Goin' up, goin' down: 2021 Russian Grand Prix
Ahh, the satisfaction of a pure Formula 1 race in the bracing Black Sea breeze, free of artificial gimmicks. It was good old-fashioned engine penalties that saw Max Verstappen, Charles…
Nico Rosberg this time prevailed over Mercedes team-mate and title rival Lewis Hamilton in the way he’d conspicuously failed to do last week in Austin. But it was oh-so-close, never closer than on lap 28 when Hamilton was instructed to stay out for a second extra lap after Rosberg had pitted from the lead.
The whole destiny of this race hung upon this lap – one which Lewis hadn’t realised he’d be doing. He’d assumed he was coming in the lap after Rosberg. As Rosberg peeled off Hamilton was told it was ‘hammer time’ and so had given it everything on what was originally going to be his in-lap. But so fast was he going – set to be a whole second faster than the pace he’d been doing when sat behind his team-mate, fastest sector times through the first two sectors on 20-lap old tyres – that the chief strategist told him to stay out, to keep pushing.
The teams have their own GPS systems, measured every 60 metres around the track and so know exactly where relative to the others their cars are due to rejoin, given a standard assumed pitstop time loss. Even though Lewis had set those fastest sector times, that one lap was still not going to be quite enough to jump him past Rosberg. But if he’d been able to do another lap like that, then he would.
James Vowles is Mercedes’ chief strategist and is quite brilliant at his job. Sometimes he has to play chess against himself when overseeing two drivers fighting out the race win. In cases such as this, he simply seeks to optimise the chances of each car in turn, within the constraints of the lead driver getting optimum strategy. So with Rosberg pitted and underway, his attention shifted to Hamilton and the second extra lap suggested itself. As he crossed the start/finish line he went to ‘zero’ – i.e. he was now on schedule to exit exactly level with Rosberg. Through the Senna Esses it remained much the same and Lewis could already feel the rear tyres beginning to go.
Out through the kink of three and onto the short straight he was asked to make an energy recovery switch change to increase the harvesting rate. He did so, but in the busy intensity of the moment didn’t make a compensating forwards brake bias change. As he stood on the brakes for turn four, still pushing like crazy, he’d just entered ‘negative’ – i.e. he was on schedule for the first time to come out ahead of Rosberg. But those worn tyres, with the inappropriate braking bias working upon them, could take no more of it. The outer rear locked and in a thrice Hamilton was trying to rescue a major oversteer moment, one that only gathered momentum as the track headed downhill.
He travelled a long way across the tarmac run off, smoke pouring off the tortured rubber. He rejoined but seven seconds had left his grasp right there – and there’d be further time lost as he completed the in-lap on the flat-spotted rubber. That was Rosberg’s moment of crisis over. Though Hamilton was able to subsequently recover the lost time to get back on his rival’s tail, doing so used up the best of his rubber and Rosberg’s composure did the rest.
Rosberg’s qualifying superiority essentially bought him this race. He’d felt right from the moment the wheels started turning on Friday. What he needed was for conditions to remain consistent, for the weather not to make qualifying or race into tests of improvisation. If it stayed dry the task could be all about the chipping away at perfection at which he excels.
Nico’s main advantage was coming in the tricky, technical, tight turns of the middle sector. Lewis was making it up through the sweeps of turns three, four and five, but not by quite enough. Rosberg had been irritated with himself about Austin, the way he’d not got into the groove until after Hamilton had ambushed him, the weak defence he’d offered when the inevitable pass came. After setting pole again here, he was resolved not to do that this time – and he didn’t, despite Hamilton’s pace advantage over him on race day. He did, in other words, what Hamilton had done in Bahrain and Barcelona – fended off the team-mate who was faster on the day.
Felipe Massa was a crowd-pleasing third, over half a minute behind in the Williams and not so far clear of an over-achieving Jenson Button in the McLaren.
And so we head to the double points finale; 50 points on offer, Hamilton leading by 17 points.
Rosberg had the upper hand on Hamilton through the practices and qualifying. The lap which stood as pole – his second Q3 run – was actually not as good as his first run had been up until an incorrect engine setting cost him 0.3sec on the final uphill drag out of Junção (turn 12). Had it not been for that, his first run would have had him on pole by over two tenths rather than the 0.033sec margin he ended up with. Hamilton never quite nailed a perfect set up and was losing time to Rosberg through the Senna Esses.
Interlagos was the perfect track for the low-drag Williams FW36 which was a genuine threat to Mercedes. Felipe Massa’s car was late off the stands as a fuel pressure problem was fixed, putting him among traffic on his final Q3 run and causing him to abort, as did team-mate Valtteri Bottas who was plagued by brake locking. Their first runs left them third and fourth respectively. Fastest of all through the final sector – the long uphill drag out of Junção – had the best Williams sectors been strung together it would have slotted itself between Rosberg and Hamilton, though with the proviso that had the Merc strung its best sectors together it would still have been a couple of tenths clear.
Rosberg’s time broke the long-standing pole record of Rubens Barrichello, set 10 years ago with a 3-litre V10 Ferrari. Interlagos’s 800m altitude meant the normally-aspirated engines always lost around eight per cent of their sea level power here (around 70bhp in the case of the V10s) whereas with forced induction the current engines are unaffected by altitude. If the V10 records were going to be broken anywhere, in other words, it was here.
But coming on the back of last year’s Austin qualifying times being eclipsed by the hybrids last week, it illustrates what strides have been made since early season when these cars tended to be around 2sec slower than those of 2013. Despite significantly less downforce and an extra 48kg, they have now been faster at two consecutive venues than the last of the V8s, though here that was also partly to do with an all-new, less bumpy track surface.
1 N Rosberg Mercedes 1h 30m 02.555s
2 L Hamilton Mercedes +1.4s
3 F Massa Williams +41.0s
4 J Button McLaren +48.6s
5 S Vettel Red Bull +51.4s
6 F Alonso Ferrari +61.9s
7 K Räikkönen Ferrari +63.7s
8 N Hülkenberg Force India +63.9s
9 K Magnussen McLaren +70.0s
10 V Bottas Williams +1 lap
11 D Kvyat Toro Rosso +1 lap
12 P Maldonado Lotus +1 lap
13 J Vergne Toro Rosso +1 lap
14 E Gutiérrez Sauber +1 lap
15 S Pérez Force India +1 lap
16 A Sutil Sauber +1 lap
17 R Grosjean Lotus (power unit)
DNF D Ricciardo Red Bull (suspension)
“You really notice around here how much more power these engines have compared to last year,” said an approving Hamilton, “especially coming up the hill. I hope they don’t start slowing us down again. I’d like even more power.” Incidentally, Massa’s speed past the timing beam just before braking for the Senna Esses was 213.1mph…
Mercedes power and that big hill meant that even a McLaren was faster around here than the Renault-powered Red Bulls. Jenson Button slotted his MP4-29 fifth fastest, albeit 0.9sec off pole, the team having totally revised the set up from Friday. It still understeered, was still reluctant to switch on its tyres on the first flying lap and still prone to front locking, but JB got around these problems slightly better than Kevin Magnussen, who was a couple of places back. Sebastian Vettel slotted his Red Bull between the McLarens, 0.1sec faster than team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, who was three places behind. Vettel had opted for a slightly lower downforce rear wing than Ricciardo. Daniel’s wing should theoretically have given a better lap time than Seb’s, and he was left a little mystified.
Fernando Alonso got all he reckoned there was in the Ferrari to put it eighth, a tenth and a couple of places ahead of Kimi Räikkönen’s sister car. As ever, when the option tyre is soft relative to the track’s demands, the Ferrari suddenly has a front end and Kimi can drive it pretty much as quickly as Fernando over one lap.
Neither the Force India nor the Toro Rosso were well suited to this track and together with recent improvements made at Sauber it ensured Esteban Gutiérrez qualified a season-best 11th, with team-mate Adrian Sutil in 13th, sandwiching Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India. The run-on Austin engine change penalty left Daniil Kvyat on the back row where for company he had the Force India of Sergio Pérez, penalised for his accident with Sutil at Austin.
Jean-Éric Vergne described his Toro Rosso as undriveable after failing to graduate from Q1 and the Lotus E22s, as ever, were hopeless whenever the drivers had to turn the steering wheel. Romain Grosjean’s, for some reason, was up to 15 points of downforce down on Pastor Maldonado’s but still managed to go a couple of tenths quicker, 15th quickest, with Maldonado slowest.
The weather forecasts led the race strategists a merry dance all weekend, crying wolf about imminent rain. Instead Sunday afternoon was scorchingly hot and the new and very black track surface was soon up to 57deg C. This was much as it had been during Friday afternoon’s practice when the option tyres (softs) suffered quite severe blistering on both fronts and rears. Furthermore, a series of red flag interruptions to that session meant no-one had been able to put together any long runs even on the prime (mediums). Pirelli’s original choice had been medium/hard but the teams had successfully campaigned for this more adventurous choice. “Sod’s law then dictated we’d see the hottest track conditions here for 10 years,” smiled Pirelli’s Paul Hembery.
So no-one was quite sure what to expect – other than that there were likely to be a lot of pitstops. It looked like being a day of careful driving to extend stint lengths rather than flat-out attack – like a return to the Pirelli races of two or three years ago. The early stages, with the top 10 runners and four others on the delicate softs, were exactly like that. But a bit of cloud cover, a reduction in track temperature down to the low 50s/high 40s and the switch to the mediums brought pretty much everyone onto a comfortable three-stop. Kimi Räikkönen even managed to get his Ferrari through on just two.
There wasn’t so much carnival about the event this year. The samba drums weren’t thumping, the horns weren’t blowing, the dances weren’t happening. “The reason is simple,” said one local. “There aren’t many people here, so the usual party atmosphere is missing. As São Paulo has become expensive, so has the Grand Prix. It’s too expensive and there are a lot more other attractions, big name concerts, things like that, than there used to be. So the younger crowd is not coming to Interlagos. They save their money and go to the concerts.” Race day crowd was estimated to be in the region of 50,000. Not long ago it was double that. F1 has a problem on its hands.
The unexpectedly hot weather meant Sauber had to reconfigure the cooling of Adrian Sutil’s car, obliging him to start from the pitlane. Up and down the garages there were concerns about temperatures of the ERS control electronics and about the aerodynamically aggressive front brake ducting used.
Small crowd or no, a grid full of F1 cars, heat haze rising from their nether regions as they line up on that crazily sloping grid amid the amphitheatre makes for a stirring sight. Rosberg forewent the usual procedure of laying rubber down as he took off on the formation lap, very conscious of how each extra lap that could be squeezed from this first stint could be strategic gold dust. As the gantry lights went out his start was perfect and he barely needed to defend as he rushed up to the Senna Esses, Hamilton behind, comfortably ahead of a pack that remained largely in grid formation.
Down the steep hill they all rushed and through the long sweeping Curva do Sol onto the mad headlong rush towards the braking zone for turn four, ducking, feigning, diving, mad splashes of colour and glinting helmets. The front few poured through that downhill left like liquid, but the flow was broken up as Vettel’s Red Bull got out wide, having over-committed in the braking zone trying to keep the faster-down-the-straight McLaren of Magnussen behind him. He later admitted that his first lap accident there of two years ago was in his mind as he decided not to fight the slide, but to let himself run wide over the kerbs rather than spin. In doing so Magnussen and Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari sliced immediately past and Seb rejoined eighth, just in front of team-mate Ricciardo.
1 Lewis Hamilton 334
2 Nico Rosberg 317
3 Daniel Ricciardo 214
4 Sebastian Vettel 159
5 Fernando Alonso 157
6 Valtteri Bottas 156
7 Jenson Button 106
8 Felipe Massa 98
9 Nico Hülkenberg 80
10 Kevin Magnussen 55
11 Kimi Räikkönen 53
12 Sergio Pérez 47
13 Jean-Éric Vergne 22
14 Romain Grosjean 8
15 Daniil Kvyat 8
16 Pastor Maldonado 2
17 Jules Bianchi 2
18 Adrian Sutil 0
19 Marcus Ericsson 0
20 Esteban Gutiérrez 0
21 Max Chilton 0
22 Kamui Kobayashi 0
23 André Lotterer 0
With that little bit of dicing over, the option-wearing front half of the field immediately just settled themselves into a tyre-conserving groove. It was a mighty dramatic spectacle regardless, the cars travelling visibly faster by the end of that straight, whooshing by at up to 210mph.
Massa was first to experience serious blistering of the options and he was in from third place at the end of the fifth lap, with Bottas, Button and Vettel in a lap later, everyone switching to the tougher medium tyre. Rosberg was running just over 1sec in front of Hamilton and came in at the end of the seventh lap, with Magnussen, Alonso and Ricciardo trailing in some way distant. Hamilton had taken less from his tyres than Rosberg and with clear air in front of him unleashed an in-lap 0.5sec faster.
Regardless of the tarmac’s heat, the mediums were not switching on immediately and took over a lap to reach full temperature. As a consequence, the undercut wasn’t working; coming in earlier than your rival wasn’t buying track position. Hamilton rejoined closer to Rosberg than he’d been. Vettel failed to jump Alonso despite coming in earlier from right on his tail. That fact would later play a part in the Rosberg/Hamilton battle.
Those who’d started on the medium tyre – Hülkenberg’s Force India, Grosjean’s Lotus, Kvyat’s Toro Rosso, Sutil’s Sauber – were still out there and because of the very short opening stints of the option-tyred front-runners, they were now all mixed together and Hülkenberg led the race from Kvyat, Rosberg, Grosjean, Hamilton, Massa, Sutil, Bottas, Button, Magnussen, Alonso, Vettel and Ricciardo. Hamilton made short work of Grosjean and Kvyat to put himself back on Rosberg’s tail, with Nico then relieving Hülkenberg of the lead with DRS into the Senna Esses to begin lap 14, Lewis following through a couple of laps later just prior to Hülkenberg pitting, his front tyres blistered.
The 2sec lead Rosberg had opened up as Hamilton fought his way past the slower runners was quickly whittled down again. Partly it was that Rosberg was mindful of not over-stressing his tyres, but partly it was that Hamilton simply had better pace. As in Austin, Rosberg’s speed advantage in qualifying wasn’t carrying through into the race. The pair quickly edged out a big chunk of time over Massa (who was to take a 5sec penalty at his next stop for having sped in the pitlane) and Bottas, the latter being kept under pressure by Button, having a great race.
Jenson was hatching an escape plan. With Magnussen temporarily bottled up behind the long-running Grosjean, Button decided to just follow Bottas to get the DRS tow from him to allowing him to pull out time over those behind. “That meant pushing really hard and in the process it destroyed my rear tyres but it worked,” he explained. The Magnussen-Vettel-Alonso-Ricciardo bunch soon fell too far back to be a threat to JB and when Bottas later suffered a long delay at his second stop because his lap belts had undone themselves, Jenson vaulted up to fourth.
It could have been even better than that, though. Had McLaren given him and not Magnussen priority at the second stops, he’d have jumped ahead of Massa because of the extra 5sec the latter had to serve at his stop for the earlier speeding infringement. He was within 3.5sec of Massa on lap 24, who came in on lap 25. Had JB been instructed to simply follow the Williams in, passing it in the pitlane would have been a formality. Instead he was kept out until lap 27, having to wait until Magnussen – who was in possible undercut threat from Alonso (if the undercut even worked) – was serviced first. McLaren had prioritised Magnussen’s sixth place over Button’s possible third. Makes you wonder why – especially coming immediately after a similar scenario in Austin last week.
On the eve of Rosberg’s second stop on lap 26, Hamilton had closed to within 1sec. Hammer time – and Lewis let rip. A purple in sector one, another through the tight twists of the middle sector. “How often do you see purples on an in-lap?” said Vowles. Rosberg had been out of tyre grip when he’d come in the lap before but Hamilton still had enough rubber left for this, 1sec quicker than Rosberg. “I was just coming through Junção and I was thinking, ‘Have they actually called me in?’” related Hamilton afterwards, “and they came on the radio and told me to keep pushing. But I could feel as I went through the Esses my rear tyres were going.”
Still desperately pushing for the ‘overcut’, distracted by the instruction to make the harvesting switch change, he had his turn four spin. “At the end of the day, I made a mistake,” he said. “I locked the rears and with the under-rotation, it just spun me around. Second time it’s happened this weekend. So, no-one’s fault but mine. I’d used up the tyres on the previous lap and had nothing left.”
After re-joining on his fresh primes Hamilton was 7.5sec behind Rosberg who smartly used that gap to look after his tyres. With nothing to lose, because of the big gap back to Massa, Hamilton chose to attack the gap, taking significant chunks out of it every lap. Rosberg just monitored the situation. “I knew all I had to do at this stage was not let him get close enough to try a move,” said Nico, “and I felt I’d have the tyre life left to do that by the time he’d reached me.”
1 Mercedes 651
2 Red Bull-Renault 373
3 Williams-Mercedes 254
4 Ferrari 210
5 McLaren-Mercedes 161
6 Force India-Mercedes 127
7 Toro Rosso-Renault 30
8 Lotus-Renault 10
9 Marussia-Ferrari 2
10 Sauber-Ferrari 0
11 Caterham-Renault 0
Massa’s second stop was routine but a lap later Bottas suffered his delay with the seat belts that cost him 14sec and dropped him well back (he’d eventually recover to 10th). Still keeping Massa under pressure, Button had pulled himself well clear of the Magnussen-Alonso-Vettel-Ricciardo group onto the back of which was an out-of-sequence Räikkönen who was trying to get through on one stop less than the others.
Their stalemate was broken by Vettel coming in on lap 24. He was certain he could lap much faster than those immediately ahead of him and because this turned out to be true, he became one of the few drivers to make the undercut work. Magnussen and Alonso rejoined from their second stops to find they’d been leapfrogged by the world champion who had thereby counteracted losing places to them on the first lap. Team-mate Ricciardo was not having such a good time of it. He didn’t have quite the pace or – with his greater wing angle than Vettel – the straightline speed to do anything other than hang onto the back of the group. Some time later he would be forced to retire with a front suspension failure.
The out-of-sequence Räikkönen pitted from fifth on the 35th lap for his second and final stop. There was a delay of around 4.5sec after the front jack collapsed, but still he re-joined just 11sec behind team mate Alonso who had another stop to make that would cost him 21sec. This put them on course to be fighting for sixth later on. A lap later the out-of-sequence Hülkenberg pitted from third, but would still need to stop again for his late options, which was going to bring him out close to but behind the Ferraris. Running around 8sec behind Hülkenberg, having made up a lot of ground from the back of the grid, Kvyat was running a similar strategy. Just before he’d stopped he’d been quite aggressively passed by Vettel who jinked out from very close quarters as they raced at over 200mph down the pit straight.
Magnussen was suffering much higher tyre degradation than team-mate Button and soon his sixth place was coming under attack from Alonso, who on the 46th lap tried a move down the outside into the Senna Esses which didn’t work immediately, but the dice continued all the way through the following sequence of corners, Magnussen having to get defensive into four which compromised his exit and allowed the Ferrari to go through on the inside of five.
Just as Rosberg had expected, Hamilton had nothing left by the time he’d wiped out that earlier 7sec deficit and on the eve of the third stops Rosberg remained a couple of seconds clear. Hamilton again gave it everything as Rosberg pitted, but his in-lap was only 0.3sec faster. Rosberg, however, exited just behind a group of lapped cars, causing him enough delay to bring Hamilton out very close behind him as he exited the pitlane. Hamilton applied the pressure hard for the next few laps but always Rosberg had an answer, consistently quicker through the middle sector, Hamilton hanging on only through the help of DRS in the first and third sectors. As they fought like this so they pulled out ever more time on Massa and Button.
There was a comedy element to Massa’s final stop as he initially pulled up at the McLaren garage rather than the adjacent one of Williams. He was waved through to next door as Button pitted too (a lap late after a radio misunderstanding). Over the remaining distance Massa was able to gradually edge away from the McLaren. As the three-stoppers made their final stops, so two-stopping Räikkönen glided up to fifth, close behind Massa and with Button bearing down fast on his fresh tyres.
As Jenson caught and was delayed by the pace of the old-tyred Ferrari, so Vettel got himself onto the back of Button. On the 61st lap Jenson began a move like Alonso’s on Magnussen earlier that lasted from the Senna Esses until the downhill exit of turn five when he finally grinded himself ahead. As Kimi lost momentum there, so Vettel pounced on him too.
Next to arrive on Räikkönen’s tail would be his team-mate Alonso. This would be interesting. In the past in situations like this Alonso has not hesitated to get on the radio to encourage the team to move his team-mate aside – whether that be Fisichella, Hamilton or Massa – but on this occasion they simply fought it out on track, Kimi placing himself defensively perfect for lap after lap until eventually his old tyres couldn’t give him the traction needed at the bottom of the hill to hold his adversary off as they raced up to the Senna Esses on the 68th lap. Had Alonso been able to go straight past Kimi, could he have caught Vettel? “No. He was much faster than us.” A lap earlier at the same place the freshly option tyred Hülkenberg had passed Magnussen for eighth.
Hamilton gave chase right to the end but Rosberg had him under control, Lewis never close enough to try a serious move. As Nico took the flag for his fifth win of the season, bringing him to within 17 points of Hamilton, Texas was still on his mind. “Austin was a tough day for me on race day, so yeah, it was important for me to just improve, because I just didn’t do a good enough job in the race in Austin. Today I managed to do that, so that I’m happy about it. I learned from Austin and did better so that’s a big step in the right direction. One race too late but, y’know, there’s still all to play for.”
Indeed. Rosberg was one of the most vocal critics of the double points initiative when it was announced. “Now I think it’s great,” he smiled. But even without the double points, he’d still be heading into Abu Dhabi with the possibility of the world title.
As for Hamilton, had he considered how he’d feel if he didn’t take the crown? “No,” he smiled, looking puzzled. “Why would I do that?”
Ahh, the satisfaction of a pure Formula 1 race in the bracing Black Sea breeze, free of artificial gimmicks. It was good old-fashioned engine penalties that saw Max Verstappen, Charles…
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