Will Norris convert his first pole into maiden victory at Sochi?

2021 Russian Grand Prix pre-race analysis

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For the second consecutive grand prix, the enthralling season-long battle for the championship between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton is under threat of becoming a secondary narrative to a McLaren driver chasing an unexpected victory.

With Lando Norris having earned pole position for the first time in his relatively young Formula 1 career by delivering the best lap on soft tyres on a drying track in qualifying, there’s a very legitimate prospect of McLaren backing up their first victory in 170 grands prix with a second at the very next race weekend.

But while McLaren proved they had enough pace around Monza to hold off the competition behind them, replicating that over 53 laps around the Sochi Autodrom is a different prospect entirely.

Going into the race at Monza, even without pole position, McLaren talked up their chances of staying ahead if they took the lead at the start. That proved exactly how the race unfolded, aided of course by the title contenders taking each other out at half-distance.

However Norris is more equivocal about whether he can convert pole position into victory on Sunday. “Do I think we can win? I would love to answer.

Norris shares the front row with his former team mate
“I believe we can, there’s an opportunity for it. But Mercedes are still as quick as they have been all season, it’s probably one of their best circuits of the whole season. So it’s going to be a good challenge, but I’m up for it.”

Norris and McLaren’s first step to victory will be to hold onto the lead of the race during the almost 900 metre sprint down to the first true corner of turn two. To achieve this, he will have to hold off his former team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr in the Ferrari who will be looking to make the most of the slipstream on the run down to the first braking zone of the race.

“I think there’s two options,” Sainz explains. “I either get a good getaway and it’s a direct race into turn two, or if not, obviously I’ll need to try to find a slipstream, because we know we are not the fastest on the straights and we are doing to need to find some tow, some draft, because if not, it’s going to be a long run down into turn one.”

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Behind both Norris and Sainz is another driver who will be itching to get to the first corner ahead of the pair of them – George Russell. After another wet qualifying session sees him at the sharp end of the grid, Russell was surprisingly bullish about Williams’ chances both at the start and throughout the race.

Russell likes his chances of taking the lead at the start
“We’re pretty slippery on the straights and hopefully Lando will give me a nice little slipstream into turn one,” says Russell.

“We’ve been scoring points now – three in the last four again. There’s no reason why we just can’t keep on going and we’ve got to be aiming for the podium. We’ve got nothing to lose and we’re just going to go for it.”

“I would not be surprised if George is leading the race after turn three,” remarked Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, jokingly suggesting the team’s future and current drivers, in the shape of Russell and Hamilton, could be leading at the end of lap one.

Should Norris emerge from turn two with the lead intact, his prospects of victory are enhanced by the fact that most of the fastest cars on the grid – the Red Bulls and Mercedes – sit multiple places behind him on the grid.

With championship leader Verstappen consigned to the back of the grid through a combination of two penalties and Hamilton fourth, one of the most intriguing questions to be answered tomorrow is how far each contender will end up the order by the chequered flag.

One element that could play a part in how the course of the Russian Grand Prix runs is in how Saturday’s semi-washout means that each driver starting from the top 10 places on the grid has a rare opportunity to start the race on whatever compound of tyres they desire. With every driver in the top ten having progressed to Q3 on intermediate wet tyres, there is no obligation to start on their Q2 set.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Sochi Autodrom, 2021
Hamilton gambled on hard tyres at Monza
Interestingly, this means that Sunday’s grand prix will resemble those that use F1’s new sprint qualifying race format – previously seen at the last round. That time, Mercedes took advantage of their unusual opportunity to start Hamilton on hard compound tyres for an extended opening stint. While Mercedes may have improvised in Monza on their strategy to cover Verstappen after his pit stop delay, it will be interesting to see if they opt to play a patient game again with Verstappen being so far back.

A longer first stint may be more attractive to teams given how green the Sochi surface will be after the thorough washing it received on Saturday. With a relative lack of rubber on Sunday compared to a typical race weekend, the likelihood that drivers will have to manage the graining on their tyres only increases – although the projected higher temperatures for the race start time may help to lighten this to a small degree.

“I think the degradation could be really high tomorrow because of the green track,” says Red Bull’s Sergio Perez.

“The first couple of laps are going to be critical in that regard. So it will be interesting to see what happens with the strategy because we’re going to find a track that’s very different to expectations.”

The other crucial element of the race will be how much progress Perez’s team mate Verstappen will be able to make and limit the damage in the drivers’ championship having chosen this round to take his power unit penalty. Verstappen has experience of making his way through the field from the back in Russia – having gone from 19th to fifth here in 2018 – but with no Saturday practice even he is unsure as to how to read the performance comparison between the Red Bull and the Mercedes.

Verstappen faces a long climb from the back of the field
“It was a little bit difficult, but they still look very strong,” Verstappen says. “Of course, they will have turned up their engines in second practice for a fast lap and, from my side, I knew that I was starting in the back, so there was no reason to do that. So I guess we’ll have to wait and see how competitive we are going to be.”

The final factor that could affect the outcome of proceedings is whether the weather chooses to play a role in the action once again. There may currently only be a 20% chance of rain throughout the course of the race, but with Verstappen admitting that he expects overtaking to be easier for him should the track turn wet, he could be forgiven for hoping for that number to increase overnight.

Whatever the weather, all the ingredients are there for possibly the most intriguing Russian Grand Prix we’ve seen to date, with the prospect of another new race winner as high as it’s ever been and the chance of another significant swing in the title fight between Verstappen and Hamilton.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Qualifying times in full

Driver Car Q1

Q2 (vs Q1)

Q3 (vs Q2)
1 Lando Norris McLaren 1’47.238 1’45.827 (-1.411) 1’41.993 (-3.834)
2 Carlos Sainz Jnr Ferrari 1’47.924 1’46.521 (-1.403) 1’42.510 (-4.011)
3 George Russell Williams 1’48.303 1’46.435 (-1.868) 1’42.983 (-3.452)
4 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1’45.992 1’45.129 (-0.863) 1’44.050 (-1.079)
5 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 1’48.345 1’46.361 (-1.984) 1’44.156 (-2.205)
6 Fernando Alonso Alpine 1’47.877 1’45.514 (-2.363) 1’44.204 (-1.310)
7 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1’46.396 1’45.306 (-1.090) 1’44.710 (-0.596)
8 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 1’48.322 1’46.360 (-1.962) 1’44.956 (-1.404)
9 Sergio Perez Red Bull 1’46.455 1’45.834 (-0.621) 1’45.337 (-0.497)
10 Esteban Ocon Alpine 1’48.099 1’46.070 (-2.029) 1’45.865 (-0.205)
11 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 1’47.205 1’46.573 (-0.632)
12 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 1’47.828 1’46.641 (-1.187)
13 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 1’48.854 1’46.751 (-2.103)
14 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1’48.470
15 Nicholas Latifi Williams 1’48.252
16 Kimi Raikkonen Alfa Romeo 1’49.586
17 Mick Schumacher Haas 1’49.830
18 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo 1’51.023
19 Nikita Mazepin Haas 1’53.764
20 Max Verstappen Red Bull

Sector times

Driver Sector 1 Sector 2 Sector 3
Lando Norris 36.517 (3) 34.685 (1) 30.791 (1)
Carlos Sainz Jnr 36.549 (4) 34.793 (2) 31.168 (2)
George Russell 36.308 (2) 34.860 (3) 31.815 (6)
Lewis Hamilton 36.281 (1) 35.656 (7) 31.456 (3)
Daniel Ricciardo 37.170 (9) 35.062 (4) 31.885 (7)
Fernando Alonso 36.957 (7) 35.133 (5) 31.786 (5)
Valtteri Bottas 36.847 (5) 35.932 (8) 31.554 (4)
Lance Stroll 36.936 (6) 35.410 (6) 32.106 (12)
Sergio Perez 37.106 (8) 36.166 (10) 31.905 (9)
Esteban Ocon 37.355 (10) 35.979 (9) 32.075 (10)
Sebastian Vettel 37.632 (13) 36.714 (12) 32.093 (11)
Pierre Gasly 37.411 (11) 36.693 (11) 31.894 (8)
Yuki Tsunoda 37.552 (12) 36.845 (13) 32.354 (13)
Charles Leclerc 38.090 (15) 37.303 (14) 32.585 (14)
Nicholas Latifi 37.753 (14) 37.512 (15) 32.987 (15)
Kimi Raikkonen 38.456 (17) 37.917 (16) 33.213 (16)
Mick Schumacher 38.233 (16) 37.993 (17) 33.604 (17)
Antonio Giovinazzi 39.191 (19) 38.202 (19) 33.630 (18)
Nikita Mazepin 39.912 (20) 38.853 (20) 34.999 (19)
Max Verstappen 38.599 (18) 38.060 (18)

Speed trap

Pos Driver Car Engine Speed (kph/mph) Gap
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Mercedes 307.1 (190.8)
2 Nicholas Latifi Williams Mercedes 304.5 (189.2) -2.6
3 Sergio Perez Red Bull Honda 304.2 (189.0) -2.9
4 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes Mercedes 302.7 (188.1) -4.4
5 George Russell Williams Mercedes 301.1 (187.1) -6.0
6 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda 301.0 (187.0) -6.1
7 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri Honda 299.6 (186.2) -7.5
8 Lance Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes 298.9 (185.7) -8.2
9 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin Mercedes 298.4 (185.4) -8.7
10 Lando Norris McLaren Mercedes 296.2 (184.1) -10.9
11 Charles Leclerc Ferrari Ferrari 295.4 (183.6) -11.7
12 Carlos Sainz Jnr Ferrari Ferrari 294.8 (183.2) -12.3
13 Esteban Ocon Alpine Renault 294.7 (183.1) -12.4
14 Kimi Raikkonen Alfa Romeo Ferrari 292.5 (181.8) -14.6
15 Fernando Alonso Alpine Renault 292.0 (181.4) -15.1
16 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes 291.1 (180.9) -16.0
17 Mick Schumacher Haas Ferrari 289.8 (180.1) -17.3
18 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Ferrari 279.7 (173.8) -27.4
19 Nikita Mazepin Haas Ferrari 276.9 (172.1) -30.2
20 Max Verstappen Red Bull Honda 274.3 (170.4) -32.8

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Over to you

Will Norris, Sainz or Russell grab the opportunity to score their first win? Which of the championship contenders will come out ahead?

Share your views on the Russian Grand Prix in the comments.

2021 Russian Grand Prix

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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18 comments on “Will Norris convert his first pole into maiden victory at Sochi?”

  1. Max and Lewis need to survive the first corners. This is actually a track where the first lap can be chaotic. I mean Sainz crashed on his own last year at turn 3 at the start. I think there has been a crash at almost every race here on lap 1 since 2014.

    1. The length of the run to T1 also gives Hamilton a chance to obtain the lead before T2 also. That said, it is the same for anyone else but the speed trap shows Hamilton being very fast and with a tow, it’s certainly possible.

      1. Easy: Lewis will be patient.
        – Just keep p4 after lap 1.
        – pass George and Sainz with the Merc pace advantage. Possibly waiting for drs support from lap3.
        – do the undercut on Lando.
        – If unsuccessful, do undercut in 2nd stop.

        1. That seems the smart strategy.

          Just beware of Alonso. If he gets in front before T2 then this whole strategy might take a lot longer.

  2. Provided he survives the sitting duck situation at race start, I would say he gets a chance to battle with Lewis once the latter has cleared Carlos & George (which I expect on lap 1 or ultimately lap 2). And Lando can do the battling knowing Lewis can’t take too much risk.

  3. Lewis has by far the fastest car. It is an easy win for him when he passes Norris.
    George act to totos orders, and Sainz is the dark horse here.
    But this race is Lewis to win.
    Any other outcome would be really embarrassing.

    1. Max will to win tomorrow. He’s got a new engine and didn’t have to set up for the rain so his car should much faster and he’ll have easy DRS overtakes. Max has the best race car on the grid by some margin tomorrow. Anything other than a win would be embarrassing.

      1. So funny you two, Did you happen to watch the F2 race today? Reverse grid and no passes. Tomorrow is forecasted to have same light rain making it much harder to pass especially if the drive line dries up some compared to rest of track. Admittedly the F2 race did a rolling start eliminating carnage and possible passing opportunities at the start. It was a parade.

        Hope your two drivers get to do what you say :)

      2. Yes, that car is so stellar. Look at what Perez distracts out of it. Super car

  4. I reckon a HAM win if the weather is dry. Light rain is a slightly different matter.
    RUS on P3 could do what Bottas did twice and Seb in 2019 if he can get a good getaway.

  5. Norris is used to holding up Hamilton now after Austria and Monza so will give it a good try, but the real lap time difference here is much bigger so will be difficult. Still, he could stop Bottas, and another 2nd place would still be awesome for McLaren.

  6. He has an even better chance now Bottas has an engine penalty and will be starting from the back/possibly pit lane.

  7. Breaking Bottas changes engine and will start at the back together with max.

    1. If I were a naughty boy, I’d say Toto put Bottas in the position to make sure Verstappen needs a new engine for the next race as well.
      Good thing I’m not a naughty boy.

  8. Bottas has taken an engine change partly due to losingba pu due to “accidental damage”

    Yep, “accidental”…

  9. I give Ferrari a good chance today.

  10. Sooooooo damn close to doing that, very close on the dry, and on the wet could’ve done it if it didn’t rain significantly, was driving really well even on light rain on slick tyres.

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