The Russian roulette wheel that cost Norris a debut F1 win

F1

Long before the lights went out for the 2021 Russian Grand Prix, F1 teams were faced with agonising decisions that shaped the race. And they got more difficult as the GP got underway, writes Mark Hughes

Lewis Hamilton behind Lando Norris in the 2021 Russian Grand Prix

Norris in line for victory - until the rain arrived

Xavi Bonilla / DPPI

In the game of Russian roulette the Sochi weather presented to everyone, some lost and some won. Lando Norris lost what was shaping up as his first grand prix victory a day after having sealed his first pole position, but then the rain came with five laps to go. It was an agonising decision whether to try to hang on with his slicks or do as his McLaren team was imploring him and pit for intermediates. It’s obvious in hindsight he chose wrong, but in the moment there was no obvious right or wrong for drivers or teams. For the driver it was about reacting to the conditions right in front of him in the moment – and it seemed the rain was dying out. For the team it was about reading the lines of a weather radar and trying to translate that to lap time comparisons of the two types of tyre. Not an exact science.

Instead Lewis Hamilton won – for the 100th time. But even he had argued with his team about whether to come in or not and had delayed the decision by a lap.

Another winner was Max Verstappen, starting his Red Bull from last after a power unit replacement and using the opportunity of the late rain to vault from seventh to second in a remarkable feat of damage limitation.

But the decisions which shaped the outcome began way before race day.

 

Power unit replacements

Given Max Verstappen’s three-place grid penalty for his incident at Monza, it wasn’t too difficult for Red Bull to also take the fourth Honda power unit of the season here. The combined penalty for that and all the associated components ensured he’d be starting at the back, but on a track where passing slower cars is quite feasible.

2021-Russian-Grand-Prix-starting-grid

Verstappen lined up alongside Leclerc at the back of the grid

Lars Baron /F1 via Getty Images

Ferrari had an upgrade of specification, with an 800v electrical system in place of the previous 400v for more efficient battery usage and a small power boost. Given that Charles Leclerc’s existing battery was a reliability worry (it had been damaged in the heavy accident at Hungary), his car suggested itself for the replacement and the multiple grid drops it would entail. He’d be keeping Verstappen company on the back row.

Mercedes had a tougher decision to make regarding Valtteri Bottas’s power unit. The new one he took at Monza was already showing a potential problem. He ran qualifying here with a high mileage older unit. Given that he’d qualified only seventh, was it worth replacing it with a fifth new unit? Given that it was only the internal combustion engine that would be changed, it would entail just a 10-place grid drop. As a compensating bonus, it may have made it possible for him to delay Verstappen’s progress through the field and thus his potential points score. Mercedes made the call, Bottas had no option but to accept it.

 

Wing levels

This place gives good lap time reward for downforce. Furthermore, qualifying was certain to be wet, so increasing the advantage of more downforce. But there’s that super-long stretch from the start of the pit straight to Turn 2. So right there is a conflict.

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

Trimmed rear wing helped Verstappen carve through the field

Xavi Bonilla / DPPI

The low-rake Merc is inherently low-drag so could afford quite a big wing. On Friday, the team back-to-backed its biggest (on Bottas’ car) with its next biggest (on Hamilton’s). It decided to go with the bigger. It gave better lap times and the straightline speed was still very respectable.

McLaren split its choices, a higher downforce one for Norris, lower for Daniel Ricciardo.

Red Bull loaded Sergio Perez up with rear wing. But it knew that Verstappen was not going to contest qualifying on account of the grid penalties. Starting from the back, he’d need some help.  Getting stuck behind Nicholas Latifi’s Williams on Friday when running the Perez wing decided it: they’d trim it out.

 

Tyre choice Q3

The weather first played its jeopardy trick on Saturday. Qualifying had taken place on a wet but gradually drying track. Q1, Q2 and the first runs in Q3 were definitely intermediates-only territory.

The Mercs had dominated up until this point, always Hamilton by a handy margin from Bottas now that both were on the same downforce levels and the track was slippery. But now as a dry line began to go down with the clock ticking away, what to do? Stay out on the inters, or come in for slicks – which would take about three laps to reach temperature?

Spray from Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes at Sochi

Hamilton topped Q1 and Q2 in Sochi, but was fourth in Q3

Mario Renzi/F1 via Getty Images

For Williams there was no choice to be made; George Russell had done brilliantly well to get into Q3 but had used up all his inters in doing so. There wasn’t really much of a gamble for him to pit at the end of his Q3 out lap and have slicks fitted. Even if went wrong he’d be 10th. Which is what he’d likely have been anyway if everyone ran only inters.

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Mercedes, trying to win a championship, didn’t feel as carefree. Hamilton and Bottas stayed out after their banker laps and did a prep lap for another flyer. Red Bull covered Mercedes with Perez. Pretty much everyone else pitted for slicks after posting their inters time.

That’s how Norris set his first pole position from Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari and Russell. Hamilton’s earlier lap stood only as fourth-quickest, Bottas seventh.

Just as would be the case on Sunday, there was no obvious right answer in the moment the decisions had to be made.

 

Front wing flap

Sochi is usually a rear-limited track. But at such cool temperatures as this – the track was 23C at the start – the front left takes enough stress that it is prone to graining. The softer the compound the worse the problem.

Mercedes and McLaren added some front flap to try to help keep that graining at bay for the medium compound tyres they’d chosen for Hamilton and Norris respectively.

Starting Tyre Choice

The medium (C4) gave more traction off the grid and was faster for about four laps. Thereafter its graining left-front made the more robust hard (C3) the faster tyre. The top five all chose the medium, with Fernando Alonso and Perez taking the hard, along with the back row-starting Verstappen and Leclerc.

So all those choices played out like they did. The right-hand side of the grid had more rubber down than the left, allowing Sainz to be faster away than Russell and to hold him out of Norris’ tow. As Norris then moved right to block the fast-starting Hamilton, Sainz went the other way and slipstreamed his Ferrari into the lead. Hamilton was boxed in and completed the first lap in seventh.

Carlos Sainz leads at the satrt of 2021 Russian Grand Prix

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

DPPI

Russell’s Williams wasn’t anything like the third-fastest car, was around 1sec per lap slower than a McLaren. But it was running in third place and was fast down the straights. So Sainz and Norris escaped from the pack. Hamilton, in sixth, could make no move on Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren ahead of him. Just as at Monza, he didn’t have enough end-of-straight advantage.

Verstappen made great progress from the back, passed Bottas on lap six with barely any resistance from the Mercedes driver and before the race was too old was only three places behind Hamilton.

Sainz led until he overworked his front-left, allowing Norris to slipstream past and into the lead. Sainz pitted soon afterwards. With this and Russell’s similarly early stop, Norris and Ricciardo led a McLaren 1-2, with Hamilton frustrated in his attempts at finding a way by.

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Ricciardo stayed out for another nine laps until his front left began to surrender and until then Hamilton just bided his time, keeping out of the dirty air and looking after his tyres. Had Ricciardo been able to run much longer, Hamilton would have been within undercut range of Sergio Perez’s Red Bull just behind, but Sergio couldn’t go for that too early as he needed to pit late enough that the mediums he’d be obliged to take didn’t have too long a stint to do. The same applied to Verstappen who was only 3sec behind Hamilton when Ricciardo pitted.

So it was a relief to Hamilton when one McLaren peeled off in front of him. The other was 13sec up the road. That was the gap standing between him and his 100th career victory. He had 21 laps to close it down. In clear air for the first time, Hamilton’s true pace was finally revealed and in the next three laps he pulled himself well out of the reach of the Red Bulls. Besides, Verstappen’s front left had taken a beating in his charge through the field even though it was of a harder compound. Hamilton and Verstappen pitted on lap 26, Norris a lap later.

Perez ran in the lead on his hard tyres for another eight laps and was set to rejoin third but for a delay removing the right-rear wheel. As he anticipated the green light he spun up the wheel, which delayed things even further and meant he came out behind Sainz and Ricciardo, both of whom he was able to repass to go back to a distant third. Verstappen was sixth but in trouble very quickly with the front-left medium and then overtaken by Alonso’s Alpine.

Fernando Alonso passes Max Verstappen in the 2021 Russian Grand Prix

Alonso passed tyre-troubled Verstappen

Xavi Bonilla / DPPI

With 10 laps to go Hamilton was within 1.3sec of Norris. But that looked to be about as close as he could get. When he tried to get closer he’d get understeer and thus not be able to be close enough to get within DRS range. Even on the odd occasion when he did, he’d get understeer onto he pit straight and the DRS would only claw him back up to the McLaren  rather than allow him to pass it. He was running out of ideas and there was that front-left to consider. Norris, lapping in  clear air, was having an easier time looking after the critical tyre and it really did look like it was all under control for him.

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The rain arrived on lap 47. Bottas was brought in from his anonymous 14th place and fitted with inters. His sector times informed Mercedes – and everyone else – that they were way quicker than the slicks. Norris and Hamilton were called in, but each argued and stayed out. “Lando went off I think in Turn 5 on one lap,” said Hamilton, “and I was like ‘OK, OK, stay out, it’s most likely going to happen again, I’ll try to catch him out’. Then they called me in and I was like: ‘Yeah, but he’s right there!’ I only had three laps to catch up 24 seconds [if I came in], so it was like ‘no way’. I wasn’t convinced. The next lap it rained more and I was definitely more convinced then, so I came in.” The lap before, Verstappen and Sainz had pitted, as had Kimi Räikkönen. It would boost the finishing positions of all three, securing Verstappen second, Sainz third and Räikkönen seventh.

Norris stayed out, finally calling it wrong after having called it right all weekend up until that moment. He slid off two laps from the end just as Hamilton’s inters-shod Merc was about to devour him anyway.  Driving slowly back to the pits, he was back in eighth when he rejoined. Leclerc was similarly forlorn after making the exact same wrong call, having got himself up with Verstappen and Sainz. Just one more decision that turned out to be wrong.

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

Hamilton cheered on to his 100th win

Lars Baron/F1 via Getty Images