When things are going for you in Formula 1, they really go for you. There have been many examples this season where race weekends have worked out for Lewis Hamilton and not for Sebastian Vettel.
At the German Grand Prix, for example, the tiniest of rear wheel lock-ups for Vettel on a damp track caused him to crash out of the lead. In that same race, confusion and a split-second decision by Hamilton to stay out when he’d been called into the pit lane entry won him the race.
In Monza, Ferrari had a front row lock-out to defend with its number two driver on pole and with some confusion about whether Raikkonen was entitled to go for the win, the team contrived to lose the advantage and the race to Hamilton.
In Russia this weekend there was another glaring example. Both sides made important mistakes; Hamilton in sector two of his final qualifying lap, which handed pole to Bottas, and then Mercedes made a further mistake in the race, leaving Hamilton out too long so Vettel jumped him at the pit stops.
But Vettel made a mistake soon after his pit stop which allowed Hamilton to re-pass him for second place. Mercedes then switched the cars to give Hamilton protection in the lead. They had thus done what Ferrari failed to do in Monza from a position of strength. And Hamilton and Mercedes had again got away with a mistake, while Vettel paid the price.
What happened strategically on team orders with Bottas and Hamilton in Sochi wasn’t pretty, but it was practical. It further extended the points lead Hamilton has over Vettel to 50 points and pretty much killed off the championship fight between them.
Drama around the pit stops
The strategy for most teams was very simple, as has often been the case this season: one stop. The hypersoft and ultrasoft tyres were not good race tyres compared to the soft, which would have been able to do the whole race, (much like Rosberg did in 2014 after a first lap lock-up).
Both Mercedes and Ferrari were fast enough to get through Qualifying 2 on the middle tyre in the range, the ultrasoft, and therefore to start the race on that tyre. Knowing they had engine penalties to take, Red Bull and Renault went a different route, while the other six cars in the top 10 all started on the hypersoft, which was not projected to last more than 10 laps in the race.
The soft tyre, meanwhile, was performing very well on the Red Bulls, who had started at the back of the field on it. Max Verstappen made mighty progress early on and was going very strongly on what was clearly the best race tyre on the day.
Having lost the start to Mercedes, Vettel’s only chance was to do something at the pit stops. The undercut was projected to be quite powerful, giving the car that pitted first an advantage of around one second on the first lap, but as always there was a doubt around how long it would take the soft tyre to warm up on the out-lap from the pits.
We got a clear illustration when Kevin Magnussen pitted early due to a flat spot. He was racing Esteban Ocon, who did the opposite to the Haas driver and stayed out. When Ocon pitted and rejoined he was well behind; the soft tyre was clearly getting up to speed well.
This lesson was perhaps not being heeded as the leaders approached their stops, Bottas led with Hamilton second and Vettel third. Defending his lead and with pit stop priority as the lead Mercedes, Bottas got into the pits before Ferrari was able to undercut him. With Hamilton second and Vettel third, there was a case for Ferrari to follow Bottas in, which would have given Vettel a good chance to jump Hamilton, who had to do another lap.
Ferrari didn’t do that, because it could already see from the choreography at the race start that the Mercedes drivers were working together as a team. Had Vettel followed Bottas in, the Finn would have done a very slow out lap to back him up, in order that Hamilton could pit and rejoin ahead.
So Vettel took the extra lap and then pitted, predictably rejoining behind Bottas. Mercedes did not bring Hamilton in ahead of Vettel as they were discussing the possibility of getting Bottas to back Vettel up so Hamilton could jump them both.
Vettel’s out-lap was very quick, Hamilton lost time in traffic and the net result was that when he pitted he rejoined alongside Vettel and lost the position to him. Ferrari also did the trick we’ve seen both top teams do this season, of putting its mechanics out in position in the pit lane as if expecting a stop, so that the rival team’s driver has to drive around them to get out of his pit box.
So the teamwork by Ferrari had got Vettel ahead, but then a lock-up by Vettel at the end of the back straight set Hamilton up with an opportunity to pass early the next lap. Vettel defended in Turn 2 but Hamilton then ambushed him on the exit of the long turn three into the tight turn four.
Most teams found it difficult to blister the soft tyre in Sochi, but the energy of his engagement with Vettel had damaged Hamilton’s tyres and Mercedes took the decision to switch its two drivers around to use Bottas to protect Hamilton.
They maintained position to the flag, but Bottas (and Vettel) could be seen in parc ferme inspecting Hamilton’s rear tyres to see whether the blisters were genuine.
Great drives from Verstappen and Leclerc
The other cameos worth noting in this race were Verstappen and Sauber’s Charles Leclerc, who no doubt one day will battle each other for the championship for Red Bull and Ferrari respectively.
Verstappen managed to storm through from 19th to fifth in eight laps – and even had an attack on Kimi Raikkonen in his sights when he pitted on Lap 43 to fit a set of ultrasofts for a 10-lap attack. But, unusually, this strategy didn’t work this time as the ultrasoft tyres didn’t perform. The soft was a far superior tyre for this weekend and team experienced graining on both the ultrasoft and hypersoft tyres after a few laps.
Leclerc’s race to finish seventh was made by a bold early overtake on Magnussen. This kept him out of the dogfight between Magnussen and the two Force India cars and allowed him to run in clear air, picking an optimum strategy.
The UBS Race Strategy Report is written by James Allen with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli.
Race History Chart
Kindly provided by Williams Martini Racing, click to enlarge
The number of laps is on the horizontal axis; the gap behind the leader is on the vertical axis.
A positive sign is an upward curve as the fuel load burns off. A negative sign is the slope declining as the tyre degradation kicks in.