When Michael Schumacher retired from Formula One — first in 2006 and then later in 2012 after a brief return for three years — it seemed unlikely that his record of 91 wins would be broken in less than a decade.
Yet last year at the Portuguese GP, Lewis Hamilton got his 92nd victory. Since then, the world of F1 had been waiting for when he would hit the 100-win mark.
Even as he quickly racked up seven more wins, the reigning champion has had to wait a while for the milestone since his 99th win at the British GP in July this year.
And for about 48 out of 53 laps in Sochi, it looked like he would have to wait for another race as he saw McLaren’s Lando Norris get so close to his maiden GP win.
However, in the final moments of the race, things took a gloomy turn for McLaren as rain started to fall at the Sochi Autodrom.
As Norris and McLaren gambled on staying out on dry tyres on an increasingly wet track, Hamilton and Mercedes made the right move at the right time to help the reigning champion create history by becoming the first driver to score 100 Grand Prix wins.
It was known, heading into the weekend, that there were high chances of rain.
The final Free Practice session was cancelled due to rain on Saturday but the Qualifying got underway on time.
In the first two parts of the one-hour session, drivers used intermediate tyres to get through. In the final part of qualifying — the top 10 shootout — the rain eased after most drivers set their first times on inters with Hamilton on provisional pole.
Then few drivers like Norris, George Russell, and Carlos Sainz timed the switch from intermediate tyres to dry weather tyres perfectly, allowing the McLaren driver to take pole position. Hamilton, meanwhile, had a messy lap and could only finish fourth as he spun on his final lap.
Pole position in Sochi is not the best place to start the race as the long straight allows drivers behind to slipstream past the leader into turn two and it was what happened as Ferrari driver Sainz breezed past Norris to take the lead.
However, the Ferrari could not maintain the pace to stay ahead without losing tyre performance and Norris was able to regain the lead on lap 13.
Hamilton had an even poorer start, slipping to seventh, before finding his way back once the cars ahead of him pitted for new tyres.
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After the first round of pit stops, Norris led Hamilton by a comfortable eight seconds. In the final third of the race, Hamilton reeled in quick times and got within two seconds of Norris but struggled to get close after that.
Just as the race was coming to a close, the teams knew that a band of rain was about to hit the track, but no one knew the intensity and how long it was going to last.
The predicted rain arrived on lap 47 and the decision that beckoned the teams was whether to pit for intermediate tyres — hoping it continues to rain — or stay on dry tyres and wait for the showers to pass by.
It was here that McLaren failed to read the conditions and be decisive about their calls, paying the price as Norris threw away his first win to finish seventh.
When the first band of rain hit, drivers down the order took a gamble to pit for intermediate tyres, notably Valtteri Bottas, who was running outside the top 10. Immediately, based on his timings, it was evident it was the quicker tyre.
But just as that first spell eased out, Mercedes insisted Hamilton stop on lap 49. The team knew another band of rain was heading towards the circuit, even though the driver wanted to stay out.
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Meanwhile, Norris, thinking the rain was about to ease, refused to stop and the team failed to feed him the information about the next band of rain.
The lack of assertiveness from the team to Norris, like Mercedes did to Hamilton in the end, proved to be its undoing.
Driving F1 cars with dry tyres on a wet surface is like sliding on ice. As the intensity of rains increased, Norris spun facing the wrong way before crawling to the pits to change tyres on lap 51.
By then, the damage was done as Hamilton took the lead of the race with ease and created history when the chequered flag fell.
On Saturday, an early switch to dry tyres helped Norris claim his maiden pole, but on Sunday, the hesitation in changing tyres at the right time undid all the good work.
Even as Hamilton celebrated his 100th win by regaining the lead of the championship, the big gainer was his title rival Verstappen.
Sochi is a circuit in which the Red Bull was not quick enough to challenge the Mercedes. So Red Bull took a new Power Unit outside of the allocated three for the Dutch driver to see him through the rest of the season, forcing him to start from last.
Verstappen charged his way through the field to run in the top ten and was on course for a sixth or seventh-place finish. However, when the rains came, he was among the first to change tyres on lap 48. It allowed him to leapfrog to a surprising second place, but nearly 50 seconds behind Hamilton.
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It was always going to be a damage limitation exercise for Verstappen in Russia and the rain gods did him a favour that allowed him to be on the podium.
With the remaining tracks set to favour the Red Bull car marginally, the 24-year-old will be feeling good about his chances for a maiden title, setting up for an exciting final seven races of the season.