6 races to go in the Formula One World Championship and Sebastian Vettel trailed Lewis Hamilton by 40 points, Vettel needed to win in Sochi or his title chances would look slim at best.
Friday practice initially showed promise for Ferrari with Vettel topping FP1 but after the second practice session Mercedes appeared to have a pace advantage. Red Bull also looked very quick and perhaps the second fastest team but penalties for engine changes would mean that they would not be in contention.
There were many stand-ins in FP1 with Norris in at McLaren, Giovinazzi at Sauber and home boy Artem Merkelov at Renault. Norris impressed in his first FP1 session after his announcement as a McLaren driver for 2019, he set a time quicker than Stoffel Vandoorne and looked comfortable in an F1 car disregarding a spin he had during the session.
With engine penalties for both Red Bulls, Toro Rosso’s and Fernando Alonso qualifying would be set to be an unusual affair. Both Williams, McLaren’s and Brendon Hartley were knocked out in Q1 but there was much controversy when in Q2 neither Red Bull, Renault or Gasly would set a time; Renault opted not to set a time as they preferred to start outside of the top ten so they would have free choice of starting tyre and with the Red Bulls and Gasly set to start at the back due to their penalties there was no point in Renault running. Fernando Alonso was quick to criticise the situation as it was poor from a spectators perspective:
“For us it’s OK, this is what we’re used to and we follow whatever, for the fans, it’s maybe a problem. It’s more asking the fans what they think to have a nonsense Q1 and a not very important Q2.
Q3 was back to business as usual, Bottas set the early pace and set the fastest time over his teammate by 0.004s, when it came to their second runs Bottas extended his advantage to claim his second pole position of the season. Ferrari had nothing they were over half a second adrift from Mercedes in 3rd and 4th but knew that there were still lots of possibilities in the race.
As the race started Bottas pulled away cleanly retaining his lead, Vettel got a better start than his championship rival Lewis Hamilton and pulled alongside the Brit, Hamilton however used the slipstream from his teammate to retain P2.
Birthday boy Max Verstappen stole the show in the opening stint pushing himself into the top ten after starting P19 after just a handful of laps, as the hyper soft tyres of the cars around him fell off he made a series of moves putting himself P5 ahead of his long first stint on the soft tyres.
Both Toro Rosso’s retired after a couple of laps, they both suffered break failure resulting in them having almost identical spins on their way back to the garage. Charles Leclerc continued to show why Ferrari have signed him for 2019 and backed a strong qualifying with an equally as strong race, he made a supreme overtake around the outside of Kevin Magnussen around turn 3 and would then complete a lonely race to finish best of the rest.
Magnussen struggled with race pace and had the two Force India’s swarming him, after some radio calls from Sergio Perez he and Ocon would switch places to enable Perez a chance of overtaking Magnussen. Nico Hulkeneberg had started on the soft tyres so hadn’t yet made a stop and Force India were concerned that he would jump them after he made his first stop. Perez was also unable to overtake Magnussen but when Hulkenberg pitted he came out behind the Force India’s. Ocon and Perez would then swap again so Ocon would resume his position before the team orders took place. This scenario may not have taken place if it wasn’t for the events in Singapore, Force India is keen to retake 6th in the constructors championship and have lost trust in their two drivers racing wheel to wheel with each other after a series of collisions across the past 2 seasons.
The biggest talking point of the race was a controversial move by Mercedes ordering Bottas who had led the majority of the race to let teammate Lewis Hamilton overtake him. Bottas complied and slotted in behind Hamilton, Hamilton was suffering a blister on his tyres and Mercedes were concerned that Vettel would pose a threat to Hamilton. With a couple laps remaining Bottas asked his team if they would swap the positions back now that he had pulled away from Vettel to which the team asked him to remain in P2. It wasn’t the win that Hamilton wanted but it’s what he got and he extended his championship lead to 50 points and is looking very strong for his 5th world title. Mercedes now have a situation where Bottas is deflated, he hasn’t won a race this season and with Mercedes comfortable applying team orders it looks unlikely that Bottas will have the chance to win a race in the remaining 5 rounds.
The top ten finishers were as follows:
- Lewis Hamilton 1:27:32.054
- Valtteri Bottas +0:02.545
- Sebastian Vettel +0:07.487
- Kimi Raikkonen +0:16.543
- Max Vertstappen +0:31.016
- Daniel Ricciardo +1:20.451
- Charles Leclerc +1:38.390
- Kevin Magnussen +1 Lap
- Esteban Ocon +1 Lap
- Sergio Perez +1 Lap
Max Verstappen was the clear driver of the day, he rocketed up to the points making no issue of overtaking treating every corner as an overtaking opportunity. The question beckons as to where he may have finished if he stayed in the top six. Verstappen is coming of age, it’s only a matter of time before he is mounting his own championship challenge.
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