The 2021 Russian Grand Prix was destined to be the most memorable encounter Sochi Autodrom had ever witnessed even before the downpour which turned the closing laps of the race on its head.Lando Norris his chance to become a grand prix winner.
The trio each responded differently to the late rain shower. But long before then another driver took his turn at the front of the field.
For the first time in nine years a McLaren sat on pole position, thanks to a bravura performance by Norris in a wet-but-drying qualifying session. His former team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr joined him at the head of the field in his Ferrari, the fight for third in the constructors’ championship unexpectedly thrust to the front.
Past races have shown the dirty, off-line second place grid spot at Sochi is a disadvantageous place to start. The row two occupants have a much better chance to position themselves for a slipstream on the 890-metre run to the first braking zone. And Sainz was in a less powerful Ferrari compared to the Mercedes-powered trio George Russell, Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo behind him.
But when the pack sprinted away, Sainz out-ran the lot, made an optimistic dive for the outside of Norris and came away in the lead.
“I got the best possible start on the dirty side,” he explained. “We know here the dirty side has quite a big disadvantage from the clean side.
“Both Lewis and I got away pretty decently. I think it was Lando, George and Daniel who were just flying off the line – everyone on the left-hand side were flying, a bit like last year basically.
“I managed to get side-by-side with George and then we were nearly banging wheels to see who was the one catching Lando’s tow. In the end Lando drifted a bit to the right, that gave me that extra bit of tow, I managed to get good momentum and brake really late into turn two around the outside and make it stick.”
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Norris didn’t sweat losing his lead. “I got done at the start but no mistakes, just that’s what happens here in Russia a lot of the time,” he said.
Behind Sainz and Norris, an already mixed-up grid was further shuffled in an action-packed first lap which saw more passing than the previous seven Russian grands prix combined. Russell held third, but Lance Stroll had gained three places to hold fourth.
Hamilton had a strong run down the inside at turn two but backed out of it. He lost out to Ricciardo and Fernando Alonso over the remainder of the lap, the latter having committed to the short-cut route through turn two. However Hamilton was back ahead of the Alpine before DRS was activated.
Sergio Perez passed Alonso next time by, leaving him one place ahead of his team mate Esteban Ocon. Behind him Kimi Raikkonen had risen from 13th to run in the top 10.
But the most impressive start of all was made by Charles Leclerc. The Ferrari driver shared the back row of the grid with Max Verstappen, but started lap two in 12th place.
Verstappen progressed more steadily, but made a crucial move on lap six when he poked his nose up the inside of Valtteri Bottas’ Mercedes at turn 13 and found little resistance. Any fears his afternoon would be compromised by his championship rival’s team mate were quickly allayed as he sailed by.
Bottas wasn’t able advance anywhere near as quickly he had two weeks ago at Monza, where he drove to the podium from last place. “He seemed to make good gains progressing and I just couldn’t do that,” said Bottas of Verstappen. “I had no chance. So we need to have a look why.”
“Monza was much easier to progress and here was so tricky,” he added.
Verstappen took Pierre Gasly and Leclerc next, though not without some drama. He nearly collided with the Ferrari driver who was also trying to pass Sebastian Vettel.
“Charles was fighting Seb in front and they were basically side-by-side from turn two to turn seven,” said Verstappen. “I had a good run out of five and Charles went for the move but went a bit deep, so then of course Seb overtook him again, but then I think he didn’t realise I was that close, and he just threw the car to the right and I had to avoid him and he almost took my front wing off.”
Up ahead, Hamilton was stuck behind Ricciardo in a queue headed by Russell, who was rapidly falling away from the leaders. Perez soon joined the back of that, and their pace improved slightly when Russell pitted in response to Stroll behind doing the same.
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Another driver to react to those early stops was Sainz, whose tyres had begun to fade and was passed by Norris on lap 13. The rest held their nerve, not wanting to commit to such a long stint on hard tyres, most having started on mediums.
By lap 16 Ricciardo, now second, was dropping back quickly from his team mate. Even so Hamilton was unable to find a way by the DRS-less McLaren. He now had only Perez and Alonso separating him from Verstappen.
The Red Bull driver was less than three seconds away, and would have surely made for the pits in an attempt to ‘undercut’ Hamilton by getting onto fresh rubber first. But he’d started the race on hards, and couldn’t make it to the end on a set of mediums at this stage.
Finally, on lap 21, Ricciardo pitted, and Hamilton put his foot down. The Mercedes driver reeled off a few fastest laps, trimmed Norris’ lead by two seconds, then made for the pits. He emerged behind Gasly, Sainz and Stroll, but was ahead of them all within three laps.
“I didn’t really know where I was in the race,” Hamilton admitted afterwards. “I had no idea how far Lando was ahead. I was just trying to set the best time every lap.”
Ricciardo had suffered a slow McLaren pit stop but the team turned Norris around quickly enough for him to resume 10 seconds ahead of Hamilton. Perez, Alonso and Leclerc lay ahead, all running long on hard tyres. They were all in and out by lap 37, restoring Norris to the lead, but with Hamilton now just over two seconds behind.
To Verstappen’s dismay, his pace on the medium compound tyres after pitting wasn’t strong. Alonso immediately passed him after rejoining the track on rubber that was 10 laps fresher. But the Red Bull driver said he couldn’t have delayed his pit stop any longer.
“My tyres were done, just fighting and being in traffic. The left front was just done so in hindsight maybe it would have been better to start on the mediums. I don’t know, but I also didn’t expect the hard tyre to give up so quickly.”
From being two seconds behind, it took Hamilton 10 laps to get within DRS range of Norris, by which point there were six laps remaining. Mounting an attack looked like it was going to be difficult.
“In the initial phases I was just saving,” said Hamilton. “Then I looked at my dash, or I saw on my pit board, and I realised it was lap 42 or something like that and then all of a sudden I started to attack.
“But just like when I was behind Daniel, you need a big delta to be able to have an opportunity to overtake here. They were quick on the straights, very quick out of the last corner so I don’t know whether or not I would have got by or got close enough.
“I was just about to get into the DRS zone or just got into the DRS zone and then obviously the rain came.”
At first the drops were light, but soon they came heavy enough to tempt those who were not having a good afternoon to gamble on a change to intermediates. For the likes of Bottas, languishing in 14th, it paid off beautifully.
Norris and Hamilton were almost 50 seconds ahead of their rivals by lap 48, so had little to lose by playing it safe and pitting for intermediates. Hamilton initially disregarded Mercedes’ first attempt to call him in, but came in the next time around.
On lap 50 Hamilton had already taken seven seconds out of Norris as the McLaren driver approached the pit lane entrance. McLaren allowed him to keep plugging away on slicks, but when he reached the far end of the circuit where the rain was at its worse, Norris realised he was doomed. He ran wide at turn five, then spun at low speed at turn seven as Hamilton swept by.
Norris eventually made it into the pits – despite skidding across the pit lane entry line, which he was lucky to escape a time penalty for – and took a set of intermediates. But his chance of victory was long gone.
“It obviously came to the point where we had to make the decision to box or not to box,” he explained. “At the times when it was tricky and we were going off track here and there the slick tyre was the tyre to be on.
“Of course it was like 10 seconds a lap off but the intermediate’s not going to be 10 seconds quicker, it’s just 10 seconds to a proper dry lap time. So even if [Hamilton] was three seconds quicker or something, Lewis, or five seconds, I still would have managed to hold onto the win.
“I decided to stay out because the team said it was only meant to be drizzling like that and that was as hard as the rain was going to get. For whatever reason we didn’t know or see or anticipate that it was not just going to be a drizzle, it was going to be a lot of rain and that’s where we went wrong at the end of the day.”
Hamilton also relied on his team, but they saw the way the conditions were going. The Mercedes driver said he had “blind faith” in the pit wall to make the right decision.
“I put all my faith in my team and they called me in and I believed them – and that’s part of our journey together. It could have played out any way but I think our team did a great job in terms of understanding where the rain was coming and it was going to get worse.”
The situation was different for Verstappen, who until the rain arrived was on course to add just four points to his tally. Risking a switch to intermediates made a lot of sense, and he reaped a major reward by being the first to commit. He made the call as he saw Leclerc skid off the track ahead of him.
“Naturally when you’re driving on slicks and it starts raining, it’s more of a driver-feel, so they kept on asking me,” said the Red Bull driver. “Communication is very important when it’s like that – so they kept on asking me, even though sometimes I couldn’t press the radio button because you’re trying to keep the car on the track.
“I was saying, the lap before, I think we still have to continue, because I was only losing like eight or nine seconds. Then that lap when we boxed at one point it was so hard to keep the car on the track. I was like ‘we need to box’.
“But you’re not entirely sure. Then the team said ‘okay, we’ll box’, they called me in and it was the right call.”
Other drivers who’d made the right call followed them in. Sainz was among the first to urge his team to get intermediate tyres ready; Ricciardo was unambiguous in his instructions to McLaren, unlike his team mate; Bottas salvaged a result from a day which looked destined to end in disappointment with half-a-dozen laps to go.
Alonso seemed particularly hard done by. He toughed it out on slicks and impressively passed Ricciardo, Sainz and Perez. But he had to give up the unequal struggle on slicks and lost places to all bar one of them: Perez. The Red Bull driver ended up ninth after hitting the pit wall on his way in as Hamilton had done 24 hours earlier. Ahead of him was Raikkonen, whom a dejected Norris passed on the final lap. Russell bagged the final point.
The Aston Martin drivers came next, Stroll lucky to keep his 11th place despite a 10-second time penalty by dint of being the last driver on the lead lap. When the rain fell he spun, then shunted into Gasly (earning his penalty), then tangled with his team mate. His two victims followed him home.
Having climbed to fourth, Leclerc gambled on staying on slicks, but also lost out and came in 15th behind another gambler, Ocon. Antonio Giovinazzi took 16th after completing the race without radio communications, leaving Alfa Romeo unable to help him at the end of the race. Yuki Tsunoda and Nikita Mazepin were the last drivers running, Mick Schumacher’s Haas having stopped with a hydraulic glitch.
Hamilton led just three laps to take his long-awaited 100th career win. The landmark moves him back ahead of Verstappen in the championship, by just two points.
Going into a weekend in which he knew Verstappen would have to serve a three-place grid penalty, he must have hoped for more. Until the rain hit, it would have been. Mercedes may have continued their unbeaten run in Russia, but Red Bull limited the damage and will head to more favourable venues eyeing the chance to regain the lead of both championships.
Quotes: Dieter Rencken