Lando looks for deserved debut win as Hamilton slips up: 2021 Russian GP qualifying report


The Sochi Autodrom's dull reputation could be blown apart tomorrow with a Russian GP grid full of intrigue. Qualifying could not have been scripted better, says Tony Dodgins

Lando Norris celebrates pole at the 2021 russian gp

Dan Istitene/ F1 via Getty Images

From the moment that a Sochi three-place grid penalty for Max Verstappen was announced in the aftermath of the coming-together with Lewis Hamilton at Monza, there was a strong possibility that Red Bull would elect to take a new power unit and start from the back of the grid.

As a result of damage sustained in the lap 1 incidents at Silverstone and Budapest, it was inevitable that the hit was going to have to be taken somewhere, so it made sense to take it now, effectively negating the grid penalty, at a track with a long straight where overtaking is possible.

And ‘possible’ is probably the operative word. Yes, in 2014, Nico Rosberg flat-spotted his rubber on lap 1, pitted for a set of hard compound Pirellis and then finished second. But that, in the first season of the hybrid era, was aboard a Mercedes vastly superior to anything else. Verstappen’s Red Bull, although the best chassis of ’21, is not better by the kind of margin that will make a podium tomorrow a foregone conclusion.

One of the biggest challenges of Sochi is optimising downforce level. There is the lengthy front straight, but long duration fast corners such as Turn 3, plus the twisty final sector, mean you don’t want to take off too much wing.

Max Verstappen takes off his helmet

Verstappen starts from the back on Sunday

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

There was a radio message from Max in FP2 on Friday when he had a problem negotiating Nicholas Latifi’s Williams. “It’s impossible to pass with my top speed…” he said.

Max fans will be hoping it’s not as bad as that in the race, and there’s every reason to suspect that it won’t be. On Friday, for instance, knowing that qualifying was irrelevant for Max, Red Bull was focused solely on race-running, while those around him were not, and hence P6 on the time sheet. And who knew what fuel loads, engine modes or DRS were being used.

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Not so good news for Verstappen was that he was not alone in taking an engine penalty. Ferrari went that route with Charles Leclerc too, fitting an upgraded power unit with new hybrid / battery elements. Leclerc will start ahead of Verstappen due to Max’s Monza penalty and so, unless he can get by the Ferrari on the opening lap, he’s likely to encounter a competitive car much earlier than normal. And Leclerc is unlikely to let him go. Some potential jeopardy there.

“We must take full advantage of Max’s penalty,” Hamilton said on Friday, but he and Mercedes have not.

Forecast wet weather on Saturday was always going to be a complication and, off-camera, F1 was preparing itself for a repeat of Japan 2019, with qualifying on Sunday morning as Saturday threatened to be a wash-out. But, a window of opportunity to go ahead with qualifying as per the schedule presented itself despite the cancellation of FP3 on Saturday morning.

It was one of those wet / drying sessions that turn into a bit of a lottery but reward fleetness of foot and some risk-taking on the pit wall.

Q1 and Q2 were straightforward. Fernando Alonso alone ventured out on the full wet Pirellis in the opener, but soon realised the error of his ways, after which the green-walled intermediates were used exclusively. Out went the two Haas cars, the two Alfa Romeos and Verstappen, who understandably enough didn’t bother to record a time.

Spray from Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes at Sochi

Hamilton (pictured) and Bottas were top in the wet Q1 conditions

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So far so good for Mercedes, which has never lost a Sochi race since it first appeared on the calendar in 2014, as Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas topped Q1 ahead of Sergio Perez’s Red Bull. It is one of Bottas’s best circuits, well suited to his preferred neutral / understeer set-up in contrast to Hamilton, who prefers a sharper front end. The Finn won his first GP in Russia as well as the last visit in 2019, and was fastest on the opening day.

The Mercs were still there at the end of Q2, Lewis a couple of tenths quicker than Valtteri. Hugely frustrated eliminees were Sebastian Vettel, who missed out to Carlos Sainz by 0.05sec for the last Q3 slot, and Pierre Gasly. The Frenchman was livid. Best-of-the-rest behind the Merc drivers on Friday afternoon, he was just as confident in the slippery conditions of qualifying and sixth quickest in FP1. But then, in Q2, didn’t get a second set of inters fitted in time to protect his position.

“I don’t have words…” Gasly said. “For three laps I was asking to box! We did a bad job. Missed a huge opportunity. We should have been out there on new tyres.” He will start 12th tomorrow.

Pierre Gasly walks down the pitlane in Sochi

Gasly looked impressive before Q2 exit

Peter Fox/Getty Images

Midway through Q3, the track had just about reached the crossover point where a sufficiently warmed set of slicks were the tyres to have. But you had to survive the warm-up period on a very narrow dry line and have the guts to risk the switch.

The jeopardy was more than worth it if you weren’t going to threaten the pace-setters on intermediates. George Russell was the first to switch, followed by Carlos Sainz and then Lando Norris.

Initially Russell’s sector times seemed too far away and then, on his second lap, the tyres were in and the opportunity clearly there. In came Hamilton for slicks but he clipped the pit wall on entry.

A new nose cone was required, with Valtteri Bottas stacked in the Mercedes pit box while it was fitted. By the time Hamilton got back out on slicks, there was too little time to generate sufficient temperature and, short of grip, Lewis most uncharacteristically dropped it, reversing gently into the wall.

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“It was just my mistake and I’m incredibly disappointed with myself,” the seven-time champion said. “Twice in the wall is unusual for me.” Something of an understatement, that.

In the inevitable mind-games and sniping that goes on between championship rivals, Hamilton had pointed out that he was in his 10th championship battle, “or something like that…” while Verstappen was in his first. Lewis could remember the pressure he felt in his first, he said, and empathise with that. Sat back in the Red Bull pit, Max might have had a little chortle at that…

For now though, Lewis’s 1min 44.050sec before his faux pas, was still the pole time. But not for long.

Sainz moved the goalposts with a 1min 42.510sec lap as soon as his slicks were up to temperature and then his old mate Norris managed 1min 41.993sec.

“Er, that’s…. long pause… pole position,” came the radio message. Norris was ecstatic and his sentiments were shared by the McLaren garage, straight off the back of team-mate Daniel Ricciardo’s Monza win.

“I risked quite a lot, I’ve got to admit,” Norris beamed, “but these were the kind of conditions where you can take advantage.”

Top 3 qualifiers Norris Sainz and Russell at the 2021 Russian GP

Not a Red Bull or Mercedes in sight among the top three

Xavi Bonilla / DPPI

Sochi aficionados will know that P3 on the grid is the place to be. It’s often better to qualify there rather than second (or even pole) because with an 890m run to Turn 2 (Turn 1 doesn’t count), there’s a strong opportunity for the P3 starter to pick up a powerful tow off the start. Engineers say that if you start P3, get a tow and aren’t blocked, you’re 8m better off than the pole man by the T2 braking point.

Ferrari illustrated that perfectly in 2019 when Leclerc was on pole with team mate Vettel third and Hamilton splitting them. Ferrari arranged it so that Leclerc stayed left off the line, allowing Vettel to pick up his tow to get past Hamilton, then left the door open at T2. The only problem being that Seb was supposed to give the place back, and didn’t…

The pole man has only won two of the previous seven Sochi races, the driver starting second has never led the opening lap but the driver starting third has led twice in the last four years. The man who starts there tomorrow? None other than Russell, with a 1min 42.983sec on his slicks.

“It’s crazy, the second top three in four events! Yesterday, our high fuel pace was one of our strongest of the year, so I’ve got to go for the podium again!”

Hamilton can win from fourth, of course he can, but he starts on the dirty side, with Ricciardo’s fast-starting slippery McLaren fifth. If Lewis finds himself behind two McLarens after the opening lap, he could have his work cut out.

“With Lewis where he is, we can win it,” Toto Wolff confirmed, “and with Valtteri seventh, he can aim for the podium too.”

Fernando Alonso is in the vicinity too, sixth in the first of the Alpines, with Lance Stroll eighth for Aston Martin.

Red Bull will have been hoping for a lot more than ninth from Perez, but in a dry race at Sochi and given his propensity for looking after rear tyres, the Mexican could still come into play. Esteban Ocon completed the top 10 with the second Alpine.

For intrigue and suspense, a script-writer could not have done a better job! How will it play out? I have no idea, but I’ve just got this strange feeling that Lando might get it done. If so, it would be more than deserved.

Lando Norris in qualifying for the 2021 Russian GP

2021 Russian Grand Prix qualifying results

Position Driver Team Time (Q3)
1 Lando Norris McLaren 1min 41.993sec
2 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 1min 42.510sec
3 George Russell Williams 1min 42.983sec
4 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1min 44.050sec
5 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 1min 44.156sec
6 Fernando Alonso Alpine 1min 44.204sec
7 Valtteri Bottas Ferrari 1min 44.710sec
8 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 1min 44.956sec
9 Sergio Perez Red Bull 1min 45.337sec
10 Esteban Ocon Alpine 1min 45.865sec
Q2 times
11 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 1min 46.573sec
12 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 1min 46.641sec
13 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 1min 46.751sec
14 Nicholas Latifi Williams No time
15 Charles Leclerc Ferrari No time
Q1 times
16 Kimi Räikkönen Alfa Romeo 1min 49.586sec
17 Mick Schumacher Haas 1min 49.830sec
18 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo 1min 51.023sec
19 Nikita Mazepin Haas 1min 53.764sec
20 Max Verstappen Red Bull No time