After a two week break after the chaos of Mugello, F1 returned to action for the 10th round of 7 races in 2020 with the Russian Grand Prix from the Sochi Autodrom. There had been no driver announcements in the lead up to Sochi but an announcement from the top of F1 with Chase Carey stepping aside from his F1 chairman role. Ex-Ferrari team boss Stefano Domenicalli replaces him for 2021 and personally, I think he’ll do well in the role and miss his presence in the sport after leaving the Scuderia in 2014. Curiously, we now have three ex-Ferrari bosses at the helm of F1 again: Franz Todt at the FIA, Ross Brawn and now Domenicalli.
The teams brought updates to Russia but the circuit proved difficult to master with various drivers having lap times deleted in Qualifying at turn 2. The stewards directed that if a car ran wide they had to go through the bollards to the left of the circuit in order to not gain an advantage. That was a huge talking point of the weekend as four drivers were summoned and later acquitted post-Qualifying. It was responsible for one driver crashing out on the opening lap, a virtual safety car was needed after Romain Grosjean went through them and Daniel Ricciardo picked up a five-second penalty for failing to abide by it. The stewards clearly had a busy weekend but at the podium, for the 6th time in 10 races this year it was Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas sharing the podium but not in the order we have come to expect this year. Could this be a turning point in the championship?
Valtteri Bottas [pictured above; image from formula1.com] will be hoping so but I can’t imagine he knew how fortunate he would be after Qualifying when he said, ‘I’ve started from third here before and look what happened’. He was referring to his 2017 win at Sochi but he really needed a response if he was going to have a chance of clawing back the championship deficit and he started the weekend in the right way topping both Friday practice sessions. However, like so often this year he just hasn’t been able to find that little bit extra in Qualifying and he was disappointingly knocked off the front row by Verstappen. Off the grid though, he had a very strong start from 3rd and looked to have a go at his teammate into turn 2. He missed out there but he was always going to have a chance starting on the Medium tyre while Hamilton was on the Soft.
Hamilton’s penalty meant that the initiative swung fully in Bottas’s favour and after inheriting the lead on lap 17, the Finn had it firmly under control with a 7s lead over Verstappen as he took his 9th career win. Was it fortunate? Fairly, would Bottas care? Not in the slightest and if Bottas is to have a chance of getting back into the Championship he needs to take the chances that come his way and he did just that in Sochi; now only the second circuit the Finn has multiple wins on.
2020 Russian Grand Prix Qualifying
Q1: 1st Valtteri Bottas 1:32.656……………15th Sebastian Vettel 1:34.134; 16th Romain Grosjean +0.458,17th Antonio Giovinazzi +0.460, 18th Kevin Magnussen +0.568, 19th Nicholas Latifi +0.953, 20th Kimi Raikkonen +1.154
Q2: 1st Daniel Ricciardo 1:32.218………10th Esteban Ocon 1:33.196; 11th Charles Leclerc +0.043, 12th Daniil Kvyat +0.053, 13th Lance Stroll +0.168, 14th George Russell +0.387, 15th Sebastian Vettel +0.413
Q3: 1st Lewis Hamilton 1:31.304, 2nd Max Verstappen +0.563, 3rd Valtteri Bottas +0.652, 4th Sergio Perez +1.013, 5th Daniel Ricciardo +1.060, 6th Carlos Sainz +1.246, 7th Esteban Ocon +1.320, 8th Lando Norris +1.543, 9th Pierre Gasly +1.696, 10th Alex Albon +1.704
Lewis Hamilton had a difficult weekend in Sochi. The World Champion struggled to get a clean lap in FP1 and also had efforts chalked off in both Q1 and Q2 for exceeding track limits. That meant he was playing catch up and had to start the race on the Soft tyre. Still, he responded to claim a commanding 96th career pole position. Holding his teammate off on the opening lap, it looked like Hamilton was on his way to equalling Michael Schumacher’s 91 career wins but the stewards intervened giving him two separate 5 second time penalties for practice start infringements. He questioned the penalty and his teams call to pit him on lap 17 but it meant he was running on fresher rubber in cleaner air and avoided much of the midfield squabbling as he was able to drive home to finish 3rd. Not a bad damage limitation result.
Now, what happened with the penalties? It is unusual. I’ve watched well over 200 Grand Prix now and I have never seen anything like this. From the angle of the tv footage we only see the practice start he did at the end of the pit exit. There could have been someone coming out at speed yes, that is dangerous and a big no-no.
For Hamilton, the feeling must have still been raw when he accused the stewards of, ‘wanting to stop me’ before elaborating, ‘I’m pretty sure no one’s got two five-second penalties for something so ridiculous before’. This is a side to Hamilton we’ve not seen since 2011. Sky Sports f1’s Johnny Herbert feels from ‘The time I’ve spent in the stewards’ room there has never been any inkling of that.’ That is a significant view. He has been the former driver steward in there from time to time and he will know what goes on in there that the viewing audience don’t get to see. You are left to trust his words to it.
Toto Wolff was certainly more diplomatic about the situation stressing it was the team fault, ‘There is some room for interpretation with the practice start rules, so clearly, we need to analyse why we made the mistake and take the penalties on the chin.’ They instructed Hamilton he could do that over team radio which prompted the stewards to rescind the two penalty points given to him. That is significant. It must be assumed the stewards did not have access to the team radio initially but it also means that Hamilton still has 8 points on his licence and not 10. If he were to get to 12 before the end of the year then he would be given an automatic race ban. No driver has earned a ban under this current system so that would be an unwanted blot on Hamilton’s year. He is on a delicate line and cannot afford more weekends like this.
Red Bull were expecting a difficult weekend in Sochi having never secured a podium finish there but that makes Max Verstappen’s performance all the more impressive. The Dutchman’s qualifying effort was arguably the lap of the weekend if not ‘one of my best ever qualifying laps’ by his own admission as he split the Mercedes for 2nd. Starting on the dirty side of the tack left him exposed to Bottas and Ricciardo and while he was able to regain the position from Ricciardo a few turns later he was unable to keep close enough to the Mercedes. He kept Bottas honest as he found he was really competitive when he switched to the Hard tyre as he finished a really strong 2nd position for Red Bull having extracted everything he could from that car.
Alex Albon probably showed where Red Bull may have been expecting to be in Sochi. He secured his first podium at Mugello but finishing 10th in Qualifying and the race while his teammate was on the podium, not to mention behind the two sister team cars is not how he would’ve wanted to respond. In terms of pace, he wasn’t quite up to Verstappen’s pace throughout the Grad Prix weekend but admittedly was not helped by a five-place gearbox penalty which meant he started 15th. He described it as ‘a lot of work for one point’. It certainly was. Pitting for the Hard tyre behind the Safety car, it did not quite work out for the London born Thai driver and after pitting a second time, he was caught out attacking Norris by gasly as he finished 10th.
2020 Russian Grand Prix Race Result
1st Valtteri Bottas 1:34:00.364, 2nd Max Verstappen +7.729, 3rd Lewis Hamilton +22.729, 4th Sergio Perez +30.558, 5th Daniel Ricciardo +52.065, 6th Charles Leclerc +62.186, 7th Esteban Ocon +68.006, 8th Daniil Kvyat +68.740, 9th Pierre Gasly +89.776, 10th Alex Albon +97.860, 11th Antonio Giovinazzi +1 lap, 12th Kevin Magnussen +1 lap, 13th Sebastian Vettel +1 lap, 14th Kimi Raikkonen +1 lap, 15th Lando Norris +1 lap, 16th Nicholas Latifi +1 lap, 17th Romain Grosjean +1 lap, 18th George Russell +1 lap, Lance Stroll DNF, Carlos Sainz DNF
Fastest Lap: Valtteri Bottas 1:37.030
Sister team Alpha Tauri went about their business again quietly and collected some points with both drivers finishing in the top 10; the teams best ever finish in Sochi. For Daniil Kvyat, it eventually turned into a strong home Grand Prix. The home favourite looked to have the better pace of Gasly and missed out in Qualifying. Starting outside the top 10 though meant he had a free tyre choice and Alpha Tauri ran the alternate strategy starting the Russian on the Hard tyres. That allowed him to go further into the race than his teammate ad even a podium position briefly. With fresher tyres in the second stint, he was able to go faster but unable to make it count against the Renault of Ocon. Still, it is Kvyats third successive points finish and finished ahead of Gasly which is a positive. As he said, it ‘couldn’t have gone much better’.
Pierre Gasly will have been pleased to get back into the points after Mugello. The Frenchman was more consistent than Kvyat and demonstrated that by getting into Q3. A solid enough start meant he was up to 7th at the end of the opening lap and pitting on lap 18. He was overcut by Leclerc and Kvyat so was 9th when Alpha Tauri got caught out attempting to use the very brief VSC to their advantage for a ‘free’ pitstop. Gasly did really well to come back to claim ‘what you deserve’ with a splendid pass on the Red Bull of Albon for what would be 9th but crucially behind Kvyat. He described it as ‘disapointing as the car felt good’. It must have felt good as he even had a last-lap attempt at the fastest lap only to be beaten by two tenths from Bottas.
In the midfield battle for 3rd in the Constructors, it was a good weekend for Renault and Racing Point as they both closed the gap on McLaren.
At Racing Point, Sergio Perez brought the points home, continuing his run of top 10 finish at every race in Russia with his first top 4 finish of the season. The Mexican does not yet have the upgrade to his car that Stroll does so that makes his performance all the more remarkable. Perez was quicker than Stroll in every session as he got the car 4th in Qualifying with a fantastic effort. That was undone by being beaten by both Renault’s on the opening lap but his excellent tyre management skills meant the race came back to him including that pass on Ricciardo on lap 14 and overcutting Ocon by pitting on lap 20. The Mexican drove a stellar drive as he maximised the Racing Point car to finish 4th and only 7s shy of Hamilton. Imagine what he could’ve done with that upgrade!
It was a strong weekend for Renault with both their drivers scoring points. The Frenchman did not have the same pace as Ricciardo but he still got the car into Q3 as he qualified 7th. He eventually finished in the same position but it could have been more after a pretty strong opening lap as he got ahead of his teammate ad Perez. Pitting on lap 18 meant he came out behind the Ferrari of Vettel and that is where his race came unstuck. He struggled on the Hard tyres with ‘grip and balance and I just wasn’t as happy as I was on the softs’. Unable get past the Ferrari he was overcut by Perez and unusually for Ocon, he bowed to team orders in allowing Ricciardo through but could he have moved aside slightly earlier? Perhaps.
Daniel Ricciardo had a mighty weekend in Sochi. The honey badger had the pace for the top 3 in practice but had to make do with 5th in Qualifying, A slightly disappointing start meant he lost ground to his teammate and a key moment of his race was being passed around the outside of turn 3 by Perez on lap 16. After pitting, his race came alive on the Hard tyre. Being released by his teammate to attack Vettel did not quite work out as he ran wide at turn 2 and earned 5s time penalty from the stewards. His attitude in response was spot on. ‘I’ll just go faster’ he responded on team radio. His pace was such that while he could not get close to Perez for 4th that the 5s time penalty was meaningless to his result as he finished an impressive 5th; his best in Sochi.
The biggest loser out of the turn 2 situation was undoubtedly Carlos Sainz and McLaren. They started the Grand Prix weekend rather slowly but looked to be an equal match for Renault in the tight midfield battle; qualifying 6th and 8th. Sainz got the better of Norris in Qualifying for the 5th successive time. Starting on the dirty side of the track didn’t help him and he lost a position before braking late into turn 2. If he hadn’t locked up, it could’ve been great for him but he ran wide and had to go through the bollards to the left. From such a tight angle, Sainz misjudged it as he went into the wall and out of the race with a rather uncharacteristic error.
What I will say on turn 2 is that wall was far too close to the bollards and perhaps he was right post-race that something needs to change at that turn. Despite owning up to his mistake Sainz insisted, ‘I still think that corner shouldn’t exist. It’s not a very nice corner to drive around, and it generates these kind of situation…It’s still a corner that is not well designed. You saw today in the race just how many people are missing that apex, and having to go around the bollards, destroying the bollards, it’s clearly not a great corner.‘
Lando Norris was compromised slightly by the incident. The Brit had not had the easiest of weekends before the race as he was using an experimental nose update and the chaotic nature of Qualifying meant he had no fresh tyres left for Q3. Still, 8th was a decent result. From there on the grid, he was cautious into turn 2 after a decent start but felt he caught some debris from the debris his teammates incident which ‘made it a lot trickier to finish the race’. Pitting at the end of the opening lap, McLaren went with the only strategy call they could from there and attempt to get to the end on the Hard tyre which unfortunately didn’t work out as the tyre degraded towards the end despite his best defensive efforts. Having already dropped out of the points, pitting a second time meant he finished a disappointing 15th.
The other big loser on the opening lap was Lance Stroll. Like Sainz, the Canadian hasn’t had the rub of the green in the past couple of races and after getting a characteristic strong launch off the grid he was up to 8th from 13th after the turn 2 drama. Unfortunately, his race came to an end at turn 4 as he was tagged from behind by Leclerc and into the barrier. Still, he felt he could’ve been on for some good points and judging by his teammate’s performance he would be right. However, would he have beaten Perez? He had not matched the Mexican’s pace at any point during the weekend having struggled to find his rhythm so at most 5th might’ve been possible.
Stroll felt that Leclerc should have been penalised for the incident, ‘I’m very surprised that he didn’t get a penalty because I left him plenty of room and he could have avoided making contact by not going so wide on the exit’. The stewards though took the view that it was a racing incident. It is a verdict I am inclined to agree with. Yes, Stroll left enough room down the inside for Leclerc to fo into. Unfortunately, he picks up a bit of kerb and understeers into the Racing Point. It is a racing incident. It is not intentional from Lecerlc and it happens. Incidents like this have been penalised in the past so it is pleasantly surprising to see the decision the stewards made.
On Leclerc’s start, Mattia Binotto commented, ‘He was aggressive after the start and then drove a very mature race for someone who is not yet 23.’ He wasn’t wrong. Ferrari brought updates which are thought to be the basis of their 2021 car and first impressions are it’s a slight improvement. Unfortunately, Leclerc was unable to make Q3 but started 10th after Albon’s penalty and with a free tyre choice. He used that to great effect despite contact with Stroll to reach 8th at the end of the opening lap which set him up for a strong race. Due to better tyre management on his part from Mugello, something he worked on, he was able to take the Medium tyre to lap 28 and came out in between the two Renaults. In the second stint, he had enough pace to keep Ocon behind to finish 6th, the only Ferrari powered car to finish inside the points and best result since Silverstone.
2020 Russian Grand Prix Points
Drivers: Valtteri Bottas 26, Max Verstappen 18, Lewis Hamilton 15, Sergio Perez 12, Daniel Ricciardo 10, Charles Leclerc 8, Esteban Ocon 6, Daniil Kvyat 4, Pierre Gasly 2, Alex Albon 1
Constructors: Mercedes 41, Red Bull 19, Renault 16, Racing Point 12, Ferrari 8, Alpha Tauri 6
How times have changed for Sebastian Vettel? I can’t image he thought he’d be spending his 250th Grand Prix acting as a buffer for his teammate as Raikkonen used to be his. The Sochi weekend showed signs of initial promise for Vettel but he couldn’t find as much pace as Leclerc in Qualifying before his crash in Q2 and the Ferrari mechanics deserve all praise for repairing the car. A less than ideal start meant he did not benefit from the lap 1 chaos and starting on the Hard tyre meant he later became a roadblock after the Renault’s pitted before he stopped on lap 29. It was a big part in Leclerc finishing 6th but even when he did get fresher boots ‘following other cars did not help’ his tyre management so consequently, he was unable to get ahead of Giovinazzi and Magnussen in customer powered cars to finish a disappointing 13th.
Kimi Raikkonen also had a landmark Grand Prix weekend to forget. The 2007 Champion matched Rubens Barichello record 322 Grand Prix starts in Sochi. Alfa Romeo thought they had a car that could make it into Q2 but Raikkonen had a kate spin which took him out of contention as he qualified 20th and slowest. Starting on the Hard tyre, he was the last driver to pit on lap 35 which allowed him to make some progress. A sticky front left meant he had a slow stip but Raikkonen feels it ‘didn’t change the end result too much’. He had the pace on the fresher tyres to attack but like Vettel in front of him, he couldn’t make progress in the FRS train behind Giovoinazzi and Magnussen. Raikkonen finished his record-equalling 322nd Grand Prix 14th.
His F1 future might be in a little doubt but Antonio Giovinazzi extracted everything he could from his Alfa Romeo as he finished just outside the points in 11th; his best race finish since Austria. While the Italian did not have the pace to make it into Q2, he had the pace to beat Raikkonen in both Qualifying and the race. Keeping out of trouble o the opening lap he rose from 17th to 12th; a position he held on to until pitting on lap 17. He had some good pace on the Hard tyre indicating again that the Alfa Romeo is quicker in race trim as he made a couple good overtaking moves on the Haas pair of Grosjean and Magnussen in the closing stages to finish 11th. So close but yet so far for the Italian.
Haas expected to struggle in Russia and that is what transpired. Before Qualifying, 14th for Romain Grosjean was the best they managed in practice and neither car got out of Q1; Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen qualifying 16th and 18ht respectively. Both drivers had incredible race starts however and were in the top 10 having kept themselves out of trouble; Magnussen ahead in 9th. Grosjean struggled more as he found the car ‘a handful to drive’. He needed to take to the turn 2 escape route and through the bollards several times; once quite literally and fell back to finish 17th. Magnussen was able to hold on in the fight for the points a bit longer but will be disappointed to have been passed by Giovinazzi four laps from home.
It was also a disappointing Grand Prix for Williams. George Russell delivered in Qualifying again as he got the car into Q2 for the 6th time. However, the race ‘was a really tough day in the office with a lot of mistakes on my end’. A brutally honest assessment from the Brit whose Qualifying exploits were undone being forced wide at turn 2, pitting for a fresh set of tyres at the end of the opening lap, struggling to manage said tyres and needing to pit three times. He finished last of the classified finishers. Nicholas Latifi was, therefore, able to finish ahead of his teammate for the 2nd time in three races. The Canadian is definitely improving on race day but it is qualifying he needs to improve as he was almost a full second adrift in Q1. He can take heart from winning the race battle though.
2020 Russian Grand Prix Ratings
Drivers: Valtteri Bottas 8, Max Verstappen 9.5, Lewis Hamilton 7, Sergio Perez 9.5, Daniel Ricciardo 9, Charles Leclerc 9.5, Esteban Ocon 7, Daniil Kvyat 8.5, Pierre Gasly 8, Alex Albon 5, Antonio Giovinazzi 7.5, Kevin Magnussen 7, Sebastian Vettel 5, Kimi Raikkonen 6, Lando Norris 6.5, Nicholas Latifi 7, Romain Grosjean 5.5, George Russell 6, Lance Stroll 6.5, Carlos Sainz 6
Constructors: Mercedes 7.5, Red Bull 7.5, Renault 8, Racing Point 8, Ferrari 7, Alpha Tauri 8, Alfa Romeo 6.5, Haas 6, McLaren 5, Williams 6.5
After all that, Lewis Hamilton’s lead in the Championship has been reduced to 44 points from Valtteri Bottas and then Max Verstappen in 3rd. The most closely thought sot is 4th with Lando Norris, Alex Albon and Daniel Ricciardo now separated by 2 points. Charles Leclerc is now up to 7th and matching Lance Stroll while Sergio Perez is only one point behind despite racing in two fewer races. Pierre Gasly rounds off the top 10 (45pts). Esteban Ocon is now 9 points from the top 10 in 12th hile Daniil Kvyat after finishing 8th is now only three points shy of Sebastian Vettel who has 17 points.
In the Constructors, Mercedes are the runaway leaders and Red Bull comfortably second but the battle for third spot is interesting. After failing to score points, McLaren retain third but are now only two points ahead of Racing Point and seven clear of Renault. Ferrari remain 6th on 74 points and Alpha Tauri 7th on 59 points. The bottom three remains unchanged.
After Sochi, it is off to a more traditional race circuit and one that sadly has not been on the F1 schedule since 2013. With this race being in October, it will be a coder one that f1 is used to and the Nurbibruging turns up some unpredictable weather in the summer. This one could be a great race. Will Lewis Hamilton match Michael Schumacher’s once thought untouchable 91 career wins on the same weekend his son makes his FP1 debut alongside fellow Ferrari junior Callum Illot? It is the Nurburgring but not for the German Grand Prix; the officially called Eifel Grand Prix!