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…
Lewis Hamilton did one lap all weekend that was quicker than Nico Rosberg – that which secured him pole. Other than that, Rosberg was just slightly quicker and better over the three days. Even his start was superior – and that made his race. From there it was just a matter of converting his superior pace into the result, and that’s how it unfolded.
Hamilton simply didn’t have an answer – even if he had, he’d still have had the complication of a 5sec penalty picked up for crossing the pitlane exit line as he rejoined from his stop. There was a phase towards the end of the first stint in this one-stop race where Rosberg’s right-front graining was allowing Hamilton to close down the gap that had built up. But upon the re-set of fresh prime tyres into the second stint, Nico regained his earlier advantage and Lewis had nothing left in his arsenal.
Attention switched to the battle for third. This had been enabled by a problem Ferrari pitstop for Sebastian Vettel, up until then comfortably holding down the final podium place but offering no threat to Mercedes. Over 10 seconds were lost as the right-rear wheel nut refused to seat itself – enough for him to be passed by the Williams of Felipe Massa. Williams brought a very significant aerodynamic upgrade here that halved its previous deficit to Ferrari, but the red car was still slightly quicker.
Vettel set about chasing Massa down and the traits of the two cars could be see very clearly as Massa responded. Each lap the Ferrari would take a tenth, sometimes two tenths, out of the Williams, which was reaching 196mph at the end of the pitstraight, 9mph faster than the Ferrari. But then Seb would close up noticeably on the brakes and even more so with the entry speed he could take into the tight slightly downhill turn three, the Ferrari’s front end responsive and grippy, the Williams lazier and understeery.
Once Vettel got within DRS range with a few laps to go, Massa used the guile of experience to perfectly place his car, using its strengths and ensuring its weaknesses could not be capitalised upon by Vettel.
Valttteri Bottas took fifth in the other Williams, his race compromised by having to twice find a way past the Force India of the over-achieving Nico Hülkenberg. Some way behind the Massa/Vettel dice was a yet more fierce one for seventh place as Max Verstappen tried hard to repel Pastor Maldonado, the Lotus coming at the old prime-tyred Toro Rosso on much newer super-softs.
This almost ended in Maldonado suffering a Verstappen-Monaco-type accident as, DRS deployed, he switched sides approaching the first turn and got wildly out of shape. But not only did he correct the eighth-gear tank-slapper in what must go down as one of the most amazing pieces of car control ever seen, he gained the place too – as Verstappen ran wide onto the run-off area.
Unfortunately only slightly more than half the numbers of last year’s sell-out came to see the event this time around, only intensifying the growing concerns about the category’s health. The circuit’s owner Dietrich Mateschitz added to the sense of troubled waters ahead as he effectively threatened to take his bat and ball home, frustrated at the limitations imposed by the uncompetitive Renault engine in the back of his cars. Daniel Ricciardo was the senior Red Bull team’s highest finisher in 10th place. This represented an excellent drive from a penalised slot on the penultimate row of the grid.
Red Bull at least had an infinitely better weekend than McLaren. Honda’s new president paid a visit to see his cars start from the back of the grid after multiple penalties after which Fernando Alonso crashed out on the first lap – the victim of Kimi Räikkönen losing control of his Ferrari – and Jenson Button retired from last with a failed inlet sensor just eight laps in.
It was a session of improvisation rather than perfection. Rain-interrupted practices left teams with insufficient data – and the main imponderable was whether you should fuel for a single lap, two or even three in the cool conditions. With the track washed clean by heavy rain earlier in the day – the early laps of Q1 done on intermediates – and a surface temperature of just 24-deg C, both the super-soft and the soft tyres were below their working temperature range.
Braking stability into the slow corners was never good, even on the best cars, and all weekend Hamilton’s aggressive style on the left pedal was giving him all sorts of problems, with spins and moments punctuating his practice laps while Rosberg’s progress was relatively drama-free – and faster.
Even through Q1 and Q2 it looked like this was going to be Rosberg’s weekend, Hamilton consistently slower through the middle sector and having particular difficulty through turn three, on the site of the former Boschkurve but now much tighter and named Schlossgold. But, having struggled all weekend, Hamilton suddenly conjured a lap at the end of his first Q3 run, one which left Rosberg trailing by a couple of tenths.
It was all still to play for between them as they took to the track for their final runs, Rosberg ahead on track. “I knew I needed to find two-tenths to Lewis’s [earlier] time and I could see as I came up to turn eight [Rindt Kurve] that I had found exactly two tenths, so I knew I had to push in the last two corners,” Nico explained. Just a little too hard, as it turned out, the Merc running wide onto the AstroTurf (newly-laid this year), still damp from the earlier rain. As he tried then to take the final turn the damp tyres surrendered their grip, and he took to the run-off, stopping just short of the barriers.
Hamilton by this time was stationary on the turn one run-off – having locked his rear wheels as he stood on the brakes from around 200mph. It was remarkably similar to his incident here last year up at turn two. “I’m not sure why I seem to do that here. Just got big feet, I think.” Super-late braking gives a very fine line here between lap time gain and incident – and both Mercedes drivers had crossed it. It all left Hamilton’s first Q3 run good for pole – his 45th, equalling the career tally of Vettel’s and they now sit equal third in the all-time list, albeit a long way behind Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna.
As usual, the Mercs had stretched their advantage over Ferrari into Q3 as the engines were turned up and it was all Vettel could do to fend off the Williams challenge. He preferred to do single lap runs, feeling he could get the tyres turned on quickly enough to not carry the fuel weight penalty needed for multi-lap runs. His final effort placed him a solid third, albeit almost 0.4sec off pole around a very short lap.
The sister car of Räikkönen didn’t make it out of Q1, confusion over how much time was left of the session leading to him being in traffic on his final lap – queued up behind Pérez’s Force India and Alonso’s McLaren. To say he was unhappy with the situation would be an understatement and he turned the radio waves blue. There do seem to be a lot of operational errors on his side of the garage.
Williams arrived here with a major aero upgrade comprising floor, diffuser, rear wing, rear wing endplates, rear brake ducts and re-aligned guide vanes ahead of the sidepods. It was all designed to combat the tendency for the rear wing to stall at low speeds – the trait responsible for its poor form at Monaco. It all seemed to work well enough, though Massa was unable to put his best sectors together in going fourth quickest, 0.3sec adrift of Vettel, while Bottas was compromised by yellow flags at turn three on his final lap, leaving him sixth.
Sandwiched between the Williams was an over-delivering Nico Hülkenberg in the Force India-Mercedes, the Le Mans-winner in much better spirits this weekend than in earlier races this year, his aggressive style working well here. Mercedes horsepower did the rest as he used his single set of super-softs to go fifth, just 0.8sec off pole. Team-mate Pérez was caught behind Alonso on the crucial final lap of Q1 and didn’t graduate from there.
Renault’s horsepower shortfall – emphasised more strongly than ever by Red Bull’s Dietrich Mateschitz this weekend – was punished even more heavily than usual around the most power-sensitive track on the calendar. But of the four cars thus propelled, Verstappen’s Toro Rosso was the fastest, Max edging out the Red Bull of Kvyat for seventh quickest.
The STR10 had received its first significant upgrade of the season, with a new front wing and new rear suspension with a Mercedes-like raised upper wishbone allowing for more aerodynamically powerful shaping of the brake ducts and a single-piece lower wishbone forming an aerofoil. It retained its good balance and driveability but with more downforce and both Verstappen and Sainz were revelling in the low grip conditions.
Carlos, however, was caught in traffic on the vital lap in Q2, leaving him back in 13th. Kvyat reckoned he’d maximised the Red Bull RB11 in getting it through to Q3 – though he’d needed an extra set of tyres over Verstappen to do it. He would be taking a 10-place penalty for an engine change.
Rivalling Hülkenberg for the biggest over-delivery in qualifying was Felipe Nasr who got the low grip Sauber through to Q3, where he put it ninth on his single new tyre run. It might actually have been better than that had he not had to lift for the yellow flags at the final turn for Rosberg’s incident. This also meant he couldn’t deploy the DRS for the final spurt to the start/finish line. He’d found a lot of time from the team’s efforts in improving the braking feel for him by tweaks to the master cylinder.
Romain Grosjean got his Lotus through to Q3 but was unable to complete a lap there due to a hydraulic leak, leaving him 10th. Team-mate Pastor Maldonado was fastest of those not making it out of Q2, 0.4sec adrift of Grosjean and only just ahead of the second Sauber of Marcus Ericsson who had no particular complaints but was a similar amount adrift of Nasr.
Like his team-mate, Ricciardo entered qualifying knowing he’d be taking a 10-place grid drop for an engine change, but unlike Daniil he decided to trim the Red Bull out, running what was essentially a Monza rear wing with an eye to race day. This and a few niggling braking problems left him back in 14th. He was in a new chassis this weekend following his incomprehension of why he was so far off at Montréal and had opted to “go back more to how we set the cars up last year, to get more feeling in the braking.” However, mismatched brake temperatures across the axles rather lost the benefit of that.
Fernando Alonso once more squeezed the McLaren-Honda into Q2, a crucial tenth faster than Button when it mattered, though Fernando was in the new short-nose upgraded car, Jenson the standard one. The horsepower deficit was always going to be particularly painful around here – and so it proved. To keep the sensors from overheating at a track with such a heavy ers demand, it was back to Melbourne levels of electrical boost – i.e. around 35 per cent of its theoretical maximum.
Both were running with theoretical 25-place grid penalties for engine, turbo, MGU-H, MGU-K and gearbox changes. Because there weren’t that many grid places to lose, the remainder would be served as race day penalties – a drive-through for Alonso, a 10sec stop/go for Button. The four untaken places of Ricciardo’s grid drop meant 5sec would pass at his pitstop before the car could be worked on. The penalties put all three behind the Manors on the grid, Roberto Merhi looking more comfortable in the damp conditions of Q1 than Will Stevens who was 1.3sec slower.
Although the Pirelli choice of soft and super-soft is the most adventurous combination possible within the current range, both tyres were comfortably tough enough for the demands of this track. The circuit’s surface abrasion is low, the turns few. Together with the improved construction of this year’s rear tyre it made it another one-stop race. It was even more comfortably so after the pack circulated behind the safety car for six laps. That was triggered by the scary first lap collision between Räikkönen and Alonso.
Rosberg had made a perfect start. Hamilton’s reaction wasn’t quite as good and furthermore he was distracted by a small glitch on the throttle: “There was a problem with what we call the ‘wait revs’, which meant as I took my foot off the gas the throttle was still on and as I dumped the clutch I got a load of wheelspin.” Clear air thus opened up in front of Rosberg’s eyes – and the way to victory became clear. His underlying pace had been better than Hamilton’s all weekend – and now he had track position over him.
Vettel aggressively squeezed out Massa toward the pitwall for third, preventing Felipe taking advantage of his faster start. Hülkenberg retained his grid position – which was bad news for Bottas’s hopes of clearing the difficult-to-pass Force India off the grid. Valtteri in fact lost a position to Verstappen and was followed through the first turn by Nasr, Grosjean, Sainz, Pérez and Maldonado.
Ericsson had triggered some chaos off the line, as he initially jumped the start, then backed off and was swamped by many of those behind. Pérez had to swerve suddenly to avoid him and was hit from behind by Kvyat. The Force India was undamaged but the Red Bull’s front wing was trapped beneath the nose.
Rosberg and Hamilton went side-by-side on the approach to two but Rosberg always had the line. As they repeated this routine down to three, the race went under the safety car. Räikkönen had been just behind Maldonado as they exited turn two. Alonso, having as usual made up many places, was right behind, his front wheels level with the Ferrari’s rears as they accelerated up the straight.
“I don’t really know what happened,” said Räikkönen. “I got some wheelspin and it went left but it was unusual because it was at such high speed.” He was in fifth gear as the spinning wheels slid the Ferrari left, leaving Alonso with nowhere to go as they interlocked wheels. Now locked together, the two cars veered sharp left into the bank, riding the McLaren up over the Ferrari’s sidepods and only narrowly missing Räikkönen’s head as they scraped along the barriers to a thankfully harmless halt.
“Something strange happened there,” said Alonso. “It is not normal for a driver to lose control on the straight.” Inevitably, thoughts went back to Kimi’s Montréal spin two weeks earlier – caused by an over-aggressive start lap map that had delivered the torque too suddenly. Was it a repeat of this? “No, we don’t think so,” said Maurizio Arrivabene, “because it was at a very different speed.” Until further evidence comes to light, the best guess is that even in fifth gear the torque was enough to spin the cold, harder compound tyres.
Räikkönen had been one of four to start on the prime (soft) compound rather than the option (super-soft) along with Maldonado, Pérez and Ricciardo. Probably unwilling to back off with everyone jockeying for position in these opening moments, Kimi would have expected the wheelspin to have been just a brief flare rather than a spooling-up.
Almost unnoticed amid the drama, Stevens pulled the Manor off to the side with an oil leak. Kvyat came in for a new nose and a set of primes. The floor had been damaged by the wing, giving a significant aero loss. Ericsson damaged his Sauber over some debris – possibly remnants of Kvyat’s wing – and was in a lap later. He also took the opportunity of changing onto the primes. He’d be in again a few laps later to serve a drive-through for his jumped start and would suffer all sorts of delaying electrical glitches on his way to a lowly finish.
Button – knowing he’d be running at the back once forced to serve his 10sec stop/go penalty when racing resumed – came in for an opportunistic switch to the harder tyre, with the optimistic intention of trying to get through to the end on just this set. Unlikely. But unlikely also that the car would last long enough for the tyres to wear out. So it would prove. He would stop after eight laps with a failed inlet system sensor.
The safety car pulled off at the end of the sixth lap, Rosberg making a break for it as they approached the Rindt Kurve, Hamilton hanging on as best he could. With such a long way to go and just a single stop strategy, no-one was overly keen to risk flat-spotting their tyres – and though the madly accelerating pack, jinking this way and that, made for a dramatic sight, it meant little. The order remained much as it had been.
Rosberg was instantly into his groove and at the end of the next lap was already 1.5sec clear of his team-mate. But Hamilton was pulling away at a greater rate from Vettel. In the long runs of Friday the Ferrari had looked like it might be a threat, but it was apparent now that this had been a false picture; Vettel was around 1sec per lap slower than Rosberg and falling steadily further behind while gradually easing out a small margin over Massa.
Sainz dealt aggressively with Grosjean into turn three, banging wheels to go by the Lotus for ninth – and being followed through by Pérez as Grosjean lost momentum. Sainz then quickly closed up to Nasr who was already troubled by braking problems, just as in Montréal. As they got hot he lost all feel through the pedal, unable to accurately modulate them and as a consequence taking too much from his tyres. The changes that had worked for qualifying had not translated into the race and though he held off Sainz for now, he would subsequently gradually drift down the field.
1 N Rosberg Mercedes 1hr 30min 16.930sec
2 L Hamilton Mercedes +8.800sec
3 F Massa Williams +17.573sec
4 S Vettel Ferrari +18.181sec
5 V Bottas Williams +53.604sec
6 N Hülkenberg Force India +64.0075sec
7 P Maldonado Lotus +1 lap
8 M Verstappen Toro Rosso +1 lap
9 S Pérez Force India +1 lap
10 D Ricciardo Red Bull +1 lap
11 F Nasr Sauber +1 lap
12 D Kvyat Red Bull +1 lap
13 M Ericsson Sauber +2 laps
14 R Merhi Manor +3 laps
DNF R Grosjean Lotus
DNF C Sainz Toro Rosso
DNF J Button McLaren
DNF W Stevens Manor
DNF K Räikkönen Ferrari
DNF F Alonso McLaren
Rosberg had the gap over Hamilton out to 2.4sec by the 11th lap, with Vettel already over 5sec behind Hamilton. But through the next few laps Nico’s pace dropped off a little as he began to suffer graining of the right front – which takes a lot of punishment here through the long left of turn five, quickly followed up by the fast left of six. Hamilton closed the gap by a couple of tenths each lap until he too began to suffer the problem – by which time Rosberg’s graining had cleared up again as the top layer of the tread sheared itself off.
Bottas was pushing hard, frustrated at being held up by Verstappen and Hülkenberg ahead of him as Massa pulled away. He managed to nail Verstappen on the 15th lap and quickly closed down on the Force India. But passing it was another matter; it was as fast as the Williams on the straights and being placed defensively by the Hulk. Valtteri was having a rather busier, more attacking, race than his team-mate – and it was taking a toll on his brakes, dark clouds of carbon dust rising from his front wheels.
On the edge of the top 10, the Lotuses of Grosjean and Maldonado – on different tyre compounds – were running together, with Romain trying repeatedly to repass the prime-tyred Pérez. As Maldonado’s primes came into their own and Grosjean’s super-softs began to fade, Lotus was considering asking the latter to move aside – but it never quite came to that. Instead, on lap 23, Grosjean was brought in for his stop and switched to the primes. A lap later Nasr pitted, his tyres finished.
Bottas finally found a way past Hülkenberg for fifth as the latter’s traction began to fade with his rear tyres. The Williams got the power down better out of turn two and Valtteri drove around the Force India’s outside on the approach to turn three on the 25th lap. Force India responded smartly by bringing Hulk in immediately. Bottas therefore needed to be brought in next lap in response – and it was crucial he nail that in-lap.
He responded with a superb lap – but there was a delay getting a rear wheel attached in the pits and as he exited the pitlane the Force India flew by on his left. He would have to pass it all over again – a task that would prove just as difficult second time around, and take even more from his overworked brakes.
The heat generated by the small rear discs of the ers generation of cars is what is largely responsible for the greater incidence of wheel-fitting delays. It had played against Williams in this instance but later in the race a similar problem for Vettel would play to Williams’ advantage.
There were a flurry of midfield overtaking moves in this phase of the race as those who’d started on the super-softs came in and switched while those who began on the softs stayed out and were repassed by the fresh-tyred stoppers.
Rosberg, Hamilton, Vettel and Massa were well spread out in the top four positions so were able to stay out longer, unthreatened by the prospect of being undercut. Rosberg was brought in from just over 2sec in front of Hamilton on the 33rd lap, locking up spectacularly into turn three, losing around 0.7sec to Hamilton, then doing so again as he braked as late as possible up to the speed limit line. He was fitted with his primes in 2.7sec and sent back out.
It was slightly surprising that Hamilton wasn’t brought in next lap – instead, he was left out for an extra two laps. His pace on his old super-softs was still good. As Nico let rip on his new primes on his out-lap he was only a tenth faster than Hamilton through the middle sector and no faster at all through the final one. Next time through – Hamilton’s in-lap – Rosberg was a couple of tenths quicker through the first sector but a whopping 0.9sec better through sector two this time as the primes came up to temperature.
Hamilton lost further time on his old rubber through the final sector – and the stop itself was 0.4sec slower. He exited the pits dismayed to see Rosberg’s lead over him approximately doubled. “How come he’s so much further ahead?” he demanded over the radio. “Good pace on his new rubber,” came the reply.
1 Lewis Hamilton 169
2 Nico Rosberg 159
3 Sebastian Vettel 120
4 Kimi Räikkönen 72
5 Valtteri Bottas 67
7 Felipa Massa 62
8 Daniel Ricciardo 36
9 Daniil Kvyat 19
10 Nico Hülkenberg 18
11 Romain Grosjean 17
12 Felipe Nasr 16
13 Sergio Pérez 13
14 Pastor Maldonado 12
15 Max Verstappen 10
16 Carlos Sainz Jr 9
17 Marcus Ericsson 5
18 Jenson Button 4
“So why didn’t you pit me earlier?” By which he meant the lap before. In these situations, running 1-2 with no-one in a position to put second place under threat, Mercedes gives strategy priority to whichever of its drivers is ahead – i.e. Rosberg in this case. But it wasn’t altogether certain that stopping first was going to give the usual advantage – because there was a chance that the fresh prime tyre could take more than a lap to reach its working temperature, in which case even a worn super-soft, at these relatively low degradation rates, might have been quicker on the crucial lap.
As it turned out, it took just over a lap for Rosberg’s primes to heat up and had Hamilton been brought in on lap 34 rather than 35 he’d have exited 3sec behind rather than 4.4sec. But that’s in hindsight. It might have worked the other way.
It wouldn’t have mattered either way – because on the prime tyre Rosberg was simply faster. It took Hamilton only a couple of laps to realise this – at which point, “I just concentrated on bringing it home.” Barring mishaps, Rosberg had broken the back of his task.
So keen had Hamilton been on making up the time to Rosberg as he left the pits that on the right-handed turn at the end of the pitlane he stayed hard on the gas even as the front began to run wide. This took him almost half a car’s width over the painted white line – for which he would have 5sec added to his race time.
Ferrari brought Vettel in on the 36th of the 71 laps for what should have been a routine stop to switch to the prime tyres. Instead, a problem with the right-rear wheel nut – excessive heat from those tiny discs again – cost him an extra 10sec. Williams, which had pitted Massa two laps earlier, could hardly believe its luck as it watched. Massa was 4sec up the road by the time the Ferrari exited the pitlane. Seb had 35 laps left to do something about it – and began to let rip.
The yet-to-stop prime-tyred Pérez and Maldonado lay a temporary fifth and sixth, but were being caught quickly by the dicing Hülkenberg and Bottas. Valtteri finally managed to repass the Force India and immediately got onto the back of the Lotus, though by now he was getting urgent messages that he needed to manage his brakes. Nonetheless, he was able to nail Maldonado into turn three on the 37th lap – with Pastor then making his way pitwards for his super-soft tyres.
In the other Lotus, Grosjean had been having a few wild adventures, spectacular passes mixed with full use of the run-off areas. But his gearbox was playing up and after pitting for an attempt at a cure, he was brought in and retired on lap 37.
Sainz had fallen well adrift of his earlier dicing partners, with a wheel delay at his stop. Subsequently the engine began to lose electrical power – and his retirement came on the same lap as Grosjean’s. The other Toro Rosso was doing fine, though. Verstappen had run a few seconds down on Bottas through his first stint, pitted relatively early for his primes and got out behind the long-running Red Bull of Kvyat.
They may be driving for sister teams but there was no co-operation here as Daniil repeatedly held off Max, Verstappen finally getting ahead after going side-by-side through turn three. At this point he was 13sec behind the yet-to-stop Maldonado who had spent most of his first stint saving tyres and fuel, ready to launch an attack in his second stint.
When Pastor rejoined on his new super-softs the Lotus was 11sec and three places behind the old prime-tyred Toro Rosso, separated from it by Nasr and Kvyat. He picked these off on consecutive corners on the 40th lap, As he chased down the gap to Verstappen there were some wild moments, notably one where he got so crossed up under power exiting the first turn that he slid over the pit exit line – from the track side! Luckily there was no-one exiting there at the time. But still he gained relentlessly, using the extra grip of his tyres to great effect.
Red Bull 55
Force India 31
Toro Rosso 19
Briefly in between Verstappen and Maldonado, the yet-to-stop Ricciardo – who from the penultimate row of the grid had spent the early laps driving at a relatively gentle pace, with the intention of going very long on his primes – was making his strategy work. It was a beautifully judged drive in a car running very little downforce and he finally pitted for his super-softs with just 20 laps to go, at which point he had to take his 5sec penalty.
He came out behind Nasr, but hauled him down and passed for 10th. Were it not for the 5sec penalty, he may well have been able to catch and pass Pérez before the end. As it was, his chase of the Force India was interrupted as the Massa/Vettel dice came to lap him.
This and the parallel Verstappen/Maldonado duel kept the race alive. Massa, in a Williams that was perhaps two tenths slower than Vettel’s Ferrari, was squeezing all the Williams had to give, knowing that eventually the Ferrari would arrive on his tail – at which point he would shift his approach to allowing no chink of light in his defences. He was helped in that the Williams was faster at the end of the straights, so that even when Seb got to within DRS reach he couldn’t quite line up a move by the end of the two straights.
“He reached me with maybe 10 laps to go,” related a delighted Felipe afterwards. “We know that Ferrari manage the tyres very well, especially at the end of the race and the tyres were old by the time he caught me. But you never know and I just concentrated on doing my best and not making any mistakes.” It was the drive of a very seasoned pro and enough to keep Vettel back in fourth to the end.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Verstappen/Maldonado fight for seventh – around 10sec behind Hülkenberg, who had a lonely time of it once Bottas had passed him for the second time – was rather wilder. Pastor was upon the Toro Rosso’s tail by the 60th lap. Several times he got side-by-side into turn three, but Max’s racecraft was perfect as he’d then place himself for the inside into the fast left of five, forcing Pastor to concede. Mercedes horsepower and grippier tyres made this a dice loaded in Maldonado’s favour but Verstappen was superb in making him work for it.
Going into what would be their penultimate lap, the Lotus was hard into the Toro Rosso’s tow, DRS engaged, as they flew down the pitstraight. Maldonado was lining up to try for a pass to the right but then swerved left, attempting to sell Max a dummy. It was rather like Max’s move at Monaco on Grosjean, in that it came just as the older-tyred car ahead was about to brake. Flat in eighth gear at 201mph with the rear wing stalled out, Pastor had to swerve suddenly hard left to avoid a collision.
The car slid wildly out of line, magnesium sparks cascading out the back as it ground out over the bumps. It looked a totally irretrievable situation, but Pastor somehow managed to get the opposite lock on – and back off again with only the slightest sniff of over-correction, a truly remarkable feat at that speed. Not only that, but Verstappen had braked just too late for his now-gripless rubber and had to take to the run-off area – allowing Maldonado to nip by to take the place.
They continued to dice to the flag, but the Lotus stayed ahead. For all his frequent errors of judgement, Maldonado can also conjure moments that are genuinely thrilling in their on-the-edge extremity. This was perhaps his best and most thrilling to date.
Up front, Rosberg held his gap over Hamilton at around 4sec, but for the last few laps was increasingly concerned about a vibration building in his front left tyre, urging the team to look at the data to determine if there was any risk of suspension failure. They were able to reassure him, but it can’t have been pleasant. It was all forgotten once he was up there on the top podium step.
“The start made my race,” he trilled. “I managed to defend in the first couple of corners and then I really just tried to push flat out this time. I was really happy with the car and happy to see the gap open up to Lewis, so it really worked out perfectly. I think this year I found what I needed to find last year in terms of the race – just doing a little bit better in the races and that’s really working out for me this year.”
Hamilton managed to say the right things, acknowledging that Rosberg was simply faster this weekend, but naturally it pained him. With his 5sec penalty added, he was 8.8sec behind at the flag – around 9sec clear of the beaming Massa, with the scarlet Ferrari still right behind the Williams at the line – just where it had been for the previous 10 laps. Bottas was almost a minute adrift, nursing his brakes for most of the second half of his race, his whole weekend compromised by the yellow flags he’d encountered on his last lap of qualifying. Without that he’d probably not have been behind Hülkenberg at any point – which is not to denigrate a superb performance from the Hulk in finishing an un-lapped sixth.
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