Russian Grand Prix: Lewis Hamilton downbeat with victory despite extending title lead over Sebastian Vettel

Hamilton was left feeling blue as Mercedes sacrificed a Valtteri Bottas win for championship gain

David Tremayne
Sochi
Sunday 30 September 2018 16:56
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Formula 1: Official intro video

If you watched Lewis Hamilton’s body language as he stepped from his Mercedes after his eighth win of 2018, he didn’t look remotely like a man who had just stretched his World Championship lead to 50 points with only five races remaining.

There was no jump for joy, and he kept his helmet on. And the first thing he did was to find team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who had played a key role in a dull race by letting his team leader by in Turn 13 on the 25th lap, a sporting move that ultimately paved the way to the Briton’s 70th grand prix success.

Bottas had held his advantage from pole position in the long run down to Turn 2, as Hamilton had his hands full fending off Sebastian Vettel, who looked quite racy for the first few corners. Hamilton actually got alongside Bottas going down to the Turn 2 right-hander, but was on the outside and lost momentum as he had to drop in behind his partner. That almost gave Vettel another chance, but he closed that off quickly, and thereafter the race form seemed to be settled, with the Mercedes team having the advantage and the ability to decide the optimal strategy. But there were three surprises in store for Hamilton.

The first had come after his pit stop on the 14th lap, when he came out behind Vettel, who had somehow hot the undercut after stopping a lap earlier.

Vettel went ahead of Hamilton after their pit-stops

“How the hell did that happen?” he demanded to know. “They kept me out another lap, which was probably not right decision in the end as the tyres dropped off. Seb had come in a lap before and I lost six-tenths or so when I was caught behind a Williams. So the decision was very risky and I was quite frustrated when I came out. I thought I was potentially fighting Valtteri, and there was Seb. Definitely frustrating! But I had grip in the tyres, so I was going to take the opportunity to race with Seb.”

He followed the Ferrari for the next two laps until he got a run on Vettel going through Turn 1. The German blocked that and then moved again, in what looked like a direct contravention of the rule which says a driver can only make one move to defend his place. Hamilton had to brake hard to avoid a collision, though the stewards quickly ruled no further action to be necessary.

By then, however, Hamilton had dealt with things in his own way, neatly outfoxing Vettel and muscling past the red car going into Turn 4. “I got the slipstream down to Turn 1 and pulled out and Sebastian moved and then moved again and at the time if I hadn’t braked I would have been in wall,” Hamilton said. “I felt from my cockpit view that the move was like a double move, but luckily I got away without damage and was quite forceful in the next corner.”

Vettel had a slightly different view. “We got the undercut, which was good, and then it was clear that Valtteri was dropping back to make my life difficult. Then I had a bit of a wobble into Turn 13 and that gave the DRS down the straight and I saw him coming. I thought I just moved to cover the inside before braking. I didn’t think I caused irritation.

“Obviously I was then compromised on the run out of Turn 2 after defending my position, and after that it was very difficult to see where he was. Then I saw his tyres and knew he was there [alongside going into Turn 4]. I didn’t want to be a complete arse and push him into dirt and the wall, so I had to give him the entrance to Turn 4 otherwise at some stage it would have become silly. Obviously I was not happy, and unfortunately we lost the position.

“After that I thought I was a bit faster than Valtteri at certain stages, but not enough to pass, and by the end I had a lapped car so the gap was too big.” After that it became a question of what strategy Mercedes would deploy. That became clear on that 25th lap, when Bottas dutifully moved over. The final surprise came when Hamilton discovered that he still wasn’t leading, as the extraordinary Max Verstappen had put his Red Bull to the fore.

The flying Dutchman had started 19th on Pirelli’s soft-compound tyres after incurring engine penalties on a track that wasn’t supposed to suit his car. He was 13th by the end of the first lap and by the eighth was an amazing fifth, even though Bottas, Hamilton, Vettel and Ferraris Kimi Raikkonen were all at that stage running on the faster and softer-compound Pirelli ultrasoft tyres.

Bottas pitted first for the same soft tyres as Verstappen, on lap 12, followed by Vettel and Hamilton, and, eventually, Raikkonen on lap 18. That put Verstappen into the lead, and he held that, apparently without too much trouble, for the next 25 laps. Hamilton had by that time worked up to second, and couldn’t believe that the Red Bull was ahead of him until his team explained he was on a different strategy. And while he could get close to Verstappen, the usual aerodynamic turbulence nonsense which so blights F1 prevented him from pushing too hard in pursuit.

Valtteri Bottas was ordered to let Lewis Hamilton past

He was already nursing a blistered left rear tyre and the occasional hesitation from his engine, and with Bottas riding shotgun to protect his back from Vettel, there was no point in pushing. He knew that it was only a matter of time before the Dutchman would have to pit to switch tyres.

When that finally came, he finally moved into the lead on the 44th lap and headed Bottas home by 2.5s, with Vettel a further 4.9s back. So was Hamilton happy with the result? “Not too much, to be honest,” he replied. “It doesn’t feel great. Valtteri was an incredible team player today. I’ve never finished first and felt quite the way I do now. It’s a conflicting feeling. Naturally I wanted to extend my championship lead, but there are two championships, so it’s a conflicting season and team effort. Valtteri did an exceptional job all weekend, and a great job in qualifying, and you could see how happy I was then for him.

“We had a great battle into T1, you could see how close we were then. It was obviously a team call for us to swap places. We discuss things like that before a race, and I just told Valtteri that it wasn’t something I asked for but a team decision, so for both of us it’s a very awkward position to be in.

“Was it necessary to do that today? Only time will tell. If it had finished the way it most likely would have, with Valtteri in front, if we were eventually to lose the championship, through non-finishes or whatever, by a point…”

Hamilton says his win doesn't feel ‘spectacular’

Two laps before the end, Bottas radioed to ask whether the result was set. Both strategist James Vowles and team boss Toto Wolff said placatory things, and that yes, the result was set but that they would all talk about it later.

Bottas’s face was set in stone, but like the team player he is, he sucked it up. “I just wanted to make sure myself what the plan was,” he said. “And I got the confirmation that we were going to the end like that.

“As long as we were 1-2 we’d get maximum points for team, so the order doesn’t matter there. The difference is that Lewis is fighting for the World Championship and I’m not, so it was the ideal result for the team, if not for me.”

Verstappen was probably the only top five finisher who was actually happy. It was his 21st birthday, and he had figured that P5 was the best present that he could give himself. And he did precisely that, reminding everyone just how strong he will be when Red Bull have similar horsepower as Mercedes and Ferrari.

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