Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Sochi Autodrom, 2021

How a late rain shower led to hundredth win for Hamilton and heartbreak for Norris

2021 Russian Grand Prix review

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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.

But while the two title contenders sussed the sudden change in conditions to perfection, it cost 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.

Start, Sochi Autodrom, 2021
Sainz grabbed the lead from Norris
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.

Antonio Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo, Sochi Autodrom, 2021
Several drivers made for the run-off at turn two
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.”

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, Sochi Autodrom, 2021
Bottas couldn’t pass as easily as he did at Monza
“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.

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren, Sochi Autodrom, 2021
Ricciardo was too quick on the straights for Hamilton to get by
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.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Sochi Autodrom, 2021
Early pit stop meant a tough second stint for Verstappen
“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.

Hamilton closed on Norris – then the rain came
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.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Sochi Autodrom, 2021
Lost win left Norris dejected
“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.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Sochi Autodrom, 2021
Hamilton’s hundredth win gives him a slender points lead
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

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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30 comments on “How a late rain shower led to hundredth win for Hamilton and heartbreak for Norris”

  1. The decision for Hamilton on lap 48 to stop was driven by the championship situation or the weather situation?

    Given he was 40 seconds ahead, it made absolute sense to stop and bank those 18 points from the championship perspective. Plus, he would have the same rubber as Max so you cover him off as well.

    Hope these last few laps propels Lewis back to his old error-free form and he breaks away from the error-prone form we have seen since Saturday of Monza until lap 47 of Russian Grand Prix. The Lewis of 2018-2020 would have led the entire 106 laps (save for pit-stops) and bagged 52 points across Monza and Sochi.

    1. Was saying the same to a friend. He did good to bounce back from the Saturday. Fingers crossed this brings out the unstoppable hamilton of post summer break we are used to seeing!

      1. Luck!
        Yes definitely win by luck. Nothing else.
        Before this merc have had the fastest car on the grid, sure easy win. Yesterday win was simply luck by rain.
        RB performance are quite similiar or a little more faster than merc, you can see its quite hard for LH to win. If RB slower sure is merc will win, simply because they have fastest car.

        George Russel have demonstrates it before right? During LH took weekend off for quarantine due to positive covid19. GR easily lead the race until merc made a stupid call for pits, purposely or not we never know. You see GR from slowest car on grid then can easily lead race in merc. He can win easily if no stupid call by merc.

        Just saying.

        Reply moderated
        1. Being on the correct tyres for the conditions is not luck. Being sufficiently far ahead of the driver in P3 that you can take a risk-free pitstop is not luck.

    2. The Mercedes of 2018-2020 would have led the entire 106 laps

      So, I fixed it for you.

      1. Sour sour.
        What a loser.

    3. Wolff admitted as much. Hamilton stopped because they told him Verstappen had stopped for inters. Otherwise he probably would have stayed out, trying to pass Norris.

  2. Just a couple of things as we continue to digest the events of yesterday…
    1. yet another week in which Daniel was consistently slower than Lando–although he didn’t appear to struggle much this time around. I also noticed that his morale is up and hope he masters his car by the end of this season.
    2. Mercedes have opened up their lead vs Red Bull in the Constructors standings–currently at 33. This was always going to be a weekend in which Mercedes were going to come out strong. But it wasn’t to be at least until lap 46 or 47 when Valtteri was still outside P10, Sergio inside P5 and Max fighting for P6. But a change of fortunes for Sergio and Valtteri meant that the lead is probably a little too much with just 7 races to go
    3. After a relatively poor first half, Valtteri now looks poised to finish P3 in the Drivers standings, but with showing so much strength at moment, one bad mistake could prove very costly–in hindsight, Valtteri taking the penalty here seems justified at least in the fight for P3 in the WDC.

  3. Before the rain came it was Sainz, Ric, Alonso, Ver

    They finished Ver, Sainz, Ric,…. Alonso

    Alonso stopped late coating him a places – Sainz and Ric and Ver all on the same lap – how did Ver get ahead to win the race for P2?

    1. Realistically, Verstappen was always going to make into the top 6 by the end of the race.

      He made it from P6 to P2 due to his tyre change being timed better than the three ahead of him, along with being one of the better wet-weather drivers.

      1. He had least to lose by gambling on intermediates, so was quickest to make the decision.

        The decision making by Lando/his team looks poor in retrospect, but for a driver a couple of laps away for his first win, entirely understandable. The team had more information, And perhaps ought to have been more straightforward in just calling him in.

        1. He had least to lose by gambling on intermediates, so was quickest to make the decision.

          This. Same goes weirdly throughout the weekend. Pole was won by Norris in similar fashion, able to gamble earlier than Mercedes – though Lewis’s off-track didn’t help him or Bottas either (firmly ruling him out of DOTW).

        2. No, they all pitted on the same lap

      2. @gardenfella72 Without the rain, Verstappen was struggling to hold on to P7 (Leclerc was closing in on him). For some reason he was chewing through his tyres. Being in traffic isn’t the reason because Hamilton was stuck behind slower cars for the whole race apart from the last two laps.

        1. redbull car is for some reason very gentle on soft tyres on warm tracks but not so good on hard tyres… makes really no sense but there must be some reason behind it… Turkey isnt gonna be walk in the park for Red Bull i think because weather is not gonna be too warm, even possibly rainy and cold like last year… Turkey is in middle of Fall transitioning into cold winter.. cold/cool weather may hurt Red Bull on Red Bull specific tracks… so still all not lost

    2. Max passed them both on track before the pitstop for intermediates. Pure race craft in the wet on slicks. They all pitted the same time for intermediates

      1. Thanks, seems most people missed this….

    3. The order was Sainz, Perez, Ricciardo, Alonso, Verstappen.

      When the rain hit Sainz gets overtaken by Perez and Alonso, and Ricciardo by Alonso.

      So now it’s Perez, Alonso, Sainz, Ricciardo.

      Unfortunately for Perez and Alonso, they pit one lap later than Sainz and Ricciardo so end up behind again.

      Alonso was even told on the radio that the rain was expected to ease up..

  4. Lando got cursed by Lance.

  5. I have a feeling that the Mercedes engine domination is causing the Mercedes works team a lot of grief and may cost them one of the championships. The resurgence of McLaren means that Mercedes’s cars are now competing with 2 more cars on any circuit that suit them. At Monza and Sochi where we expected the Mercs to be quickest, the 2 McLarens put in the fastest lap. They also have 2 excellent drivers capable of long-drawn battles on the race track with the Mercedes.

    Even the Williams of Russell has been a hurdle in terms of points, grids, and races, especially in wet conditions. Stroll and Vettel are a bit less of an obstacle but they have not really fought with the Mercs for a top position…yet :-)

    Mercedes and Lewis have done a pretty impressive job of circumnavigating the hurdles that have been thrown at them but it’s been a matter of luck and every race seems to present its own puzzle requiring a different solution.

    On the other hand, Red Bull tend to enjoy a very clear 1 car advantage on tracks like Zandvoort. They share their engine only with Toro Rosso so there’s no possibility of a 3 or 4 team battle at a circuit that suits the Honda engine. We also have to account 3 free passes in the midfield, granted Tsunoda is not competitive but if he were, he’d clear the track instantly with Verstappen behind him. Ditto for Gasly and Perez.

    Then we come to the teammates – while Bottas has been strangely absent in most races this season, he still leads Perez in the points. This will be key in the WCC battle should Lewis lose to Max. As we saw yesterday, Bottas isn’t exactly Alonso in terms of defense. His biggest contribution was Hungary but that was clearly an accident speaking of which it happened because Norris got fully in front of a Mercedes, a repeat of which nearly happened yesterday as Norris blocked Lewis yielding the lead of the race to Sainz. Lewis avoided the crash but had to brake very hard falling way back.

    It remains to be seen what part Bottas will play in the WDC, if any but he could be the key depending in outperforming Lewis (like Monza before the engine change) or fending off other pursuers.

    This is a very tough championship for Mercedes to win. They are fighting the entire grid and if they somehow win, it’s going to be a special one. The same can be said of Red Bull who are obviously dealing with a team and a driver who can pull rabbits out of hats.

    1. @freelittlebirds Some good points. I think Bottas is doing the very minimum in terms of following Mercedes’ race instructions. Although he happily took the engine change, he made absolutely no effort to impede Verstappen from passing him. He seems relaxed and content now to see out the contract, already thinking of next year. Great for him. But Lewis can’t expect any real help there (nor should he perhaps). The resurgence of McLaren is also apparently a thorn in Mercedes’ side too. They should be quicker though. It’s Mecedes’ tactical and driver mistakes that are causing the problem. If Lewis (and Valtteri) are ahead in qualifying at Merc-engine tracks, as they should be, having the faster car still, then it should actually play in their favour to have Lando and Danny Ric competing with Max. They have only themselves to blame so far.

      1. Mercedes have Russell as much as Redbull have Gasly – it was made pretty clear (publically) to Russel he is not to race a Merc car after Imola. McLaren are helping Merc big time by forcing Perez to start lower down the grid, giving them a two against one situation in most races. No matter what the rules say, I feel Merc definitely hold a little something back for themselves in the engine department – probably legally.

        1. You mean after they totaled both cars :-) A bit too late for that, right?

          Can you imagine that happening yesterday between Max and Pierre?

          Hey Gasly, why did you take out Verstappen yesterday?
          Wait, was I not supposed to?

    2. I don’t agree. The other mercedes cars are.not only competing with Mercedes but also with Red Bull and can cost them valuable points. To be honest this is how it should be everybody and team should drive for themselves for points. You are right about Torro Rosso but the same can be said for Aston Martin and Williams. I hope this will not be decisive for the WDC.

      1. @grapmg @david-br I agree, the best option for the Mercedes cars would be to qualify 1-2 and make a quick getaway. Qualifying and starts have been a bit of a mess lately for both drivers. Part of that reason are rain, sprints, and mistakes.

        I think the McLarens exhibit a more complex issue for the Mercedes works cars as they exhibit Red Bull characteristics and have the Mercedes engine power. Once you get by the DRS zones, the gap grows as they navigate the twisty sections much better much like the Red Bull. Mounting an overtake on a McLaren by a Mercedes is a really complicated affair.

        I also think that the Mercedes cars, for all their speed, have never been great at overtakes of quick cars and that is supported by the fact that both Rosberg and Bottas have struggled with overtakes. Lewis has gotten to grips with them but it’s a challenge for him too and he’s voiced it many times.

        On the other hand, Perez has looked like a racing god when overtaking with the Red Bull :-) I remember him saying “who’s next?” recently as if he was Pac Man in search of ghosts. Yesterday I was noticing how easily the Red Bull was overtaking cars. It was getting the job done so early in the overtake.

        Also at Monza, I’m pretty sure Verstappen could have caught up with Ricciardo for the lead but chose to sit at P2 since it only mattered that he was ahead of Lewis and stayed ahead of him. I also felt he knew that Ricciardo was going to test him and risk his WDC points so the plan for the overtake was to place off track with an undercut.

        My point is that on the circuits that favor Red Bull, there’s nothing Mercedes can do other than perhaps Lewis putting up a strong qualifying and a great race but that will be P2 (3 seconds away). On the other hand, if the circuit favors Mercedes, things can get trickier for Mercedes than for Red Bull. It’s very much akin to Toro Rosso being right up with Red Bull and Gasly and Tsunoda putting in fast laps while getting Poles and Wins. Horner and Marko would be in tears in the garage :-)

        As for the Aston Martin and Williams assisting Mercedes, it definitely isn’t anything close to what we see with the Toro Rossos. Red Bull are effectively a 4 car team. I’m not even sure there’s any quarter given between Aston Martin, Williams, and Mercedes. Definitely no quarter between Bottas and Russell as we saw.

        1. @freelittlebirds I understand your point but this is Formula1 teams should be free to race. I’m glad that McLaren is up there again more competitive teams makes it more exciting.

          1. @grapmg I totally agree. Of course, McLaren should be able to race Mercedes. I was just viewing it from the perspective of the championship for Mercedes and how it could affect them as they pursue the WDC and WCC championships.

            Incidentally, McLaren is probably thinking to themselves “why, oh why, are we winning right when the new set of regulations are coming in?”

    3. This is good and not so good, especially when compared to redbull.

      Perez offers no resistance, and the alpha tauri drivers always get out of the golden boy’s way without a moment of hesitation.

      If no 33 golden boy doesn’t win this championship, he will never ever.

  6. Small error in the text about Leclerc and Verstappen. “He made the call as he saw Leclerc skid off the track ahead of him.” Actually, Verstappen with Leclerc close behind him were doing great when the initial drops fell. They had the mediums on and both of them passed the struggling hard tire runners with ease. The compound difference doing wonders for them keeping at least some temperature in them. The hards were nowhere. From the onboard of Leclerc you can see Verstappen bolting for the pits ahead of them all. They followed him in except Leclerc who couldn’t because they had Sainz’ tires ready… In hindsight they should have double stacked. But I guess they felt they missed the cross over with Leclerc already and they had a mixed strategy now…

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