Lewis Hamilton’s success since joining Mercedes may well have been beyond even his most optimistic expectations and victory in Russia, his ninth win of the season, put one hand on a third world championship to equal Jackie Stewart’s British record.
When he left McLaren for Mercedes in 2012 the German team had one win to their name in the modern era and at that point had not looked in danger of threatening more. The move was widely questioned and Hamilton admitted he did not expect anything for 2013 but that it was “2014 and 2015 when I anticipate we will have most success”.
His ability as a seer was unprecedented. After some delay owing to a stewards inquiry Mercedes claimed their second constructors’ championship running in Sochi. With his team-mate, Nico Rosberg, forced to retire with a throttle problem, Hamilton needs only to score two points more than the German and nine points more than Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, to take the drivers’ title at the next round in Austin. If he does, it will be with three races to go, as convincing an argument as one can imagine it is possible to make on how right he was to switch teams.
He acknowledged a debt to Ross Brawn, the Mercedes team principal in 2012, who had brought him on board. “When I joined I sat with Ross and I got such a good feeling with him when he told me the plans they had, and still today when we are succeeding, Ross is still a part of it,” he said.
Equally, despite the dominance Mercedes enjoyed last year, their continued pace advantage – at one point Hamilton took four seconds from the chasing Williams of Valtteri Bottas in three laps and did not appear to be really pushing – he admitted he had not expected such superiority to continue. “I felt like the guys were going to do a good job,” he said. “I just didn’t know it was going to be this good. That they would do an even better job this year than last. It’s phenomenal.”
That he knows this positively Stakhanovite effort by Mercedes has very much been a collective effort was also acknowledged. “It just feels special to have contributed to the teams success,” he said. “I feel like a small link in the chain of many, many people.”
The team title was, for an hour and a half, denied to Mercedes until the stewards gave Kimi Raikkonen a penalty for his late-race, clumsy lunge at Bottas on turn four, and he was demoted from fifth to eighth. A belated call that was enough for the their on-track celebrations to be put off.
Hamilton who is drawing positives from everything this season – including his improved qualifying form to a mental toughness that has seen him move on from adversity with alacrity – saw this too as better for the team as a whole back at the factory. “The party will start tomorrow. That’s when we will all be together,” he said. “There is a small group of us here compared to the size of the team, so tomorrow is when we go back and really celebrate.”
Rosberg, who for the second year running seems set to lose out to his team-mate in the title race, had at least done all that was within his control. He held his line and kept the lead from the start only to be forced out on lap seven. “F1 is pretty incredible sometimes how tough it is,” he said. “It’s not nice when there is a problem with the throttle pedal, I had to lift my complete leg off the pedal to come off, I couldn’t steer like that.”
This is a fair assessment and he has reiterated his determination to keep fighting but this was a body blow. Vettel’s finishing position added insult to injury as he overtook Rosberg into second place in the championship and realistically the pair are now fighting only for the runners-up spot.
Force India’s Sergio Pérez – benefiting from Raikkonen’s indiscretion – took a deserved third place for his team’s first podium finish of the season having made a determined run from seventh on the grid, making up places through the stops and doing a fine job to manage his worn front tyres to make them last to the finish.
But it had been Hamilton’s day again and, while doubtless the victory bringing him closer to the championship will mean the most to him, he will surely also remember it as the race that put him ahead of his hero Ayrton Senna in grand prix wins, with the 42nd of his career. That is a feat that even for a driver with a real sense of vision would once have been the stuff of dreams.