris swayed from side to side as he tried to make it to the pits. The chief gainer from this late chaos was Max Verstappen, who was a minute behind Hamilton and inherited the second position as Norris came in for his stop, with Sainz following the Red Bull. Hamilton eventually took a comfortable victory, but it wasn’t as easy as it looked.
Had Norris boxed earlier or had the rain not come, maybe Norris would have left Sochi with his maiden win but when the situation got tricky, it was the calm, composed and experienced head of Lewis Hamilton, who made the most of the situation to take the win. After qualifying P4, following a driver error from the Brit, Hamilton showed resilience to not give up and kept himself in touching distance of the victory and made the most of the misfortunes of others. That is what sets the seven time world champion aside from the others, he has been in multiple championship battles, multiple chaotic race finishes and he knows it all too well to know what is needed to be done when. Verstappen though will be incredibly delighted with a second place that sees him reduce the damage and probably would have never expected to finish on the podium after starting last.
The thrilling season continues in a fortnight as we head to Istanbul for round 16 of this incredible season that we are witnessing.