Russian Grand Prix: A dollop of luck for Mercedes

Mercedes knew their best chance to beat Ferrari in the Russian Grand Prix race was to do something different and hope for a slice of luck.

Lewis Hamilton now has a commanding 73-point lead over teammate Valtteri Bottas in the drivers’ championship.   -  Getty Images

The Russian Grand Prix was a classic case of Ferrari snatching defeat from the jaws of victory! There will be a glum mood in Maranello after the red cars started off looking very comfortable and set for another one-two, only to end up with a solitary third place while their silver rivals lapped up another maximum points score.

Charles Leclerc was in brilliant form all through the weekend. In the practice sessions, the lap times seem to come effortlessly and it really looked like he would have no opposition in qualifying. He duly delivered his sixth pole position of the season, with Sebastian Vettel not really close enough to challenge and it took one of those special Lewis Hamilton qualifying laps where he had to dig really deep to get the Mercedes onto front row.

The rundown to the first braking zone in Sochi is one of the longest of the season. Therefore, a bit like Spa-Francorchamps, starting on pole position isn’t always the place to be as it means that you’re the one cutting a big hole in the air for the cars behind. Ferrari obviously knew this, and from what Mattia Binotto explained to the media, it seems like they had an agreement where Leclerc would stick to the path on the left of the track to give Vettel a tow past Hamilton and ensure that the Ferraris came out of the first sequence of corners in first and second, allowing them to control the race and strategy. This was a logical thing to do for the team.

After dropping behind Lewis Hamilton after the safety car period, Ferrari made a bit of a desperate bid by bringing Charles Leclerc in for another set of tyres, giving up track position to Valtteri Bottas.   -  AP

 

The situation was complicated when Hamilton made a poor getaway, so Vettel jumped him straight away. This meant that the German was comfortably able to tow up to Leclerc and move to the right to get past his young teammate. If Lewis was on the right, then Seb wouldn’t have been able to go there and we would have probably ended up with Leclerc ahead of Vettel and then Hamilton.

Once Sebastian got in front, we started to see shades of the Vettel of old. Out in front, at one with the car, attacking the corner entries with that confident and feisty steering input that has been missing for a lot of this season. Ferrari made the phone call to swap positions, but Sebastian I think made the right call to say that they should wait as they were pulling away from Hamilton. He was in a good rhythm and just needed Leclerc to go with him.

I think at that point Charles’ chin dropped a bit. He was getting frustrated that they weren’t swapping positions and then he started to drop back, suffering tyre degradation. Vettel’s lead had hit 3.5 seconds over his teammate, and when they called Leclerc in first, we understood that they were effectively going to let Charles undercut his teammate and swap them back. Why the team didn’t just make that clear from the start is confusing. By lap five, it was clear that Vettel had good pace and Leclerc was on the radio complaining about not being swapped back. If they just made it clear to Charles that they would orchestrate the swap at the pit stop, he wouldn’t be driving around frustrated and confused about why he wasn’t being let into the lead.

Ferrari’s day fully unravelled when Vettel’s hybrid system had a failure, causing him to stop at a part of the track where there was no easy way to recover the car.   -  Reuters

 

In the end, they did swap around at the pit stops, but Ferrari’s day fully unravelled when Vettel’s hybrid system had a failure, causing him to stop at a part of the track where there was no easy way to recover the car. Mercedes had opted for the alternative strategy knowing that they were unlikely to outqualify Ferrari, so their best chance to beat them in the race was to do something different and hope for a slice of luck.

That large dollop of luck came when one Ferrari dropped out and caused the virtual safety car that allowed Lewis to pit and come out in front of the other one, the time lost for a pit stop under the VSC being about half as much as under green-flag conditions.

Having lost the lead, Ferrari made a bit of a desperate bid by bringing Leclerc in for another set of tyres, giving up track position to Valtteri Bottas, which seemed to me like a strange thing to do. The track in Sochi is really not very good for racing. As a side note, I would love to have a go at working with some circuit designers and redoing the track to make it better for overtaking and easier to follow other cars. There are way too many similar-style medium-speed corners where the cars can’t follow each other, and it just creates very dull racing. It’s very hard for the drivers to follow each other in the final three corners, so they can’t get a proper slipstream down the start-finish straight either. The fact that Leclerc was stuck behind Bottas, who was nowhere as quick all weekend, showed that they really need to do something with the layout there. All those tarmac runoffs, especially at turn two, make it a bit of a mess too, and I could understand Kevin Magnussen’s frustration at getting a penalty at the end. It’s just a corner with no good solution apart from gravel!

I thought Carlos Sainz once again did an outstanding job. McLaren were all over the place on that Friday, but I was massively impressed with how the team knuckled down and worked hard to find a set up that brought them back into play on Saturday and then had a very good race on Sunday. The only reason he was beaten by Alex Albon at the end was because the Red Bull was able to close up under the safety car.

Off to Suzuka in Japan next, and I’m fascinated to see just how things play out. Honda will be throwing everything at it for their home race, Ferrari will be keen to show that the progress they’ve made in terms of aerodynamics works on a true aero track, while Mercedes will want to break the momentum that Ferrari have built up in terms of qualifying pace in the past four races.