Fascinating and revealing, the Russian Grand Prix presented an appropriately Chekhovian drama, exposing both strengths and faultlines at the very top of Formula One. With Lewis Hamilton’s win there was delight and in Ferrari’s defeat disorder. Hamilton and Mercedes issued notice that, even when they are down, they are not out while Ferrari endured foment and failure in Sochi that reflects the knife-edged balancing act the team now face with their drivers.
Hamilton’s victory on the shores of the Black Sea was admirable. Driver and team pulled off an unlikely win against the odds. With Ferrari quicker here, Mercedes’ decision to try an alternate strategy by starting on the medium tyres paid off. Hamilton, who had started in second, had kept in touch with the leading Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc. His harder rubber enabled him to stay out after their stops and then to pit under the virtual safety car. With less time lost in his stop he took the lead and then executed the run to victory with precision. His ninth win this year has put one hand on his sixth title and he was ecstatic.
“Just an incredible day for the team considering the challenges we’ve had,” said Hamilton, who now leads the world championship by 73 points from his teammate Valtteri Bottas, who was second. “Ferrari are still quite dominant at the moment, so it’s taken quite a special job from us today to come out ahead of them.”
Ferrari had indeed been on top all weekend until their challenge fell apart. Centre stage in Russia was the Scuderia’s troika of Leclerc, Vettel and the team principal, Mattia Binotto. From the off the three engaged in an over-complicated and perhaps unnecessary dance. With Leclerc on pole they were looking for a one-two and, when Vettel passed Hamilton off the start from third, all seemed well. The team had pre-arranged that he would slipstream Leclerc into turn two to prevent Hamilton from having a shot at passing. Vettel took the tow and went past Leclerc into the lead.
Soon afterwards the team instructed Vettel to give back the position. Vettel refused, arguing he would have taken the place anyway and that Leclerc was not close enough. With heads shaking on the Ferrari pit wall, Leclerc insisted he had respected the plan but Vettel still refused to let him by and extended his lead. As Hamilton closed, the internecine strife became a distraction, Ferrari acceded to Vettel, telling Leclerc they would still do the swap later in the race.
They managed to do so through the pit stops and for the race itself the issue was moot soon afterwards as Vettel retired with an MGU-K failure. A later further stop for Leclerc to take the soft tyres cost him second place as Mercedes secured their eighth one-two of the season. Yet as they celebrated, Ferrari surely began what will be a long debrief. Leclerc was aggrieved in Singapore when the Ferrari strategy cost him the lead and a potential win in Vettel’s favour. He took that on the chin but emphasised in Sochi that he had to be confident his teammate would play the game.
“The trust doesn’t change and we need to trust each other, Seb and myself,” he said. “Because it’s usually important for the benefit of the team in some situations to know that you can count on the other car, and vice versa. It’s very important but the trust is still here.”
Vettel hedged on the pre-race plans. “I don’t know exactly what happened there,” he said. “I think we had an agreement and I spoke with Charles before the race. I think it was quite clear. I don’t know. Maybe I missed something. I’m sure we’ll talk about it.”
Binotto, however, was explicit that the plan had been for Leclerc to give Vettel a slipstream to control the opening lap and said: “Ideally we would have swapped back.” He was, perhaps diplomatically in public, conciliatory towards Vettel. “Seb was very fast in the race,” he said. “So I think every decision could have been postponed”.
Vettel was quicker and he had made a superb start but his flat refusal to obey team orders – as he did in the infamous Multi21 incident at Malaysia in 2013 – will not have been lost on Leclerc or on Ferrari.
Vettel was unquestionably their No1 driver when the season began. The 21-year-old Leclerc, however, has undoubtedly been the better driver over the season. Vettel has been usurped but the complex nature of how Ferrari planned those opening corners suggests they have neither redefined a pecking order nor simply opted to let their men race.
With their car looking hugely competitive, boding well for next year, Leclerc has firmly staked his claim as their lead while Vettel has made it clear that on occasion he still views team orders as suggestions. It is not an ideal combination for harmony and while Leclerc is still in his first year at Ferrari and taking it well for now, he has shown character already that suggests he will not lie down in future. Russia has ratcheted up the pressure on Ferrari. If victory rather than drama is their goal, managing their leading actors is vital. Max Verstappen finished in fourth place having started from ninth after a five-place grid penalty. His Red Bull teammate Alexander Albon did well to claim fifth after starting in the pitlane.
Carlos Sainz was sixth for McLaren in front of the Racing Point of Sergio Pérez, Lando Norris was in eighth for McLaren, with Haas’s Kevin Magnussen in ninth and Nico Hülkenberg in 10th for Renault.