GRR

Four talking points from a gripping Russian Grand Prix

26th September 2021
Damien Smith

“Heartbroken”. That was the single word Lando Norris posted on Instagram to sum up his feelings after a first Formula 1 victory slipped through his grasp at a thrilling Russian Grand Prix on Sunday. His call to refrain from stopping for intermediate tyres until it was too late, as a late rain shower threw new jeopardy into the Sochi mix, cost him what looked to be rightfully his – and handed it to Lewis Hamilton, who won for the first time since Silverstone and finally claimed his landmark 100th victory.

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So close for stunning Norris

Would Hamilton have passed Norris in those final laps had the rain shower missed Sochi? It would have been fascinating to find out. The pair were more than half a minute up the road from the rest, Hamilton inching closer to his young rival to make his attack. But earlier in the race he’d followed the other McLaren of Monza winner Daniel Ricciardo and had been unable do much about the Australian. On hard tyres two laps younger than Hamilton’s Norris looked equally matched, even in a slower car. But we’ll never know how it would have fallen. The rain turned everything on its head and ruined Lando’s day.

He’d driven beautifully in Sochi. The rain did him a favour on Saturday, but his first F1 pole position was still well earned. Then at the start he made a good getaway, only for his old friend Carlos Sainz Jr. to tow him down to Turn 1 and use better momentum for a fine pass around the outside. Sainz led his former team-mate until lap 13, but graining Pirelli tyres on his Ferrari never allowed him to escape and Norris re-took the lead.

Ricciardo was one of a number of drivers to suffer slow pitstops in Sochi, but McLaren got it right for Norris when he came in on lap 28 – and from that point only Hamilton appeared to stand between him and his first victory. But it was the rain that beat Lando in the end. As some parts but not all of the circuit became slippery, he was asked if he wanted to stop and he shouted “no” with understandable defiance. Who would have given up the lead in such a situation? But armed with more information from the weather radar, someone at McLaren should have over-ruled Norris and called him in. Instead, Hamilton heeded the call from his Mercedes team and when Lando began to struggle to keep his car in a straight line as the rain intensified Lewis closed in on his intermediates and picked up his century. As for Norris, he finally stopped, slid over the white line on the pitlane entry, but kept his seventh place and extra point for fastest lap when the stewards took a charitable view of his mistake. It was the least he deserved. The only consolation? Norris will surely have many more days when he leads grands prix – and next time perhaps all the way to the end.

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Hamilton slumps, then soars

Lewis Hamilton is relentless, even when things are going against him. That’s why he’s a seven-time world champion – and now the one and only member of F1’s 100 club. At Sochi Hamilton was out of sorts in qualifying, hitting the pit wall and uncharacteristically backing into a barrier on a slippery track. No matter: starting fourth on Sunday with only Norris, Sainz and the over-achieving George Russell ahead of him, most still made him the pre-race favourite. But then a disastrous first lap appeared to destroy his victory hopes, Hamilton dropping to seventh behind the fast-starting Lance Stroll, Ricciardo and the Alpine of Fernando Alonso. But even though he wasted little time fighting back past Alonso to run sixth, further progress was beyond him in that first stint.

Stroll was the first of the (very early) stoppers on lap 12, but Hamilton’s strategy left him out until lap 26 and vaulted him up the order, helped in part by slow stops for Sainz and Ricciardo. Once the pitstops cycled through Hamilton was second and for good reason he gave full credit to his team for this unlikely win – especially when they called it right when the rain fell. As Norris stuck it out Hamilton was initially reticent to stop, but eventually he listened to his team. Good decision.

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Verstappen gifted early birthday present

Max Verstappen turns 24 this week. Nothing he receives from friends and family will be as sweet or valuable to him as the haul of points he scored in Sochi, where the Red Bull ace climbed from the back of the grid thanks to a Honda engine change to a shock second place.

Verstappen drove a measured and mature Russian GP, passing a strangely passive Valtteri Bottas early on – the Finn starting only 16th after his own engine change. The championship leader, who would have had a three-place grid penalty for his Monza collision with Hamilton were it not for Red Bull’s engine-change call, was only two seconds behind Hamilton, with team-mate Sergio Perez and Alonso between them, after just 20 laps. He was running sixth after everyone had taken their stops, but at this stage of the grand prix Verstappen was struggling and Alonso demoted him on lap 38. But the rain then came to his rescue, Max stopping at exactly the right time to jump up the order. And when Norris’s race unravelled, he was perfectly placed to pick up what might be a vital second place. Damage limitation? And then some. He’s lost his championship lead to Hamilton, but Verstappen left Russia only two points down on his rival. A huge result for him.

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Sainz heads the rest

A third podium in his first season for Ferrari was some consolation for Sainz, who must have hoped for more after leading the early stages. Tyre graining and a slow stop seemed to be leaving the Spaniard facing a race of dwindling returns – but as the rain came he stopped at the same time as Verstappen and secured his third-place podium.

Ricciardo followed up his fine Monza win with fourth for McLaren, ahead of Bottas – another to gain from the rain, after his lacklustre showing – and the excellent Alonso who was sixth. The veteran once again showed up his team-mate Esteban Ocon, who was never in the same ballpark and finished a lowly 14th.

Norris was a disconsolate seventh, while Kimi Räikkönen scored points in eighth on his return after missing two races because of his brush with Covid-19. Perez had passed Sainz for third on lap 48 and looked set for a podium, but lost out in the rain and dropped to ninth, while Russell scored a point in 10th. After his superb qualifying performance, the 2022 Mercedes-AMG driver held his own quite beautifully in the early stages to run third – but it was never going to last in a Williams. We’ll take it as just a little taster of what we should expect to see from him next year.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • F1 2021

  • Formula 1

  • Lewis Hamilton

  • Lando Norris

  • Carlos Sainz

  • Max Verstappen

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