Lewis Hamilton’s quest for the all-time record of F1 wins was put on hold when he was hit by penalties, gifting the Russian Grand Prix win to his teammate Valtteri Bottas. The controversy over the rule infraction was the only real sign of life in an otherwise uneventful race, with Bottas’ ninth career win (and his second of the season) hardly likely to excite the fans.
It was a bad weekend for Hamilton, as he very nearly qualified in 15th after an error by Sebastian Vettel. He succeeded in finishing on pole position, but he was stuck on soft tyres as a result. And then, more trouble before the race began.
He asked his team if it was okay to practice starts at the end of the pitlane on his way to the grid, and was given the green light. Before the race started, he was told that stewards were investigating, and he was eventually given two five-second penalties – one for the start, and a second for failing to drive at a constant speed in the pit exit on his reconnaissance lap.
Hamilton was unhappy, claiming he was being unfairly targeted: “Where’s that in the rule book? No-one has got two five-second penalties for something so ridiculous before. But it’s to be expected – they’re trying to slow me down.” Mercedes chose not to appeal, and Hamilton’s two penalty points were rescinded. After a similar issue at the Italian Grand Prix, the six-time world champion now has eight points on his licence, and picking up four in the next four races will trigger a suspension.
With Hamilton out of the way, Bottas coasted to an easy win, with Max Verstappen seven seconds behind him. After serving his penalty, Hamilton retained a comfortable third place once the other drivers had pitted – his older tyres meant he was unable to challenge. Behind the top three, Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo had similarly lonely races, as did every car in the top seven – the only real racing was around the minor points.
Stroll was essentially shunted out on turn 4 by Leclerc, and Sainz smashed into a wall by turn 2
Charles Leclerc made his way from 11th to finish sixth, but he was more than a minute behind Bottas. Vettel’s bad weekend, after a crash in qualifying, led to an average 13th place finish. They certainly had a better weekend than Lance Stroll and Carlos Sainz, both of whom retired on the opening lap – Stroll was essentially shunted out on turn 4 by Leclerc, and Sainz smashed into a wall by turn 2.
After the race, Bottas said: “Once I was in clean air, I felt that the pace was pretty awesome and that I could control everything. Never give up. It’s a good day. It’s nice to get another win as it’s been a while and I now need to keep the momentum going.” He also took a moment to respond to those who accused him of failing to take the fight to his teammate: “A nice moment to thank my critics. To whom it may concern, f*** you!”
The second-placed Verstappen said: “After the restart, we were a little slower on the medium, I was having problems with the balance. Once we were on the hard tyre, we were a bit more competitive. I was just trying to do my own race today. I think we managed it well. I am very happy with second, especially after two DNFs.” He them came out in defence of Hamilton: “Penalty points for that, I’m not sure that’s correct.”
In two weeks, F1 returns to the Nürburgring for the first time since 2013. This weekend’s 24-hour touring car race was hit with wet and wintery conditions in the Eifel mountains, and it’s hugely likely the Grand Prix will suffer too. It should certainly make for a more interesting race than Sochi, that much is guaranteed.
So, it wasn’t to be for Lewis Hamilton – Michael Schumacher remains F1’s race record holder for just a little bit longer. Once again, it was misreading the rulebook that cost him the win, although we all know that this world championship, and the record, will eventually be his.
His claims of being targeted do not stand up, as every other team followed race directions as usual – I understand the anger, particularly as Mercedes errors are very rare indeed.
Bottas delivered, solid but unexciting, and I can’t help but agree with Damon Hill’s analysis of the race: “I’d like to say that was a good win from Valtteri Bottas but you can’t disregard the ‘absence’ of Lewis Hamilton.”
Really, though, it seems apposite that a competent but unexciting racer should have won this Russian Grand Prix, because there was nothing in the way of exciting racing. All the cars were spaced out to the extent that there was no real competition, and so little happened outside of the rule fiasco.