Heartbreak for Norris hands Hamilton his 100th F1 win: 2021 Russian GP report

F1

Rain brought an extra twist to an already entertaining 2021 Russian Grand Prix, as Lando Norris attempted to hold on to the lead on slicks, while Lewis Hamilton hunted him down in search of a 100th F1 win

Lewis Hamilton talks to Lando Norris after winning the 2021 Russian Grand Prix

Hamilton comforts Norris at the end of the race

Yuri Kochetkov/Getty Images

“Just a bit of heartbreak, you know.”

Lando Norris had tears in his eyes as he reflected on what should have been his milestone day for all the right reasons. But Formula 1 in 2021 seems even more unpredictable than ever, as a driver finishing outside the top six became a bigger talking point than one taking a landmark 100th victory.

The McLaren driver was faultless on Saturday, and for much of Sunday too. He knew that pole wasn’t the best spot to be starting from, but he’d ticked off a first that was important to him. Next on the to-do list was the first win.

And even after Carlos Sainz beat him to Turn 2, it all looked so good.

Carlos Sainz leads at the satrt of 2021 Russian Grand Prix

Sainz leads into Turn 2 on the first lap of the race

DPPI

Norris got a good getaway but Sainz was able to pick up his slipstream and pull clear of George Russell and Lance Stroll behind, darting to the left to slingshot into the lead round the outside. Norris had defended the inside and emerged in second, with Lewis Hamilton having to lift as a result and dropping to seventh behind Daniel Ricciardo and Fernando Alonso on the opening lap.

“I managed to get tucked in behind Lando and do a bit of a send round the outside into Turn 2 which worked perfectly,” Sainz said. “Then unfortunately the graining came and that’s when our race started to go bad and we started to suffer a lot.”

Lewis Hamilton falls back at the start of the 2021 Russian Grand Prix

As the leaders disappear through Turn 2, Hamilton is caught behind Stroll

DPPI

Ferrari had asked Sainz to extend his first stint, with he and Norris able to pull away from the train behind. Russell was the dream ticket at that point, dropping back by about seven seconds but quick enough to keep all of those behind him at bay.

Norris closed in as Sainz started to struggle more with his front tyres, and was down the inside into Turn 12 to take the lead on Lap 13, allowing him to show his superior pace.

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That was a corner that had already seen a lot of action, with Max Verstappen particularly impressive on the brakes. If Valtteri Bottas’s tactical power unit penalty – demoting him to 16th on the grid – was designed to influence Verstappen as well as get more power unit components, the first part of the plan failed, as the championship leader cleared him confidently.

Pierre Gasly and Sebastian Vettel were dispatched in the same manner either side of a close call when passing Charles Leclerc, and Verstappen’s decision to start on the hard tyre was paying off.

Max Verstappen fights with Sebastian Vettel in the 2021 Russian Grand Prix

Verstappen cut through the field, passing Vettel after a touch-and-go moment with Leclerc

Xavi Bonilla / DPPI

A lap after Sainz lost the lead, he stopped to switch to hards himself, with a long stint possible to get to the end of the race. Russell and Stroll soon followed, and as more drivers did the same, it was a McLaren one-two once again with Ricciardo now holding back Hamilton and Perez. Only Alonso stood between Verstappen and his team-mate, and Red Bull was sitting pretty, too.

The problem was, in traffic Verstappen was using his hards too much, and after stating “I can’t turn the car”, he was frustrated to watch Hamilton disappear into the distance as a slow stop for Ricciardo released the Mercedes.

Hamilton’s pace at this stage showed his threat, but Norris had built up a lead of 12 seconds. So when the two title rivals stopped on the same lap around the halfway stage – Hamilton for hards, Verstappen for mediums – Norris could extend a further two laps and emerge safely ahead.

But as Hamilton quickly cleared Sainz and Stroll, the radio message from Toto Wolff came in: “Lewis you can win this race!”.

Perez, Alonso and Leclerc led, but only the Red Bull was a threat to the two British drivers, and that was removed when his pit stop took nine seconds. With 18 laps remaining, it was a straight McLaren v Mercedes fight, or so it seemed.

Lewis Hamilton behind Lando Norris in the 2021 Russian Grand Prix

Hamilton came close to Norris, but the McLaren driver seemed in control

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Hamilton closed in quickly but found Norris in fine form. The McLaren’s straight line speed advantage was always going to make it tough to pass, but Norris kept allowing the gap to close and then nailed the key parts of the lap to stay out of DRS. Even on the few times he was in range, Hamilton couldn’t get close enough.

Norris was given gaps behind him but quickly dismissed them as he focused on holding on for victory, while Hamilton noted the difficult he was having following the McLaren. As he did so, his race engineer told him the risk of rain was increasing, and with ten laps to go Russell reported the first drops at Turn 10.

Rain had been skirting the coastline throughout the afternoon but nothing had materialised. Those first drops became a shower at Turn 5, with Norris running wide with seven laps remaining and having to defend.

At that point, it was Hamilton who appeared to take a more cautious approach as he dropped over two seconds adrift.

“I felt like I did everything I could,” Norris said. “Even when it got tricky at the end, I made a couple of mistakes but still kept Lewis behind and started to pull away a little bit. So a bit of luck. The laps I was out before Lewis boxed it was perfectly fine for the tyres I was on.”

Lando Norris goes past Kimi Raikkonen in the rain at the 2021 Russian Grand Prix

Norris eventually came out of the pits on intermediates with Kimi Räikkönen, in eighth

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

But Saturday had shown how slippery the track can get, and Norris wasn’t the only driver to run wide. Russell, Bottas and Kimi Räikkönen took the decision to pit for intermediates immediately, and were followed by Sainz, Ricciardo and Verstappen a lap later.

Now well clear, the front two were crawling in the middle sector but quick in the first and last parts of the track. So when Hamilton was told to pit for inters on Lap 48, he ignored his team and followed Norris.

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The leader seemed confident it was the right call, and Hamilton was going to follow suit again but Mercedes overruled him. With four laps to go, the two main contenders went different ways: Norris stayed out on slicks, Hamilton stopped for inters.

When asked for his thoughts on doing the same on the following lap, Norris replied: “No!”

Hamilton was 30 seconds behind, there were three laps left, but as Norris slid wide at the penultimate corner having opted to stay out it became clear that he and McLaren had made the wrong decision.

Unable to get the power down, Norris was losing time everywhere, and he exited Turn 3 to find total spray that made driving on slicks impossible. That 30-second lead became zero as Hamilton overtook the McLaren while it was spinning off track at Turn 5.

“Devastated in a way,” Norris said. “But I guess we made a call to stay out and we stand by that call. Of course it’s the wrong one at the end of the day, but I made the decision just as much as the team, in fact it was more they thought I should box and I decided to stay out. So it was a bit of just my decision, I thought it was the way to go.”

Lewis Hamilton cheered by his Mercedes team as he wins the 2021 Russian Grand Prix

Hamilton cheered on to his 100th win

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Norris had to crawl back to the pits, while Verstappen’s decision to pit early was paying off. He’d jumped Sainz, Alonso and Ricciardo ahead when on inters, and when Norris finally made it back to the pits, the championship leader had gone from 20th to second.

“Luckily with the rain it helped us to make that last jump,” Verstappen said. “With the penalty we had, to only lose one spot basically is not too bad. When I woke up this morning I definitely didn’t expect this result.”

Nor did Hamilton, who had recovered from his qualifying issues and first-lap struggles to take 25 points, but only edge ahead of Verstappen by two in the standings.

2021 Russian GP podium

“Wow, to come from last to second is a huge effort,” Hamilton said. “The Red Bulls are so fast. They’ve been quickest for pretty much most of the year. They’ve done a great job. To come from last, to have two penalties or whatever it was and to come back to second, that’s mega damage limitation.”

But it says something that despite the title permutations and the fact that this was a landmark win for Hamilton, the focus was all on the driver who crossed the line in seventh place, overtaking Raikkonen on the final lap and still holding the fastest lap point.

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“Lando did such an amazing job,” Hamilton said. “He had incredible pace, he’s doing such a great job for McLaren. It’s very bittersweet to see my old team ahead, them doing so well, they won the last race, they’re doing fantastic, obviously powered by Mercedes. It’s good to see them united again.

“It would have been tough to have got past Lando – he had great pace, he did the fastest lap so it would have been tough to have got past unless we caught some traffic or if he made a mistake which he hasn’t been doing at all. Then the rain came and it was very opportunistic and the team did an amazing job so big, big thank you to them.”

Sainz took third after also timing his stop for intermediates well, as his former team-mate’s cruel ending promoted Ricciardo to fourth ahead of Bottas – for so long abjectly stuck outside the top ten – and Alonso. Norris at least beat Raikkonen, Perez and Russell to score seven points, but it probably should have been 26.

“We did what we thought was right, which I’m happy with. Of course it was wrong at the end, but everything until then the guys did an excellent job, and have done all weekend. So I’m happy with basically everything apart from that one decision, which we’ll review and hopefully try not to make again.”

It’s a painful mistake for Norris and McLaren to make, but you sense it won’t be the last chance the pair get to win races together.

2021 Russian Grand Prix results

Position Driver Team Time Points
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1hr 30min 41.001sec 25
2 Max Verstappen Red Bull +53.271sec 18
3 Carlos Sainz Ferrari +1min 02.475sec 15
4 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren +1min 05.607sec 12
5 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes +1min 07.533sec 10
6 Fernando Alonso Alpine +1min 21.321sec 8
7 Lando Norris McLaren +1min 27.224sec 7*
8 Kimi Räikkönen Alfa Romeo +1min 28.955sec 4
9 Sergio Perez Red Bull +1min 30.076sec 2
10 George Russell Williams +1min 40.551sec 1
11 Lance Stroll Aston Martin +1min 46.198sec
12 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin +1 lap
13 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri +1 lap
14 Esteban Ocon Alpine + 1 lap
15 Charles Leclerc Ferrari +1 lap
16 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo +1 lap
17 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri +1 lap
18 Nikita Mazepin Haas +2 laps
Nicholas Latifi Williams DNF
Mick Schumacher Haas DNF

*Includes additional point for fastest lap