In the weekend just gone, we head to the Black Sea coast of Russia for a dramatic Saturday, and even more chaotic Sunday.
We start, as we always do, in Q1, which saw Red Bull’s championship contender, Max Verstappen opting not to set a time due to taking an engine penalty which would relegate him to the back of the grid, leaving him in P20. Ahead of him, local boy Nikita Mazepin in P19, with his teammate Mick Schumacher placing P17, splitting the Alpha Romero’s of Giovinizzi, who spun early into the session due to the wet conditions, and the returning Kimi Raikkonen in P18 and P16 respectively.
Into Q2, we see Leclerc and Latifi opting to follow in Verstappen’s footsteps and decide to not set a time due to both cars taking on new engines for the race, only meaning 3 more cars were needed to complete the drop zone. These 3 spaces were filled by both Alpha Tauri’s in P12 (Gasly) and P13 (Tsunoda), with P11 being filled by the Aston Martin of Sebastian Vettel, missing out on Q3 by five hundredths of a second.
Moving into Q3, we start to see the drama unfold as the rain begins to ease in the middle of the session, Lewis Hamilton hit the wall on the pit entry, breaking his front wing, losing him crucial time which would be vital in getting his tyres up to temperature and ready to go for Pole. However, he was unable to get the job done, as he spun getting through the final sector, ending up in P4 due to his previous lap on the intermediate tyres.
Similar problems were seen all across the top 10, with Ocon finishing in P10, Perez in P9, Stroll in P8, closely behind Bottas in P7, who decided to take another engine penalty, likely in an attempt to hold up Max’s charge up the field. Alonso took P6, around one tenth of a second behind the most recent race winner, Daniel Ricciardo in P5. The top 3, the provisional podium had everyone’s attention, with William’s George Russell claiming a fantastic P3, another outstanding wet weather qualifying following his P2 in the rained off Belgium Grand Prix. Ahead of the Brit was Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz in P2, a quickly forgotten, yet no less impressive showing from the Spaniard. The reason not much was made of Sainz’s performance was down to a breathtaking lap by his former teammate, McLaren’s Lando Norris, who took Pole Position by a staggering half a second.
So, heading onto the grid, with Bottas taking a second engine penalty in as many races, Vettel was promoted into P10. As the lights go out and the race begins, the top 3 get away well, with Sainz sitting in Norris’ slipstream through the kink of Turn 1, and passing the McLaren going into Turn 2. Hamilton was creeping up towards the front two, however as Lando attempts to stop Carlos from passing him, he blocks off the Mercedes man, causing him to drop to P7, while Stroll is able to jump to P4. Lewis is able to start his recovery by the second lap, performing a fantastic overtake on Alonso on the long left hand bend on Turn 4.
By the end of the lap, Leclerc has progressed up to P12, with Verstappen climbing up to P17, with Bottas in just P15. By lap 4, Perez is able to pass Alonso while Max passes Mazepin to leave him right behind Bottas. It only takes to lap 7 for Verstappen to pass Bottas going into Turn 13, and is able to make the same pass on Pierre Gasly on lap 9. By lap 10, he is able to muscle his way past Leclerc as Norris is beginning to challenge Sainz at the front. Stroll is the first to pit on lap 13, aiming to undercut the much slower Williams of Russell. Onto lap 14, and Norris is able to pass Sainz on the back straight, heading into Turn 13.
Russell responds to the Canadian’s stop, coming out behind Stroll. Sainz is next to pit on lap 15, hoping to undercut the lead McLaren, and comes out ahead of Lance and George. This allows Hamilton to begin to close the gap on the McLaren’s, who both are yet to pit. By lap 17, Max is up to P6 without a pitstop, being less than 8 seconds behind his championship rival. Just 2 laps later, Max’s gap to Lewis is just 5 seconds, as the Merc man battles with Ricciardo for P2. Daniel comes into the pits on lap 23, but has a slow stop which means he comes out behind the likes of Stroll and Russell, into P14.
Hamilton and Verstappen pit on lap 27, swapping the hard tyres for mediums, as Sainz passes Bottas to take P6, with Hamilton returning to the track in P9, with Max filtering in behind Ricciardo and Russell. Max makes quick work of George on the next lap for P11 and sets his eyes on his former teammate of Ricciardo. It takes until lap 29 for Lando to pit, slotting into P4 on fresh rubber. This leaves Sergio Perez in the lead, who has been having a quiet race, closely followed by Alonso and Leclerc, all yet to pit.
On lap 30, Lewis is able to pass Carlos going into Turn 2, and passes Gasly, who also has not been to the pits, on the following lap. On lap 32, Ricciardo and Verstappen are able to work their way past Stroll, allowing both to have the potential to pass Sainz. Schumacher is forced to retire for the first time this season on lap 34 while Lando makes the pass on Charles Leclerc for P3, while Hamilton is able to do the same by lap 36, which causes the Ferrari man to pit by the start of lap 37.
Perez and Alonso pit the following lap which allows Norris to retake the lead, with Hamilton in pursuit. Perez suffers with a slow stop which leads to him dropping behind Ricciardo and Sainz. By lap 40, the race seems to have settled into 3 storylines. The first being the race for the lead, Lando chasing his first ever win in F1, in a week where he had the strong possibility of taking the top step, against the man chasing his 100th win in the sport, a feat which has never been achieved. The second being Verstappen’s charge for a podium, and the third being Russell’s fight to remain in the points. As we get to lap 42/53, Russell is passed by Leclerc, dropping to P10, hanging on to 1 point. On lap 45, Leclerc is able to pass Stroll, and Perez gets around the outside of Ricciardo on the following lap.
As we get closer to the end of the race, the field looks to have shaken out most of the surprises, however, Sochi decided to throw one more obstacle at the drivers, bringing some drops of rain to the circuit by lap 47. With 5 laps to go, Perez is able to pass Sainz for P3 as drivers begin to take a lot more care while taking the corners. This is when some of the drivers begin to stop for intermediate tyres in order to deal with the rain, with Russell, Bottas, Raikkonen and Mazepin being the first to make the switch. This is followed by Verstappen, Sainz, Ricciardo and Stroll on lap 49.
All while others are pitting, Lando and Lewis continue on the dry tyres, with the former going wide going into the middle sector, but he remains adamant that he doesn’t need to pit. It takes until the start of lap 50, following both drivers being told about the inters for someone to react, and it’s 99 time race winner, Lewis Hamilton who comes into the pits as Lando decides to continue in his push for the race win. Along with Lewis, Tsunoda pits, meaning more than half of the drivers have made the switch. It takes until just lap 51 for Lewis to have Lando back in his sights, with the rain now teaming down, the young Brit isn’t able to turn his car and goes straight off onto the runoff area, allowing Hamilton a free pass into the lead of the race.
While all eyes are on the drama at the front of the field, Max is able to make his way up to P3 before Lando pits, conceding his first potential race win of his career. With a gap of almost 1 minute to Verstappen, Hamilton crosses the line to become the first man in history to take a century of race wins, with Verstappen doing good damage control to get P2 and Sainz fills the last step on the podium, with the devastated Norris bringing home a P7, and his teammate finishing ahead of Bottas in P4. Russell is able to hold onto P10 for a single point for the high flying Williams team, meaning they have scored points in 4 of the last 5 races, a fantastic result for a team which were rock bottom, and pointless throughout the 2020 season. Kimi had great timing for the change of tyres, ending in P8. Leclerc, along with Norris, suffered for staying out too long on dry tyres, ending in a poor P15, behind Esteban Ocon, who’s teammate managed P6, with Perez ending up in P9 after a late stop.
Overall, a very good race at a circuit which typically offers little in the way of entertainment. For me, Max has to take Driver of the Day with a P20 to P2 is always an impressive achievement, especially when needing to time the tyre change due to the rain. However, if Lando was able to bring home back-to-back race victories for the papaya outfit, he would absolutely take that title, especially after taking McLaren’s first Pole Position since Brazil in 2012, taken by the centurion, Lewis Hamilton, who must have a special mention, for continuously doing what many would consider impossible, further strengthening his claim to being the best the sport has ever seen. The losers of the weekend is without a doubt McLaren, for obvious reasons, whereas the winners will have to be Mercedes, for being able to take advantage of the changeable conditions.
Featured image credit: Autosport