Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 24° Track 25° Humidity 65% Wind 1.3 m/s
Well, Well the 2018 Russian Grand Prix is off to a rather interesting start as the F2 race experienced rain, as in strap on the wets kinda rain, which was not at ALL predicted. With luck, a similar lack of predictability will attend the F1 race, which might possibly make up for the rather ill fated Q2 which saw most of the participants sitting out the session in order to gain a tyre advantage, thanks to the penalty situation for Toro Rosso and Red Bull. Which does raise the rather interesting and related question, which is why then did not those who did run, HAAS, Force India and Sauber, take the Ultrasofts as they would’ve been through regardless. And to those who would reply “what about a sneak attack” well, much like the top teams, they could’ve just chucked them out on the Hypersofts JUST IN CASE, at the end of the session. Anyhoo, that’s all water under the bridge so to speak. And speaking of water, tiny spits of rain were reported just as the drivers wandered out to the grid, just to the point where it was not at all clear which tyres should be run, at least to the commentariat.
So, to recap this race might well be a parade once the Ferraris and Mercedes exit the 3rd and 4th turns, but the midfield situation is positions 5-10 running the Hypersofts, which will start to go off between lap 9-12, Renault in P11-12 on the Softs, along with the Red Bulls at the back, then the remainder on the Ultrasoft, save Gasly….Fascinating contest at a track where it is known to be difficult to overtake. Absent that, the big question will be what Mercedes will do with Bottas, should he remain ahead of Hamilton after the pit stop sequence. All of which will, of course, be known once the lights go out….
Lights Out!!!! Rocking start from Vettel as he went side by side with Hamilton as they headed into T1. Bottas pulled to the right as they entered the turn, handing his teammate a lifeline for the run to T2 and off they went, Lewis firmly tucked into Valterri’s slipstream and showing his flanks to the Ferrari. But it was deep into T2 Hamilton went, a puff of smoke from his engine into the braking zone. Vettel took to the inside, only to be run out of room on the exit as they rocketed down towards T3, the early dicing done and worth the price of admission. Interesting, in that Mercedes had updated it’s oil venting to mirror that of Ferrari, suggesting they had chased down whatever gains were possible and decided it was, indeed, worth the price of admission.
But as predicted most of the action was in the midfield and it was Leclerc, with the early move on Kmag taking P5 the following lap. This put the HAAS driver squarely in the sights of Ocon while behind, Max Verstappen was taking advantage of the momentum of his briliant start and by the end of the lap had moved up to P10. Ricciardo, by contrast, was taking his time and was languishing, having been boxed in at the start then collecting some front wing damage from hitting some debris..
Lap 4 saw Gasly spin, which manuoevre his teammate had performed 2 laps earlier. He kept it out of the barrier but was called in, and there was apparently a larger problem, as both cars were retired. Brake failure looked to be the cause, but regardless their day was done.
Lap 6 and Alonso was in, off the Ultras and onto the Softs, whilst Verstappen had worked his way up to P6 with a gap of 19 seconds to the front of the race, where Lewis was maintaining a gap of 1.4 seconds or so, and Vettel had sagged to 2.5 seconds, although whether that was due to lack of pace or just general maintenance of tyres had yet to be determined. Further back, Ricciardo was up to P11 and Williams chose to pull the trigger on Stroll, bringing him in on the 9th lap for a set of Softs, clearly the tyre of the day. During that Hulkenberg put quite a move on Grosjean, no doubt aided by the Hypersofts going off. Further up, Ocon continued to harry KMag, who wisely chose to pit for some new tyres the next lap, releasing Ocon who was now on it to take the position through the pit stop sequence.
At the front, Vettel had turned it up, and was inside 2 seconds again as Hamilton was just hanging out around a second to Bottas as the pit stop window was WIDE open at this point in the race. Lap 11 saw Ocon and Leclerc in and it was Kmag, saving the place and by Ocon as he emerged with a set of Softs, but with a nearly 3 second gap to recover, the undercut was clearly working.
Lap 13 and Bottas was in, and Hamilton was through and rocking it, fast lap with Vettel well inside the undercut window on him. Bottas emerged P5 on the Softs and sure enough, Vettel was in for the undercut at the end of the following lap. Crucially for the Ferrari driver, Sirotkin was lingering for Lewis to catch on his inlap and getting round the Williams did him tremendous damage, nearly a full second once the accounting came in. Thus it was Lewis in and out as Vettel rocked purple sectors and it was wheel to wheel as Hamilton was out of the pitlane. And it was Vettel emerging the victor after several corners of breathless action, but not for long, as he then locked up into T13, opening the door for Hamilton. Around the final corners and into the straight it was Hamilton giving chase with DRS looming. Around T1 and down the long straight they went with Hamilton closing at an alarming rate and then, for a moment, it looked as if they would touch as Vettel closed the door into T2. Hamilton thought he used 2 two moves defending, and was on the radio even as they hammered down to T3 with Lewis attached to the gearbox of the Ferrari. T4 was where Hamilton did the deed, in they went and Vettel defended, drifting wide through the turn and Hamilton again went to the inside but this time there was nothing Vettel could do and Hamilton was by and off in pursuit of his teammate.
Adding salt to that wound, it was announced on Lap 18 that Vettel was being investigated for moving more than once to defend, down the straight to T2. All that excitement had released Bottas, and he was now rocking nearly a six second lead in effective P1, with Verstappen ahead having yet to stop. This was beginning to become a concern for Raikkonen, who was FINALLY brought in, on lap 20 to keep him inside the pit window of Verstappen.
The battle for best of the rest, meanwhile, was being won rather savagely by Leclerc in his Sauber, who had established a nearly 10 second lead over KMag, whose pace was more than a bit suspect and bottling up the Force indias rather badly. Lap 21 and Ocon was almost in DRS, which was rather important as Hulkenberg had nearly cleared the trio from HIS pit window. 3 laps was the prediction from Force India, and the clock was ticking.
Up front, Hamilton had caught his teammate and was within DRS and Vettel, sensing what was up, immediately lifted his pace and took an entire second out of them both. The proximate cause of this was Verstappen, who was now just 2 seconds up the road from Bottas, who seemed rather stymied by the rather wide Red Bull. Ricciardo, meanwhile had finally climbed up to P6 with his damaged car, the best to be expected under those circumstances. Lap 25 and Mercedes made the call, Bottas pulled over and Hamilton rocked by. Hot after Verstappen went Lewis as Vettel rocked up to Bottas and on the edge of DRS. Nothing doing though, as he was too far back to make a move, and Vettel lingered just about a second back as the race as the race whirled on.
Further back, Perez was given the green light to attack Kmag with his fresher tyres and Ocon dutifully yielded the position and Sergio was quickly into DRS and on it. Further up the field, Hulkenberg was no doubt enjoying the fact that all this battling was just slowing the trio even further. Verstappen continued to maintain his pace, low 1:38s which was matching what Hamilton was doing. Bottas was running around 0.2 seconds slower and the gap from Vettel to Hamilton was around 3 seconds total. Onto the radio was James Vowles, explaining to a somewhat miffed Bottas that Hamilton had a blister and they needed to make the move to help protect his tyres.
Raikkonen was enjoying his fresh tyres and lap 29 saw him become the fastest thing on the track, for the moment anyway, well inside Verstappen’s pit window now and chasing down teammate just 6 seconds up the road. This was clearly aimed at trying to keep Ferrari in the WDC as in the event Vettel got round Bottas Kimi would be there to have a go as well. Also enjoying a renaissance of pace was KMag, who had apparently been playing possum earlier but was now running into the 1:39s, foreclosing the possibility that Hulkenberg would get by him in the pits. This translated to bad news for Perez, who, in the event that he couldn’t get round Magnussen, was due to give Ocon his position back.
Adding to the drama, lap 32 heard Hamilton radio in that he was sensing a hesitation from the engine, which was calmly responded to by his race engineer. Perez was then informed he had 2 laps to get by and then he needed to give the spot back, as they were anticipating Hulkenberg pitting then. Magnussen’s slow pace was down to fuel saving, and, having passed the critical point, he had turned the wick back up and in fact, was beginning to pull away from Sergio.
Lap 36 and Hulkenberg was in, and out behind both Force Indias as Perez’ timer ran out. Given that Perez was 1.6 seconds back and DRS was the requirement, it looked all but done for him and indeed, the position was swapped back within half a lap, with nary a fuss, and off they raced toward the checquers, P9-11.
At the front, the question was what tyre would Verstappen choose for his final stint. Ultras would seem the obvious choice, but the Hypers offered a larger offset to Raikkonen’s Softs, but give him fewer laps to make up the difference. Ricciardo was in lap 40, but with a wing change it was a long stop and he was out behind Leclerc. Hamilton had crept up to just 1.3 seconds back of Verstappen, not making life any easier for the Red Bull driver but the prospect of him attacking Raikkonen over the last laps was EXACTLY the spectacle the race needed.
Lap 42 and Hamilton had a go at the Red Bull, up the inside into T2 as he had DRS on the straight, but Max rather brutally shut the door, knowing that Lewis was not in a position to be taking too many chances. After a brief discussion of tyre temps, Max was told to push in anticipation of him boxing. But second thoughts assailed the driver and he argued to be left out. But ultimately to no avail as he was in lap 44 and out he went on some VERY fresh tyres, with 14 seconds and 9 laps to go. One would think in an ideal world that would’ve been happened a bit sooner, but it’s also possible RB were holding out for the slim possibility of a safety car.
The deal was done, regardless, and off Verstappen went, nearly a second a lap faster than Raikkonen, which sadly was not going to be enough to catch him by the end of the race. At the front, Hamilton had a minor lock up, which was enough to bring Bottas inside the 2 second barrier. That didn’t last long as Lewis then set fast lap the following, which was the 47th of the race. Hulkenbergs new tyres were not working at all for him and he was ignominiously passed by Grosjean as the race wound down to its conclusion….
No hope for Verstappen, then, as Raikkonen set a personal best on lap 48, just as fast as Verstappen on the previous circuit, leaving Vettel versus Bottas as the only possible contest in the finale. He was just 1.2 seconds off and 4 laps to go as the race wound down but that was complicated by the need to lap Magnussen, which doubled the gap between the Ferrari and Mercedes. This did nothing to improve Sebastian’s mood, and the tone of his radio call following could accurately be described as bitterly sarcastic, as he noted the amount of time it took out of his effort to catch Bottas.
It was at this point that he let the gap go, 2 laps left and it went out to 4 seconds. FOM helpfully played the message from Bottas in which he was told that the position swap would be discussed AFTER the race ended. Subtext there being, no, in fact, you will not be given that position back now that Hamilton was clear of trouble. Ouch…..
And thus, with only a minor amount of fuss, Hamilton took the checquers and a 50 point lead with 5 races left in the season. For the math challenged, had Mercedes let Bottas back through, it woudl’ve been a 43 point lead. It was such a drama that even Wolff was on the radio to the nearly emotional Bottas, promising a full accounting. In the closing laps, Kmag showed that the HAAS could indeed run laptimes with the Sauber of Leclerc, suggesting that the Sauber might be running much more efficiently in the race, at least with regards to their fuel usage, which in turn means they are more aero efficient. Verstappen’s bid for a podium came to naught in the end as he caught a graining phase in his pursuit of Raikkonen and of course Riccardo’s race was toast as he caught damage on lap 3, that wasn’t fixed till lap 39 or thereabouts. But P5 from the back was still a fairly nice birthday present for young Dutchman.
But the real star of the day was Leclerc, of course, making a vicious move on Kmag then sailing off into the distance, the only midfielder not lapped by the sharp end and a real marker for Sauber, that their increased investment was finally paying off. And not bad for HAAS, either, as Renault had a decidedly off day with neither car in the points, Hulkenberg caught out needing to save fuel when he was on his fast tyres at the end of the race and Sainz taking fairly heavy damage from Sirotkin on the first lap, which removed a chunk of his floor and removed some fiddly aero bits as well. The end result was the gap between HAAS and Renault was down to just 11 points with 5 races left and Magnussen tied with Hulkenberg on points, though he was listed as ahead in the table, presumably on countback. Also a bright spot for the Toro Rosso team was the performance of the new spec Honda PU, which was proclaimed as being fully ahead of its immediate Renault rival, admittedly by the team principal, so grain, salt, apply…
Not yet fully explained, however, was their double retirement, which was decidedly due to mechanical issues. Gasly described it as a brake failure, but it was across both cars so some serious looking to be done. With luck, they’ll be rocking the new spec PU in Suzuka, which should liven up the midfield even more, as if it needed any help. So it’s off to Japan with Ferrari looking to salvage their pride with both championships receding into the distance, Red Bull looking fairly sporty with their latest iteration and keen to make trouble whilst HAAS will be both looking to close in on Renault and defend against Force India, with Sauber and Toro Rosso more than eager to play spoiler.
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