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…
In Austin a race broke out amid the arguing about the sport’s future – and Lewis Hamilton won it, completely overturning Nico Rosberg’s trouncing of him in qualifying. His fifth consecutive victory, the tenth of his season, the 32nd of his career (putting him ahead of Nigel Mansell as the Brit with the greatest all-time victory tally), extended his lead over Rosberg to 24 points. It was a classic Hamilton hunt-the-prey drive, very reminiscent of his win here two years ago when Sebastian Vettel had been the victim.
“I was even catching him in all the same places,” Lewis reflected later. The decisive pass came at the same place too – at the end of the DRS zone down the back straight into the tight turn 12. He was in unstoppable form, adapting to the changes in track conditions much better than his team-mate and carrying the confidence from that into his attack – which he pressed home in the second stint after they had each switched to the prime (medium) tyre.
The gusty wind that can whip up around the Texan expanses had turned 90 degrees from Saturday, a strong cross-wind cutting through the fast sweeping direction changes of turns three-four-five, making the cars edgy and oversteery there. Rosberg, who started the race with significantly less front wing angle than Hamilton, was pretty comfortable through there during the first stint, which he led throughout. Switching to the harder tyre will normally give a more oversteery balance but Nico decided to leave his wing as it was at the stops.
Hamilton, by contrast, asked for 2.5 turns to be taken out of the front – and it worked beautifully. From that moment Rosberg was in trouble – and knew it. With Hamilton big in his mirrors, gaining disconcertingly fast, Nico fumbled an ERS setting change – meaning he didn’t have full power down the long back straight. As they arrived into the 200mph braking area he simply didn’t defend the corner as well as you need to with a prowling Hamilton sniffing blood behind. “I just didn’t get into a good rhythm,” confessed Rosberg. “In Formula 1 it’s all about adapting quickly, but it just took me too long. I only got it right 10 laps after Lewis passed me.”
Twenty seconds or so after the Mercs crossed the line, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo took the final podium place, the prize for a superb race in which he pounced upon brief windows of opportunity to pass Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari and both Williams. He can now no longer mathematically win the title, but his was probably the drive of the race.
In the more settled conditions of Saturday afternoon, when the wind had calmed and the track – the surface of which has become increasingly grippy as time has weathered it – was warm, Rosberg was supreme. His driving oozed confidence and momentum through the fast sections, and was beautifully neat and composed through the slower technical parts. He was a full 0.4sec faster than Hamilton, who had repeatedly locked up, the result of having allowed his left front brake disc to become glazed.
Keeping the discs in the correct temperature window is especially tricky with the 2014 generation of car as the harvesting laps, when the bias is towards the rear, can result in the fronts losing temperature. If it’s not spotted immediately, glazing will usually follow. “But even without the problem I don’t think I could’ve done Nico’s time. He was very fast today,” said Hamilton.
The Williams was again the next quickest thing, albeit Valtteri Bottas in the quicker of them was over 0.8sec adrift of Rosberg, with Massa just edging out Ricciardo’s Red Bull for fourth. Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari was 0.6sec adrift of Ricciardo, only around half of that accounted for by the old engine in Alonso’s car. “We actually thought about putting a sixth engine in and doing what Vettel did and starting from the pitlane,” he explained, “but in the end decided we’d rather take the grid position.”
Putting a sixth engine into Vettel’s car incurred a 10-place penalty. So they decided to replace everything else too, gearbox included – and accept a pitlane start. Vettel accordingly spent the practices setting up his car for the race and made no attempt at graduating from Q1. Jenson Button was taking a five place gearbox change penalty, having qualified seventh, marginally faster than team-mate Kevin Magnussen. After its improved Sochi form the MP4-29 was back to being plagued by understeer, ameliorated slightly when the track temperatures came up, but not by enough.
Kimi Räikkönen squeezed his Ferrari into Q3, just faster than Adrian Sutil, who did a great job to get the Sauber through, lapping it faster than the Lotuses, Force Indias and Toro Rossos. An aero upgrade (new wing and floor) and a new fuel from Total combined with a track that has plenty of flowing corners allowed the Lotus to look more respectable than usual, Pastor Maldonado only just missing out on Q3. Team-mate Romain Grosjean, however, was at the back (pre-penalties), having spun away his crucial Q1 lap as the car’s tricky braking caught him out. The Toro Rosso of 14th-fastest Daniil Kvyat would actually be starting behind Grosjean after taking a penalty for a seventh Renault engine.
With 237,000 spectators looking on, Hamilton angled his car aggressively towards Rosberg’s as the Texas sunlight glinted off the cars and the wind gusted across the track. Vettel’s Red Bull sat at the end of the pitlane, on the prime medium tyres. Of those on the grid, only Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India and Kvyat shared Seb’s tyre choice. For everyone else it was the soft and its superior traction off the line.
Degradation rates of both types had been high enough during practice to suggest the 56 laps could be completed with two stops. But which would be the favoured tyre? Was it better to do two option stints and one prime? Or two primes/one option? That was less clear-cut. At Mercedes and Red Bull – the two cars with the best aero – it was pretty clear: the prime was the better race tyre. At Williams they strongly favoured the option.
The contained burble and snarl of 18 hybrid F1s momentarily deepened in pitch as the load was taken up by the drivetrains, then rose sharply again as wheels began spinning. Rosberg’s start was perfect, Hamilton’s from the dirty left hand side not at all bad but not enough to seriously contest the turn as they headed up that spectacularly steep hill to the blind apex. Massa’s Williams got a better start than Bottas, who got too much wheelspin, allowing Felipe to force his way through. Valtteri had to get his elbows out to keep Alonso behind as they charged down the hill through turn two.
Ricciardo had bogged down – “I don’t think I got the procedure quite right,” – and seen two Ferraris and two McLarens surge past. But sticking to the outside line allowed him to retake Button and Räikkönen and he now aggressively hounded Magnussen, passing him into turn 12.
1 L Hamilton Mercedes 1h40m04.785s
2 N Rosberg Mercedes +4.314s
3 D Ricciardo Red Bull +25.560s
4 F Massa Williams +26.924s
5 V Bottas Williams +30.992s
6 F Alonso Ferrari +1m35.231s
7 S Vettel Red Bull +1m35.734s
8 K Magnussen McLaren +1m40.682s
9 J-E Vergne Toro Rosso +1m43.863s
10 P Maldonado Lotus +1m47.870s
11 R Grosjean Lotus +1 lap
12 J Button McLaren +1 lap
13 K Räikkönen Ferrari +1 lap
14 E Gutiérrez Sauber +1 lap
15 D Kvyat Toro Rosso +1 lap
DNF N Hülkenberg Force India Power Unit
DNF S Pérez Force India Accident
DNF A Sutil Sauber Accident
The two Mercs were already putting visible distance on Massa as they rounded the tight twists of the middle sector. Into turn 15 – a tight U-bend – Sergio Pérez saw a gap to the inside of Sutil and thrust the Force India into it. But the extra speed needed to get alongside the Sauber guaranteed him an impact with the rear of Räikkönen’s Ferrari. Kimi carried on but Pérez cannoned off the Ferrari into the path of Sutil and as the Sauber spun around, it made contact with the Force India for a second time, the front wheels of each interlocking and destroying their suspensions. Sutil was out on the spot, Pérez’s car crawled around to retire and the safety car came out.
This brought both McLarens, Hülkenberg, Esteban Gutiérrez’s Sauber and Vettel into the pits for tyre changes. Magnussen and Button switched to their favoured primes. Red Bull used the safety car to get the un-favoured but compulsory options out of the way, Seb coming in again on the second lap to change back to the primes. Being at the back anyway, it lost him no places. Being behind the safety car, it lost him no time. The safety car delta time being around 20sec faster than the actual safety car pace the field was being held to allow Seb to close up to the back of the pack. He was now set to race on his favoured tyre compound throughout. The RB10 had been set up with a skinny Monza-type rear wing to allow him to surge through the pack as racing resumed. But it didn’t quite work out that way.
Racing was underway again at the end of the fourth lap, Rosberg pulling away cleanly from Hamilton as the two Williams briefly squabbled up the hill and into the first turn. Massa stayed ahead, but just behind them Ricciardo made a beautiful move to steal fifth from Alonso, staying out to the outside until very late before an aggressively late swoop to the inside that caught Fernando napping – though Daniel came within a hair’s breadth of collecting the back of Bottas as the Williams turned in across him. Alonso came back at him and they duked it out down the hill, side-by-side through the fast turn two, with the Red Bull just grinding ahead by using a bit of artificial grass on the exit of the turn, forcing Fernando to finally concede as they entered the fast Maggotts-Becketts-like switchback of turns 3-4.
So the race settled into an early rhythm, the two Mercs in close formation, Hamilton content at this stage to sit behind, save fuel and just monitor how he and Rosberg compared. Through the twists of the middle sector it was hard to stay close – and this made getting into the DRS detection point before turn 11 quite difficult. Lewis’s front left brake had again fallen below temperature during the safety car period (becoming 100deg C cooler than the right) but he’d caught it in time, braked heavily for a few corners to prevent the dreaded glazing.
The Mercs were not radically faster than the Williams at this stage, Massa and Bottas in their own team formation and able to keep themselves out of Ricciardo’s DRS reach. Alonso wasn’t too surprised that they’d all been able to leave him and team-mate Räikkönen quickly behind. Not so far behind them a good battle was unfolding between Maldonado, Jean-Éric Vergne’s Toro Rosso and Grosjean. Near the back Vettel was making no progress at all. “I’ve spent all weekend doing 1min 44s and now I’m in the 46s. I have no grip,” he complained over the radio.
Ricciardo had been trailing Bottas quite closely but lacked the straightline speed to attempt a pass. Red Bull brought him in on lap 14, as Williams did the same with Massa. Felipe’s stop consigned Bottas into staying out until after Ricciardo, making him vulnerable to the undercut. His old-tyre in-lap pace against Ricciardo’s fresh tyre out-lap ensured Daniel was able to drive clean around Valtteri outside turn one. It was notable that both Williams had been fitted with option tyres, tallying with their pre-race analysis. Ricciardo by contrast was on the primes – a choice most others would also make.
By the 13th lap Rosberg was radioing in that his front left was just about finished and two laps later he was brought in from around 2sec in front of Hamilton. He was stationary for 3.0sec, the primes went on and out he went as Hamilton – who was struggling even more with the rubber – was a full 1.2sec slower on his in-lap. As he stopped, the front wing adjustment was made and he was underway after 3.1sec. The later stop had expanded his deficit to Rosberg but he was immediately lapping much faster.
Now his race was coming alive and he responded, slashing 0.7sec off Rosberg’s lead on his second flying lap, then 0.3sec, 0.4sec, 0.3sec until by lap 22 he was within DRS range as he crossed the start/finish line. He took a look at the end of the back straight on the 23rd lap. “I knew I was going to pass him,” Hamilton said. “It was just a question of when. I felt very confident. There was a big headwind into turn 12 and that was giving me confidence to brake late and I felt I was just waiting for the moment really – just to be close enough to throw it up the inside.”
That moment came there on the 24th lap, hastened by Rosberg unknowingly selecting the wrong control for a defensive power boost. “I moved the wrong thing to get more KERS,” he explained. “When I saw him coming I decided to go for the extra boost but I never got it. I thought I was using the right thing, but there was a delay in that one. If I did it with a button it would be immediate, but with a switch there is a delay, so I never got the extra KERS.”
As they arrived in the braking zone Hamilton was quite far back and Rosberg momentarily imagined he was safe for now. But that was to reckon without Hamilton’s confidence. “You have to decide how much risk you’re willing to take and Nico wasn’t really defending so I did it.” Hamilton slid up the inside, ignoring Rosberg’s belated attempt at leaning on him, then almost swapping sidewall paint as they got to the exit. Hamilton was through and soon pulling away.
1 Lewis Hamilton 316
2 Nico Rosberg 292
3 Daniel Ricciardo 214
4 Valtteri Bottas 155
5 Sebastian Vettel 149
6 Fernando Alonso 149
7 Jenson Button 94
8 Felipe Massa 83
9 Nico Hülkenberg 76
10 Kevin Magnussen 53
11 Sergio Pérez 47
12 Kimi Räikkönen 47
13 Jean-Éric Vergne 23
14 Romain Grosjean 8
15 Daniil Kvyat 8
16 Jules Bianchi 2
17 Pastor Maldonado 1
18 Adrian Sutil 0
19 Marcus Ericsson 0
20 Esteban Gutiérrez 0
21 Max Chilton 0
22 Kamui Kobayashi 0
23 André Lotterer 0
Meanwhile Massa was hanging on well in third. He’d been 7.5sec off the lead as the first stops had approached. On the eve of the second, having been on the options while the Mercs were on the primes, he remained exactly that distance adrift. “How come Massa was able to push us?” quizzed Rosberg to an engineer afterwards.
Were the options so much faster than the primes that they could compensate for the difference between a Mercedes and Williams? Almost certainly not – as the subsequent stints would show. “Yes, we were surprised by the relative gap to the Mercs,” said Rob Smedley. “We’d been 0.8sec off them in qualifying.”
“Maybe they were just using the tyre a bit harder than us,” Massa offered.
Or, with Hamilton in front and going only as fast as needed to maintain a gap of around 5sec over Rosberg, was Nico struggling even more than was apparent?
Not only had Massa lost nothing to the Mercs in his middle stint, he had pulled out 2.4sec over Ricciardo – probably enough to make him immune to any undercut attempt by Red Bull. Given that apparently comfortable margin, Williams began to think in terms of trying to undercut Bottas back ahead of Ricciardo – and only then pitting Massa. It might have worked. But it floundered on a couple of things.
Williams brought Bottas in at the end of lap 30 from 4sec behind, gave him a clean stop and stuck on a set of primes. Knowing he was on his in-lap, Ricciardo responded with a ferocious pace that had just not been apparent – almost like he’d been deliberately not showing his hand. Through the final sector he found 0.7sec over anything Williams could do, having previously been roughly on their pace through there.
“It seemed the longer into a stint we went, the better we were relative to Williams,” said Daniel. “At first we couldn’t really hang onto them.” It’s a pattern that we’ve seen already this year and Red Bull suspect it’s a combination of being slightly easier on the tyres and being more competitive as the fuel load burns off – quite possibly because of the relative grunt of their engines.
That’s perhaps why the Red Bull became more competitive later into the race, but Ricciardo’s disguising of that advantage and then unleashing it was masterly. Not only did it mean Bottas stayed firmly behind, but a 1sec delay to a sticking front wheel at Massa’s stop and more time lost from the subsequent frustrated wheel-spinning exit meant that Ricciardo was past and up to third. With both cars now on primes their pace was quite similar but Massa was never able to get within DRS range of the Red Bull.
Hamilton and Rosberg made their respective stops shortly afterwards, Lewis opting for half a turn less front wing, Nico for 1.5 turns more. Into this stint Rosberg seemed more on-song, but for every fast lap he delivered Hamilton could respond at will. But the genteel Rosberg-dictated middle stint pace was underlined as the Mercs pulled out 18sec on the Ricciardo/Massa duo over the last 25 laps, having gained nothing over third place in the middle stint. The very low degradation rate of the prime in the final stint suggested that Williams had perhaps chosen wrong in favouring the option.
As the long final stint shaped up into the two Mercs pulling clear of Ricciardo and the two Williams, there was some great action a long way behind as the various strategies of Ferrari, Vettel’s Red Bull, McLaren, Lotus and Toro Rosso played out.
After their lap one safety car stops, Magnussen, Button and Vettel were out of sequence with the more conventional strategies of the Ferraris, Lotuses and Toro Rossos. They first interfered as Alonso rejoined after his first stop on lap 16 just behind the two McLarens. The further the race went on the more Button was struggling with his rear tyres. Their surface was overheating wildly, but the core remained drastically cool.
1 Mercedes 608
2 Red Bull-Renault 363
3 Williams-Mercedes 238
4 Ferrari 196
5 McLaren-Mercedes 147
6 Force India-Mercedes 123
7 Toro Rosso-Renault 31
8 Lotus-Renault 9
9 Marussia-Ferrari 2
10 Sauber-Ferrari 0
11 Caterham-Renault 0
Alonso, after having a couple of looks through turn 12 and the slow sequence after that finally made a decisive move up to turn one on the 24th lap. On lap 27 Alonso followed up with a similar move on Magnussen. The McLarens’ tyres were old by this point. Button was told to pit at the end of lap 27, then had that request cancelled as the team decided to bring in Magnussen first. “It’s normal for the guy running ahead to get preference,” said JB afterwards, “but not when the other car has already been called in. My tyres were so gone that extra lap cost me three places.”
Ferrari’s strategy was to do a very long middle stint on the mediums and a short final stint on options. This looked like the fastest way according to the race sims after practice. Alonso pumped in the times for 27 laps during that middle stint, slowly grinding himself out of reach of the McLarens, Lotuses and Toro Rossos. His challenge would be in the closing stages as Red Bull chose to throw the dice one more time for Vettel, by giving him fresh options eight laps from the end. This put him 20sec behind the Ferrari but going up to 3sec faster.
Seb’s car had gradually come alive as the fuel load came down and he was scything through past Kvyat, Räikkönen, Grosjean, Vergne and the McLarens to be behind Alonso by the penultimate lap. Warned of Vettel’s pitting, Alonso was told to keep his tyres ready for a late Seb onslaught. Puzzlingly, he backed off hugely but then slotted in one of the fastest laps of the race. Vettel was within 0.5sec of Alonso’s sixth place at the flag and a few seconds up the road from Magnussen.
Grosjean was for a long time heading Vergne and Maldonado from his last row starting slot, but JEV made a particularly hefty hit on his countryman, knocking him aside as they went through turn one, Romain forced out over the kerb and sustaining front wing damage – and passed by team-mate Maldonado as he struggled to rejoin. Vergne crossed the line ninth but a time penalty for the Grosjean hit dropped him behind Maldonado in the official results.
Räikkönen had dropped a long way adrift. He’d been within a couple of seconds of Alonso at the end of the opening stint, but had fallen to 16sec off by the eve of the second stops. Thereafter he got bundled ever further back in the pack. Among those passing him was Kvyat who had been flying on his late-fitted options. Unfortunately in making contact with the Ferrari as he passed, he sustained a puncture, the stop for which left him last.
Rosberg made a brave face of it afterwards, saying it’s all still to play for – which of course it is; because of the ridiculous double points finale. But with two races to go, that the guy with 10 victories should still be vulnerable to the team-mate with four seems… well, wrong. It could yet be that Hamilton heads a Merc 1-2 in Brazil but then retires in Abu Dhabi, that Rosberg could win the title by finishing second there. He could become champion despite seven fewer victories.
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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