Valtteri Bottas has fond memories of Sochi, having earned his maiden Grand Prix victory at the Russian venue last year. But the Mercedes driver was asked to play the team game on Sunday, allowing Lewis Hamilton to ultimately claim a victory and extend his championship lead yet further over Sebastian Vettel. It was, by the Finn's own admission, a result that, whilst great for the team, was difficult to accept...
Bottas, who'd captured a superb pole on Saturday and was searching for his first win of the season, was asked to cede the lead to Hamilton with less than half of the race completed as the Silver Arrows looked to inflict maximum damage on Vettel and Ferrari in the title race. The Finn selflessly obliged, sacrificing personal glory for a result that not only ensured Mercedes retained their 100% record in Sochi, but allowed Hamilton to stretch his championship lead over Vettel, who came home third, to a massive 50 points.
Hamilton, who, after falling behind in the pit stops, was forced to pass Vettel on track en route to what was his third victory in Sochi, later hailed Bottas 'a real gentleman', while Mercedes chief Toto Wolff also praised the Finn's actions.
Behind the front three, Max Verstappen – celebrating his 21st birthday – starred, climbing from 19th on the grid to fifth in just eight laps, which soon became the lead when the tyre strategies began to play out.
The Dutchman ended up leading the most laps of anyone, but ultimately came home fifth, behind the second Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen but ahead of his Red Bull team mate Daniel Ricciardo. Unsurprisingly, Verstappen also picked up Driver of the Day honours with a huge majority.
Sauber’s Charles Leclerc was another to shine, the future Ferrari driver finishing seventh ahead of Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, while the Force India pair of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez kept their noses clean this weekend to round off the top ten.
How the race unfolded…
Having slipstreamed into the lead from P3 on the grid last year, Bottas knew he needed to get off the line well - and that he did, with Vettel mounting an attack on Hamilton for P2 until the Briton picked up a tow from his team mate and stood firm into Turn 2 to keep the German at bay.
But elsewhere in the Red Bull stable there was disarray as Toro Rosso endured a nightmare start. Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley suffered copycat spins early on, and the Italian squad soon retired both cars to the garage before five laps were up, with apparent brake issues on both machines.
By Lap 8, Verstappen had fought his way all the way up to fifth, behind both Mercedes and Ferrari cars. At this stage, Hamilton was hot on the heels of race leader Bottas, trailing his team mate by 1.4s, while Vettel loomed close in his title rival's rear-view mirrors, 2s further back.
The Silver Arrows were the first frontrunners to roll the dice from a tactical point of view, bringing in race leader Bottas at the end of Lap 12 and replacing the Finn's ultrasoft tyres for softs. Ferrari immediately hit back the following lap, calling Vettel in for the same tyre switch, with Hamilton following suit a lap later – a decision which went against the championship leader.
As Hamilton prepared to return to the track, Vettel came flying down the pit straight, and the German managed to get his nose in front going into Turn 2 to split the Mercedes.
‘Guys, how did that happen?’ Hamilton asked his crew despondently - but he wouldn't be behind for long. Intent on quickly reclaiming his position, Hamilton almost ran into the back of Vettel heading down to Turn 2 on lap 16 as the Ferrari driver closed the door in no uncertain terms. The stewards investigated the incident but deemed no further action was required - and by that stage Hamilton had already got back through, the Briton diving inside his fellow four-time world champion at Turn 4 after a brilliant pursuit through the ultra-quick Turn 3.
That battle wasn’t the only one keeping fans on the edge of their seats, though. Force India, who had implemented stricter team orders after their Singapore saga, were finding it hard to get ahead of Haas' Magnussen, all the while knowing they needed to up the pace to avoid being jumped by Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, who had started on soft rubber.
Perez, third in the queue behind Ocon, asked if he could pass his team mate and have a go at Magnussen. The switch would eventually happen, but not before an even more significant one...
That race-defining moment came on Lap 25, after Red Bull’s Verstappen inherited the lead when Ferrari pitted Raikkonen. The Dutchman was proving a distraction for the Mercedes pair, allowing Vettel to gain on them. And with Hamilton’s rear tyres beginning to blister, the call went in from the Mercedes pit wall to Bottas, asking the Finn to let his team mate past.
Bottas duly obliged, and that strategy was replicated by Force India moments later, with Ocon giving Perez a chance to fight past the Magnussen. Ultimately the Mexican was unable to do so, and after nine laps – on Lap 35 – the Silverstone squad gave the position back to the Frenchman.
Up front, Hamilton reported engine and tyre issues - but those concerns didn’t play out into anything significant, whose only concern was a half-move on Verstappen with 11 laps to go, which was repelled by the yet-to-stop Dutchman.
Hamilton finally had the lead for the first time in Sochi when Verstappen, having driven 43 superb laps on the soft rubber, came in to pit, the birthday boy returning to the action in fifth ahead of Ricciardo – who was given a new nose when he made his one and only pit stop three laps before his team mate.
Mercedes - knowing a race win for Hamilton was crucial for both championship quests - allowed their reigning world champion to keep top spot, with Bottas - who had asked if the positions would be reversed - forced to settle for second on a track he has enjoyed much success at.
Vettel came home where he started, and he now trails the Brit by 50 points with just five races of the season remaining...
The key quote
“It’s actually quite a difficult day. Valtteri did a fantastic job all weekend and he was a real gentleman to let me by. He’s now not fighting for the championship as where we are. It’s just been such a great weekend for the team. The team have done such exceptional job to have this advantage on Ferrari and have a 1-2. Usually, you’d just be elated, but I can understand how difficult it was for Valtteri - but really he did a fantastic job today and deserved to win.” – Lewis Hamilton
The key stats
Mercedes remain undefeated in Russian GP F1 history, with the Silver Arrows securing their third 1-2 at the Sochi Autodrom in the process.
Lewis Hamilton secured his 49th win for Mercedes (the only man to win 50 for a single team is Michael Schumacher at Ferrari – with 58 wins).
Vettel leaves the Russian Grand Prix on 256 points - the same total he scored in the entire 2010 season when he won his maiden championship with Red Bull.
Raikkonen finished in the points for the 200th time in his career, joining Schumacher and Fernando Alonso as the only men to do so.
Verstappen led the most laps on Sunday from 19th on the grid – and he also led Red Bull's 3,500th lap in their constructor history.
Ricciardo finished in the top six in Sochi for the first time in his career (this is his least-successful track in F1).
Leclerc came home seventh, meaning Sauber have scored in 10 races this year, the most since 2013.
Magnussen has now finished in the top eight in Russia three times in four visits, and his 15-race finishing streak is the longest current streak in F1.
Ocon and Perez give Force India a double points finish for the third time in the last four races.
The only retirements in Sochi were the two Toro Rossos – the shortest day for the team since the 2009 Spanish GP (when they were both out on lap 1).
DRIVER OF THE DAY – Max Verstappen
DHL FASTEST LAP
Valtteri Bottas 1m 35.861s (lap 50)
There’s no time for rest for the drivers, with the Japanese Grand Prix hosting round 17 of the F1 season next weekend. Title-hunting pair Hamilton and Vettel both have four wins at Suzuka, so they certainly know how to triumph there. Should be an exciting one then...