Ferrari Pain Became Mercedes Gain
The F1 2019 Russian Grand Prix was held in a circuit carved through the venue of 2014 Winter Olympic Games situated in the famous Black Sea resort town of Sochi in Krasnodar Krai, Russia. It was the 8th running of the Russian Grand Prix, and the 6th time the event was staged at Sochi Autodrom. The circuit layout was again in favour of the Red cars, and they dominated the weekend through Friday, Saturday, and the early part of the race.
However, one car's failure became the perfect opportunity for the Mercedes pair, who grabbed it with both hands to score a 1-2 finish, with Lewis Hamilton winning the race. Hamilton extends his lead in the drivers’ championship equal to nearly three race wins with only five remaining in the season and the sixth title looking highly possible.
Thursday Pre-Race Preparations
The Russian Grand Prix has been a happy hunting ground for Mercedes, having won all previous five Russian Grands Prix. Coincidentally, Mercedes has also won the last five drivers’ and constructors’ championships. The Ferraris were pre-race heavyweights winning their fourth successive race because Sochi is a power-sensitive circuit where you need good straight-line speed and low aero drag, a perfect combination for Ferrari's SF 90.
Weather outlook for the weekend looked mixed with decent ambient temperature, but a probability of rain for Saturday was also predicted.
This is the sixth season with these hybrid power units, but teams still struggle to get the whole season done within the quota of engines allowed per season; such is the complexity and reliability of these power units. Robert Kubica (Williams) and Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) were to start the race from the back of the grid for taking extra power units components. Both Red Bulls and Pierre Gasly (Toro Rosso) received five-place grid drop for using additional power unit elements.
Friday practice one (FP1) saw Ferrari and Red Bull quite closely matched on pace with Mercedes, the third quickest team. FP2 was led by Red Bull's Max Verstappen followed by Charles Leclerc and two Mercs.
At the end of both practice sessions, it was clear that Ferrari was the team to beat over one lap regardless of what the timing screen showed. Sector times and speed trap figures showed Ferrari gaining nearly 0.8 sec on the home straight on top teams. Toro Rosso, Racing Point, and Renault were all covered within 0.1 sec, and McLaren had difficult Friday being the leading midfield team.
Race simulations once again proved the pure class of Mercedes when it comes to long runs. Their engine might not be the most powerful over one lap, but over a race distance, Mercedes engine is the most efficient. Ferrari and Red Bull very equally matched on race pace, setting a scene for an exciting race. McLaren and Racing Point were also equally matched on race runs, Renault 6th, Haas 7th and Toro Rosso 8th on the list. Alfa Romeo had a bad day at the office with the car showing no pace at all - they were 9th quickest just ahead of Williams.
Radars predicted that Saturday at the Sochi Autodrom would be wet, but Saturday remained dry, and teams got plenty of running in to validate changes they planned after Friday's running. Ferrari seemed to have gained more pace and looked favourites for another front-row lockout. The rest of the pecking order remained the same as Friday.
Q1 started, and everyone headed out to set a banker lap in, apart from Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) who had a power unit problem in practice session, prompting his team to change the PU completely. Alexander Albon carried too much speed through turn 13, and the rear just gave up mid-corner resulting in a big crash into the barriers. Daniil Kvyat failed to set a time, so he was eliminated along with both Williams's drivers and Kimi Raikkonen. Sebastian Vettel topped the timing screens.
Q2 saw a split strategy between top teams, Mercedes went for medium tyres, while Ferrari went for soft tyres, and so did the sole remaining Red Bull. Charles Leclerc went fastest of all with a time of 1:32.434 nearly seven-tenths quicker than Mercedes. Kevin Magnussen (Haas), two Racing Points, Pierre Gasly (Toro Rosso) and Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa) were all eliminated.
Q3 was all about the Monegasque. He was the man to beat with a time of 1:31.801 sec and slotted into P1 with a decent margin of three-tenths to his teammate. Mercedes occupied the second row for the time being. The rivals regrouped and went after him, but they all failed one by one. On his final run, Leclerc improved his time further by two-tenths to claim his fourth successive pole with a lap time of 1:31.628 sec. Lewis Hamilton put in a monstrous final lap but still fell short of Leclerc's benchmark by nearly 0.4 sec such was Charles Leclerc dominance. Sebastian Vettel was 3rd followed by Bottas.
It has been almost two decades since Ferrari had taken four consecutive pole positions. The last time was 2001 when Ferrari achieved such a milestone in the hands of The Great Michael Schumacher.
Leclerc could only say how amazing the car felt and how special it was to be back on pole.
Ferrari did everything they could to stop Mercedes from taking a sixth Russian GP win in a row; however, the only thing they did not have on their side was luck. The Prancing Horse devised a strategy to stop Mercedes taking the lead into the first corner, and it worked to perfection. Leclerc made a good start from P1 and provided Vettel with a tow down into the first corner, and while doing so, he did not defend his position from Vettel. As a result, they emerged 1-2 out of the first corner with Hamilton slotting into 3rd job done by Ferrari. Further down the field, Kimi made a jump start and was handed a drive-through penalty. The rest got away cleanly.
Ferrari had a pre-race agreement that once the race settles down, they will swap the drivers. However, when asked to do so, Vettel kept going, so the team had to force the decision by pitting second-placed Leclerc first, leaving Vettel out for four laps. When Sebastian pitted four laps later, he came out behind Leclerc, but as soon he came out of pits, the ERS (Energy Recovery System) developed a problem, and he had to park the car to save PU. Disaster struck for Ferrari, but Mercedes in hindsight were waiting for such opportunity. Vettel’s stoppage forced race directors to deploy the VSC (Virtual Safety Car) to neutralise the race. Mercedes pitted both drivers, and Hamilton took the lead of the race.
Full Safety Car came out due to George Russell's crash, Ferrari took the opportunity to pit Leclerc for soft tyres to have a go at Silver Arrow with 20 laps to go but all in vain.
Red Bull duo made excellent recoveries to finish 4th and 5th. Albon had a fascinating race after starting from the pit lane due to floor change. The McLarens were the best of the rest with Carlos Sainz finishing 6th and Norris 8th. Sergio Perez 7th, Magnussen 9th, and Hulkenberg took the final point.
Mercedes took an opportunistic 1-2 at Sochi Autodrom, while Lewis Hamilton took his ninth victory of the season. Charles Leclerc completed the final podium position.
Hamilton beamed at their victory, recognising how an incredibly difficult task it was just keeping up with the Ferraris. He added that they haven't given up and just kept pushing and that the Mercedes cars were fantastic.
As we head to the Land of the Rising Sun Japan, can anyone block Hamilton from winning his sixth title? We find out in the coming Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.