Sochi 2021: The Russian Grand Prix Review

Lewis Hamilton makes history, Lando Norris shows his class, Max Verstappen has a ride to remember, and Mercedes is a tactical genius. Sochi was not expected to be a massively interesting race, especially because it was following up Monza but boy did it deliver a doozy. Three drivers in the top 6 of the driver’s championship (before the race) took grid penalties after getting new power units. The most interesting one of these being Valterri Bottas’ who took a penalty in the last race as well.

Friday

Even before the cars came out on the grid, the fans had a lot to talk about. Kimi Raikonnen was back after contracting COVID 19 before the race at Zandvoort, Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher confirmed their future at Haas, and Ferrari had confirmed that Charles Leclerc was taking an engine penalty. Bottas’ pace in Practice showed why Sochi is indeed one of his strongest tracks. He was the fastest in both the sessions but his teammate, Lewis Hamilton, was breathing down his neck with a gap of only two tenths in FP1 and four hundredths in FP2.

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Leclerc was showing his new engine off in FP1, finishing 4th by more than a second ahead of Sebastian Vettel who surprised many, himself included. Daniel Ricciardo was not having a good Friday, going 14th fastest in FP1 and 17th in FP2, which was quite a letdown as many were hoping that the win at Monza would lift his confidence and, in turn, make him go faster.

Antonio Giovinazzi triggered the only red flag of the race after crashing into the barriers on the exit of turn eight. Interestingly, Leclerc had spun at that very corner but was able to avoid the barriers. The pit entry saw some action as well this race with Norris and Lewis both clipping their wings while entering during the weekend.

Saturday

FP3 was canceled due to heavy rain in Sochi, which put a mild scare in our hearts whether we will see qualifying on Saturday or not. Thankfully the rain lifted, and we got to see quite a fascinating qualifying.

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The rain did mean that there were a few wet spots on the track and all the cars were on intermediates except for Fernando Alonso, who chose to go out on wets. He was unsurprisingly among the slower cars, but after a change of tires, he went 7th fastest in Q1. Though Valterri did well in the dry, in wet conditions Lewis showed his class and finished fastest in both Q1 and Q2. Gasly was showing great pace in Q1, but in, Q2 he encountered traffic, slowing him down, which meant he did not get to see Q3 for the first time since Silverstone.

Max Verstappen did not put up any time in qualifying as he was to inevitably start at the back of the grid, so to conserve the mileage on his engine, he only did at an out lap. Leclerc and Latifi didn’t set times in Q2 as well.

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Q3 at Sochi will be a memorable one as Lewis Hamilton crashed into the pit wall which led to him and Bottas only getting 1 flying lap in the end while the other drivers got 2. This meant that both the Mercedes were out of the top 3, which has not happened since the Styrian Grand Prix. Hamilton’s crash also meant that Lando Norris got his first-ever pole and Carlos Sainz started on the front row for the first time in his career and everyone’s favorite boy from King’s Lynn, George Russell, started P3 in a Williams. This meant that the front 3 were a Ferrari, a McLaren, and a Williams, for the first time since 2012.

Sunday

On a cold day in Russia, we had a beautiful race with 5 drivers using a new power unit and taking a grid penalty going to the back of the order. Verstappen, Leclerc, Bottas, Latifi, and Giovinazzi all took grid penalties and brought in new power units. What was surprising was that Bottas had already taken a grid penalty in the last race, this might have been a play by Mercedes to hold Verstappen up at the back, and if it were then it failed miserably as Verstappen got past Bottas with ease.

On the first lap, Sainz took the lead from his former McLaren teammate Lando Norris early on and led for a good 12 laps before Norris took his lead back. Charles Leclerc had a dream start after he jumped from 19th to 12th before even the first lap ended while Bottas and Verstappen had to slowly crawl up above.

Alonso traded places with a lot of people and went between the bollard which gave him an advantage but finished lap 1 in 6th place where he started the race, and eventually even finish the race.

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Mercedes pulled another tire bluff and this time on Dani Ricciardo after forcing him to pit, allowing Hamilton to go on the hunt to catch Lando Norris. Mercedes had a bad start, but they showed why they are seven-time World Champions and are tactically unparalleled in F1. Even during the end, while most drivers still wanted to risk going on Mercedes, brought their drivers in against their wishes as they saw the conditions getting worse. This was the difference maker as Hamilton worked with the team, but the inexperienced Lando went with his gut and it cost him his maiden win. You can love them or hate them, but Mercedes is inarguably the best team in Formula 1.

The rain in the last 3 laps reminded us of the 2008 Belgium Grand Prix where Lewis Hamilton fought off Kimi Raikonnen. In both the cases the other driver risked it on slicks and went off track, and lost out on a lot of points. The difference on Lewis’ part this time was that he got a new pair of inters which eventually turned out to be the right decision. Red Bull got Max in early as well, which allowed him to finish 2nd but the biggest advantage was undoubted to Valterri, who was in 14th with no prospects of gaining any points this race and ended up coming 5th while Perez, who was looking for a podium finish ending up in 9th. Among the carnage, Gasly and Stroll also collided which led to Stroll finishing 11th and Gasly managing a 13th place finish.

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The entire podium on the day was a thing of beauty, with Sainz giving one of his best performances, Verstappen charging like the bull on his car from the back of the pack into 2nd place, and Lewis Hamilton picking up his 100th Grand Prix victory. The Championship is as open as a 24/7 with only 2 points separating the 7 time World Champion Lewis Hamilton and the young gun Max Verstappen. The battle for 3rd place is leaning highly towards McLaren, with the British team having a 17.5 point cushion over Ferrari.   

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