There was a remarkable synergy about this pair of races out beyond eastern Europe. Each of the two title contenders took grid penalties for power unit changes – Max Verstappen in Russia, Lewis Hamilton in Turkey – defining their tasks in those respective races as points damage limitation. Furthermore, the outcome of each race was randomised by the weather forcing late agonising decisions on pitting or staying out. As that process played out in Sochi, Lando Norris lost out on what was shaping up into his first career victory – and it passed instead to Hamilton, for an historic 100th time. In Turkey, with Hamilton gridpenalised and Red Bull less competitive than usual, Valtteri Bottas took his first victory of the season.
Verstappen, second in both races, and six points in the lead of the championship after Turkey with six rounds remaining sounded a note of caution about his prospects in light of Mercedes’ relentless performance. “We have been at tracks that naturally were a bit better for Mercedes but then this track was a bit unknown and clearly they were ahead of us. I do think we need to step it up a bit to be in the fight until the end of the season.”
But maybe it won’t be decided on outright pace. Reliability has to be a major concern for both as the power units get towards the end of a long season. Red Bull opted for Sochi to introduce a complete new Honda power unit for Verstappen (given that he was taking a three-place penalty anyway for his collision with Hamilton at Monza). This decision had, of course, been hastened by the damage one of his units took in the British Grand Prix accident with Hamilton. But Mercedes had concerns of its own. Two weeks before Sochi, in Monza, Bottas had taken penalties for a new PU. But there were concerns about that brand new unit and for qualifying in Russia he was running with one of his old original engines. After qualifying it was decided he would take his fifth new internal combustion engine, turbo and MGU-H and he’d start from 16th. What were described as ‘strange noises’ were being heard but not fully understood, hence the precaution. With Nicholas Latifi’s Williams also taking a grid penalty for a new Mercedes PU it seemed just a matter of time before Hamilton would be taking one too.