Lewis Hamilton opened up the largest points margin he has had over his team mate Nico Rosberg this season with victory in the Russian Grand Prix, while Mercedes clinched their first ever F1 Constructors’ championship with their ninth 1-2 finish of the season. Hamilton’s win prompted team chairman Niki Lauda to suggest that the Briton was now “unstoppable” in the drivers’ championship but there is still a long way to go.
It was Hamilton’s 31st victory, equalling Nigel Mansell’s 20 year old British record, his second four-in a row sequence this year and his ninth victory of the 2014 season. In the last four races he has scored 100 points to Rosberg’s 54.
Perhaps most significantly, though, it was another race which begged the question as to whether Rosberg has what it takes to race Hamilton wheel to wheel.
Once again the German made a crucial mistake early in the race, locking his front wheels at full speed under braking for the first corner off the start while attepting to pass Hamilton for the lead. With savage vibrations from his flat spotted tyres, Rosberg was forced to pit at the end of lap one for a new set of medium tyres. Astonishingly from 20th place he managed to come through without stopping again for 52 laps to finish in second place, ahead of Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, but the damage was done on lap 1.
“I’m sorry, that was very unnecessary,” he told the team on the radio on the slow down lap. Later he said, “It was definitely do-able and I just messed up, very simple, no explanation. Just braked too late and too hard.
“Very unnecessary, because it was my corner and should have been in the lead after that. So, obviously very disappointed with that.”
Hamilton now has a 17 point lead over Rosberg, with 100 points still up for grabs in the remaining three races, but the momentum is well and truly with him now after a dominant weekend on the new Sochi circuit.
“I’m just so proud to have contributed to have worked with this great team, to get the first Constructors’ Championship for Mercedes-Benz,” said Hamilton. “Once I was out in the lead I was really just having to control, just looking after the tyres, managing the fuel was quite straightforward. And then, towards the end of the race the car felt great.. I wasn’t really having to push much and even when I was having to pick up the pace a little bit when I eventually found Nico was behind, it was easy to match the times.
“I really, really enjoyed the track. I tell you, Russia’s been one of my favourite places so far this year, so it’s very cool to have won the first race here.”
Bottas tried to beat Rosberg, but the Williams didn’t quite have the pace even with fresher tyres. McLaren had a strong weekend with Jenson Button 4th and Kevin Magnussen recovering from a grid penalty to rise from 11th to 5th at the flag. It was a difficult day for Ferrari with a slow stop dropping Fernando Alonso to 6th.
On the grid the drivers briefly formed themselves into a ‘circle of solidarity’ with their absent colleague Jules Bianchi, who remains in a critical condition in a Japanese hospital. His plight had overshadowed the whole of the weekend.
When the lights went out at the start, Rosberg attempted to overtake pole sitter Hamilton into turn two. However, the German carried too much speed into the corner, locked up badly and went very wide through. It meant he had to cede the lead back to his team-mate. He quickly informed the team that the error had led to him flat-spotting his tyres and he would need a change.
He pitted at the end of lap one, took on medium tyres and asked what his strategy would be. He was told that he would need to do the following 52 laps on his new set. At the back Felipe Massa, who had started on new medium tyres, also pitted, to spend the whole race on the faster soft tyre.
Behind Hamilton, Bottas now slotted into second, with Jenson Button third. Home hero Daniil Kvyat made a poor getaway from fifth on the grid , however, and fell back to ninth. Fernando Alonso made an excellent start and was fourth at the end of lap one. Kvyat’s team-mate Jean-Eric Vergne also made a good start and he was soon up to fifth place behind the Ferrari.
The Frenchman quickly came under pressure from McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen, as well as the chasing Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel, who had climbed from 10th on the grid, and Daniel Ricciardo, who had dropped back at the start but made his way back towards his starting position of sixth.
At the front, Hamilton was pulling away. By lap eight he was 2.9s ahead of Bottas, with Button a further 9.2s back. The big battle at this point was between the two Red Bulls. Magnussen passed Vergne for P6 on lap four and the Toro Rosso driver was quickly passed by both Red Bulls. The battle was P6 was on and Ricciardo told his engineers he was losing time behind his team-mate. The team didn’t ask Vettel to move across, however, and Ricciardo began to fall back into the clutches of Vergne who was now eighth.
Red Bull chose to then pit Ricciardo and he took on new mediums, which he would race to the flag, getting in front of Vettel after the world champion’s late stop. The strategy choice didn’t initially seem to help as he became lodged in 16th place.
Rosberg, meanwhile, was up to 12th place by lap 14, with Felipe Massa 13th. The German then passed Sauber’s Esteban Gutierrez and set his sights on a points finish, if he could nurse his medium tyres to the end.
At the front, Hamilton was cruising and by lap 24 he had built up a 14-second advantage over Bottas, who was losing large chunks of time on his starting used soft tyres, which now had 30 laps on them.
Alonso, on similarly aged rubber pitted on lap 25 but a messy stop involving a front jack problem cost the Spaniard time and and he emerged in ninth place.
Bottas came in on lap 26 for mediums, as did Magnussen. Hamilton then pitted from the lead on lap 27 and resumed in the lead. That left Vettel, in P2, as the last of the front runners out on starting tyres. Bottas was now third ahead of Rosberg, who had moved through the field as the pit stops occurred. The German had reported degradation on his
rear tyres, however, and the question mark over his ability to nurse his medium tyres to the finish remained.
The immediate answer was that he seemed to be suffering few issues. On lap 31 he closed on Bottas and muscled his way past the Finn through turn two, though Bottas’ engineer quickly informed the Williams driver that Rosberg would surely get degradation later in the race and that the Finn would get a chance to retake the position.
While Rosberg was claiming P2, Vettel finally pitted and when he emerged the order had Hamilton 19 seconds ahead of Rosberg, with Bottas 2.5s adrift of the German. Button was now fourth ahead of team-mate Magnussen, with Alonso’s slow stop dropping him back to sixth. Ricciardo was now seventh ahead of Vettel, with Esteban Gutierrez in ninth for Sauber, though the Mexican had yet to make a pit stop. Kimi Raikkonen was in the final points-scoring position ahead of Vergne and Kvyat.
With 20 laps to go Rosberg began to suddenly up his pace and and set a race-best lap of 1:42.551 and then improved again on the next lap by just over a tenth. Bottas’ engineer reacted by informing Bottas that Williams believed the Mercedes man was preparing for a second stop.
Rosberg, though, had other ideas and on lap 40, when asked by his team if he could get to the end on his mediums tyres he replied: “Easy. Well, not easy, but they feel good at the moment.”
And as the laps counted down they continued to work well. As Hamilton managed the race at the front, Rosberg’s pace remained consistent. Bottas pushed hard and a fastest lap of the race on lap 50 narrowed the gap to 4.3s. Rosberg had enough in the tank to respond, however and on the following tour Rosberg responded by clawing back five tenths to ensure that Mercedes’ one-two finish was secure.
The result handed Mercedes the Constructors’ Championship title with three races left in the season.
“Unbelievable! I’m really happy for the team,” said Mercedes director Niki Lauda of the achievement. “Can I call myself a four-time champion now? Lewis is kind of looking unstoppable for the championship now. Kind of.”
With Bottas third, fourth place went to Button, with Magnussen fifth. Alonso finished sixth for Ferrari, with the Red Bulls of Ricciardo and Vettel seventh and eighth respectively. Raikkonen finished ninth in the second Ferrari and the final point went to Force India’s Sergio Perez.
RUSSIAN GRAND PRIX, Sochi, 53 laps
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1h31m50.744s –
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes –
3 Valtteri Bottas Williams –
4 Jenson Button McLaren –
5 Kevin Magnussen McLaren –
6 Fernando Alonso Ferrari –
7 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull –
8 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull –
9 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari –
10 Sergio Perez Force India –
11 Felipe Massa Williams –
12 Nico Hulkenberg Force India –
13 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso –
14 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso – 1 Lap
15 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber – 1 Lap
16 Adrian Sutil Sauber – 1 Lap
17 Romain Grosjean Lotus – 1 Lap
18 Pastor Maldonado Lotus – 1 Lap
19 Marcus Ericsson Caterham – 2 Laps
– Kamui Kobayashi Caterham – Retirement
– Max Chilton Marussia – Retirement