Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Sochi Autodrom, 2021

Why Verstappen may not be the last driver to take an engine change penalty in Sochi

2021 Russian Grand Prix Friday practice analysis

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Red Bull’s decision to fit a new power unit to Max Verstappen’s car at Sochi, triggering a penalty he was inevitably going to take at some point in the season, was widely expected.

But another, more surprising change may be on the cards.

The obvious conclusion to draw from Friday’s practice sessions is that Mercedes have the upper hand around Sochi. Verstappen’s power unit change and consequent penalty means Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas are unlikely to be challenged at the head of the field in qualifying and the race.

But there are suspicions in the Red Bull camp that their engine change for Verstappen may prompt their championship rivals to do the same. Fitting a new power unit to Hamilton’s car would send him to the back of the grid too

The decision will rest on whether Mercedes believes Hamilton is likely to need a replacement before the season ends. His team mate took one last time out at Monza.

Of course Mercedes aren’t going to signal to Red Bull whether they are likely to change their power units, and haven’t firmly indicated one way or another so far. Yesterday Hamilton said “at the moment we have no plans to put in a new engine”.

With the championship fight so finely poised, Mercedes cannot afford to risk a race-ending power unit failure. If they were seriously considering changing Hamilton’s power unit, they now have a strong incentive to do so this weekend, as Verstappen’s points-scoring potential is already seriously compromised.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Sochi Autodrom, 2021
Leclerc will join Verstappen at the back of the grid
It could make for the strange sight of the two championship contenders lining up at the back of the grid, with Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari and its fresh power unit for company.

If Hamilton does take a penalty, Mercedes are still well-placed to win. Bottas was quickest in both of Friday’s sessions and looks a strong bet for pole position.

The sole Red Bull driver in contention for a start at the sharp end, Sergio Perez, has a good record at Sochi, having never failed to secure a points finish. He was not quick during the Friday practice sessions, only squeaking into the top 10 in second practice, but this was partly a result of Red Bull experimenting with different set-up options.

Perez ran a higher downforce level on Friday while Verstappen’s car was trimmed out. The two are likely to move closer towards each other for their race set-ups.

Complicating matters further, Saturday is expected to be very wet. Heavy rain is predicted for Saturday in Sochi, with little let up before the light begins to fade at around 6pm.

The rain may ease sufficiently for F1 to run qualifying on Saturday afternoon. As seen at Spa, qualifying is easier to run in the wet as cars don’t have to follow each other and can avoid the spray that lowers visibility to near-zero.

It’s unlikely that drivers with nothing to gain – Leclerc and Verstappen (and potentially Hamilton) – would bother to participate. A wet qualifying session around the barrier-lined track would present too much risk of damage.

Lando Norris was extremely quick in the wet at Spa – and finished second practice fourth fastest today. Pierre Gasly, who was third fastest this afternoon, is also often strong in wet conditions. However Norris’ Spa crash also illustrates the risk of crashing in such conditions.

As Fernando Alonso pointed out, standing water had been a problem during the one session of wet running at the circuit previously, in 2015. Sochi is a very flat circuit, which doesn’t lend itself to rapid drainage.

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin, Sochi Autodrom, 2021
Aston Martin expect qualifying will go ahead
If running proves impossible on Saturday, Formula 2 or Formula 3 may find their Sunday morning session pushed aside to make way for F1 qualifying on a dry or drying track. If standing water drains then it could be, effectively, a dry session – in which case, Mercedes would seem to have an obvious upper hand.

On a drying track, drivers will take their risks between the barriers knowing that a crash could cast doubt on their participation in the race a few hours later.

There is one, final, risky permutation. If no running is possible at all until the Grand Prix start time, it’s possible that second practice times would decide the grid. At the start of second practice, F1 race director Michael Masi was heard confirming to Red Bull that second practice could be used to determine the race starting grid. After Formula 3’s first race of the weekend was rescheduled to Friday, it was clear that race organisers were taking the risk of a Saturday wash-out seriously.

However Aston Martin CEO Otmar Szafnauer doubts this will happen, and said the team “didn’t alter our programme that much” during second practice as a result. “I think some other people tried to perhaps get a bit higher up on the times sheets just in case this session is used for the grid. But we didn’t do any of that.”

“I think we’ll get qualifying in,” he concluded. “By hook or by crook.”

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Combined practice times

PosDriverCarFP1FP2Total laps
1Valtteri BottasMercedes1’34.4271’33.59344
2Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’34.6381’33.63745
3Pierre GaslyAlphaTauri-Honda1’35.7941’33.84546
4Lando NorrisMcLaren-Mercedes1’35.9591’34.15441
5Esteban OconAlpine-Renault1’36.2361’34.40248
6Max VerstappenRed Bull-Honda1’34.6541’34.62133
7Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’35.8111’34.67847
8Fernando AlonsoAlpine-Renault1’36.2251’34.76242
9Sebastian VettelAston Martin-Mercedes1’35.7811’34.83745
10Charles LeclercFerrari1’35.1171’34.92546
11Sergio PerezRed Bull-Honda1’36.1881’34.93844
12Kimi RaikkonenAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’36.9521’35.05243
13George RussellWilliams-Mercedes1’38.0131’35.09442
14Antonio GiovinazziAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’36.7951’35.17837
15Lance StrollAston Martin-Mercedes1’36.5221’35.33442
16Nicholas LatifiWilliams-Mercedes1’38.1551’35.41140
17Daniel RicciardoMcLaren-Mercedes1’36.8771’35.63035
18Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri-Honda1’37.7941’35.95449
19Nikita MazepinHaas-Ferrari1’38.5861’36.09941
20Mick SchumacherHaas-Ferrari1’38.9771’36.23043

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2021 Russian Grand Prix

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Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a freelance journalist who roams the paddocks of Formula E, covering the technical and emotional elements of electric racing. Usually found at...

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58 comments on “Why Verstappen may not be the last driver to take an engine change penalty in Sochi”

  1. This would be great for Mercedes to do, but people will be raising up reverse grids again, because if Hamilton takes a penalty, that would be 3 fast paced cars starting at the back in Leclerc, Verstappen and Hamilton.

    1. Yes, which makes for great racing.

    2. Does this mean Verstappen still has his 3 place penalty to serve?

      1. No. The 4th engine penalty nullifies it

        Reply moderated
  2. Anyone else wondering about Otmar’s stance?

    ‘We saw the opportunity. We saw others going for it. We chose not to.’ How is this F1-level thinking?

    Aston Martin are not competitive. Why aren’t you even trying to take advantage if an opportunity may present itself?

    1. I think this probably had a lot more to do with the F1 thinking of not revealing their hand. That may have been all the pace the car had, but Otmar didn’t want to say that.

    2. @proesterchen It’s F1-level thinking to go for what is more likely to benefit the team. This is different depending on the team’s position (does it need to score points consistently or does it need 1-2 banner results)?

      There’s an opportunity cost to taking some opportunities and this is one of them.

  3. Mercedes will not let a fairly certain Hamilton win at Sochi slip away by starting at the back. Starting at the back with Max would just mean yet another crash. (Erikje should screaming at me in 3, 2, 1….)

    1. Now THAT is more likely, it’s a mercedes track, so verstappen would gain an advantage from a double retirement even when they’re outside the points.

    2. @greenflag On the other hand, if Bottas is likely to need an engine change, now would be a good time to arrange it.

  4. This sounds like one of those cunning strategy ideas that backfires spectacularly. Mercedes should just net the points and worry about an engine change if and when it becomes necessary.

  5. Its Russels job to take out Max tomorrow.

    1. Dinner and a movie then?

      1. 🙂🙂🙂 good one

        Maybe. Just maybe 😅

    2. @muralibhats
      This comment didn’t age well!

  6. I hope so bc if they both start at the back it will be fun to watch them come through the pack of cars. I wish we had a higher chance of rain Sunday but hey at least Sat will be fun

  7. The reliability of the merc engine this year is cause for concern.
    The Honda is almost on par and the merc engine for the first time has to perform on its peak power.
    So its for sure Lewis will need a new engine soon. The new engine Bottas received seems to unlock more power and it will cement the position of fastest car for the remaining races.
    If Sochi is the right spot to do ?
    He will start always in front of Max but maybe behind Charles.
    So lewis under maximum stress levels does not seems smart. He is already breaking up and his mistakes are mounting..

    1. You did so well, until the last paragraph.

      Kudos for trying

      1. Erikje always gets in a dig at Lewis. She can’t help herself.

        1. @greenflag Lol unlike your comments akin to the third one made on this topic.

        2. You must have a crazy dutch (?) knowledge, I don’t know enough dutch to tell that’s a female name.

      2. And as expected, Lewis cracked again.
        It is getting embarrassing for him.
        Again, Russell starting in front of the “man” Lewis.

    2. I knew this comment must be erikje before even looking :-)

    3. Lol at the Hamilton fans attacking the person behind the comment. Seems it’s all they know how.

      1. @balue ROFLCOPTER at the irony of you attacking the person behind the comments.

        1. @f1osaurus Another desperate lie from you. It’s always you Hamilton fans. I will occasionally push back on the personal attacks to try and get a stop to it, but I don’t go around making comments about the poster on a topical post. That’s what you do.

          1. @balue Lie? Here is the evidence attacking the posters behind the comments:

            Lol at the Hamilton fans attacking the person behind the comment. Seems it’s all they know how.

            Seriously dude, how do you even manage to switch on your device to access this site?

          2. @f1osaurus I’m pushing back against personal attacks, and that’s the personal attack? Jeez, lol..

            You are really having trouble with basic logic, although we knew that already.

            Maybe the internet is not for you. It will just be endless embarrassments.

          3. @balue

            I’m pushing back against personal attacks

            By doing exactly the same you cry about other people doing.

            It’s cute that you actually think you have a point. The irony is just gushing.

      2. Hamilton fans hate competition.

  8. I think whether Hamilton takes a new PU or not depends entirely on 1 condition imo: whether Quali goes ahead tomorrow, and whether the race is run in different conditions. If that is the case, I wouldn’t be surprised if Merc or RB go all in and take a pit lane start, allowing them to switch wet/dry setups at will.

    1. AJ (@asleepatthewheel)
      25th September 2021, 2:50

      I don’t think they’ll start from the pit lane at all, simply because they are likely to start ahead of Max in P19 even after engine change.

      1. @asleepatthewheel Behing ahead of Verstappen that far back on the grid just means Verstappen will have amasive opportunity for a “we crash or you let me pass” again.

        1. Max has to survive racing with CL, his childhood nemesis first.

  9. If they were seriously considering changing Hamilton’s power unit, they now have a strong incentive to do so this weekend, as Verstappen’s points-scoring potential is already seriously compromised

    Has anyone from Mercedes said something like this, because I can’t wrap my head around how that makes sense logically. Copying my comment from another article:

    Logically speaking, Hamilton taking an engine change penalty now doesn’t make sense to me. When your main rival is starting from the back then you know you have a very good chance of winning the race and bagging 25 points. If you have to take a penalty, doesn’t it make more sense to take that penalty on a weekend when your rivals are strong and you are more likely to score maybe 15 or 18 points instead of 25? There is bound to be at least one more race this season where practice shows that Redbull have the advantage over Mercedes, and presuming it happens on a track where overtaking isn’t too difficult, that would seem like a better opportunity for Mercedes to take any penalties.

    1. Thinking about this some more. I guess taking your penalty at the same race as your rival means you aren’t leaving them with the potential of winning the race, whereas if you take the penalty later then your rival has a good chance to win when you do. But given that you are also taking away your own best chance to win i don’t think the trade off is worth it.

      To me it always seems better to take the penalty on a race you are likely not to win anyway, as Max has done. Then you are giving up only say 18 points for a 2nd place (minus whatever you recover from the back of the grid), rather than 25. If you take the penalty on one of your weaker tracks, your rival will likely win whether you took the penalty or not, so you are not giving them any extra benefit.

      1. Your reply and reasoning makes sense. But the main reason I suggested this was to take advantage of the different conditions expected for Saturday and Sunday.
        Talking a penalty now allows you to focus on a dry race set-up.

        That other weekend which normally would suit Mercedes better will probably not have that offsetting benefit.

      2. This is pretty much my thought process as well. I don’t really see why folks seem to think it’s a good idea.

        This way you would be near the back, it’ll be cramped at T1, you can’t back out and stay safe because there are fast cars behind that will attack you, so high risk start, you give up a practically guaranteed 25 points which you should never do.

        Bag a penalty on a track where you weren’t going to win and you should get a nice safe start, easy through the first corner and then mind your own business carving through the back markers on an opposite strategy. You’ll lose some points but not as many and you have a race safe from risky rivalry battles amongst slow cars. You’ll probably lose very little in the end.

        1. Or you could ask, Merc have a big advantage and it is one of the easier circuits to overtake SO could Hamilton still win it from the back?

          Who can beat him:
          Bottas
          Perez
          Norris

          Less likely;
          Saint or Danny

          Obviously Bottas is not a real obstacle. He would be racing Norris and Perez…. chances are above 50% he would still get the win.

          New engine, win, massive psychological boost….

    2. @keithedin An engine change for Hamilton in Mexico might make more sense yes.

      Still we have seen Bottas is going 2 or 3 tenths faster with a fresh engine. That brings Mercedes almost on par with Red Bull laptimes. So then Hamilton’s skill can land him the wins while otherwise he will just be a hopeless second.

      Then Hamilton could win Turkey and USA instead of Verstappen. Say they come 5th and 6th (or 4th and 5th) (VER – HAM) in Sochi. Hamilton would then lose 15 points, but he would gain back 14 in the next two races. While Verstappen wins only one place in Sochi and loses 14 points over the next two.

      Overall Hamilton would would then take 11 points more if he changed the engine now vs later.

      1. @f1osaurus If the performance increase of the new engine is that large then yes that might incentivise an earlier change, though I haven’t heard the team suggest it is as much as 2 or 3 tenths. But there are also still 8 races to go (potentially) and i think even a brand new engine here wouldn’t be able to be used at all 8, so they will still have to use engines from the original engine pool at some races.

      2. That brings Mercedes almost on par with Red Bull laptimes

        Interesting, they are already quicker then red bull.

  10. Mercedes have been known to out think themselves out of a good position into a bad one.

  11. I had also thought this might be a good idea for Hamilton. But Mercedes only have four wins. A fifth is hard to pass up.

  12. Mercedes should not take the penalty this race unless they fear a reliability issue with the engine. Let’s bag these 25 points and take the engine penalty at a race they feel they will not be able to challenge for the win (at Mexico most likely, as they are always weak there and Redbull very strong).

    1. Malaysia 2016 is still fresh in mind…

  13. I’d bag the points, take it race by race. This season isn’t really following the normal script. If the chance is there to maximise I’d take it.

  14. Toto has implied they don’t necessarily need to change at all, but doing so for the same race as VER would be foolish as this way reduce HAM’s chance of retaking the WDC lead, so better not voluntarily take, if not an absolute must.

  15. Interesting take, but the risk factor is high. OTOH, another bump-off in the mayhem and a subsequent climb to the podium could be all they need for the championship so might be worth it.

  16. Take the pen at a track you think you will come third because even with a grid pen a Merc should still get at least 3rd.

    Anything else is madness. Take the points a run.

  17. There is a fairly easy way out. Technical reasons resulting in engine change: grid penalty. Being hit by a less gifted driver resulting in engine change: free

    1. It is impossible to except a situation where a driver bumps another off, then capitalises with maximum points, and the bumped off one has to start at the end of the grid at a future venue. This alone, not even adding bowling Bottas makes this for me an absolute waste of a season which result eventually is meaningless. FIA at its worst.

        1. Wait, one more conversation with myself

  18. This only makes sense if Hamilton is bound to take another engine, and if he starts ahead of Verstappen.

    Otherwise im wondering if Verstappen will actual serve his penalty from the last race by doing this.
    He changes his engine which sends him to the back of the field. In my eyes he so still has that 3 place penalty to serve.

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