With high drama and heartbreak the Russian Grand Prix was an appropriately Chekhovian affair on the shores of the Black Sea. Intense and enthralling until the closing laps, it ended with glory for the lead protagonist Lewis Hamilton, gaining his 100th Formula One victory, but anguish for Lando Norris, Sochi’s other leading player who was left ashen-faced and devastated after a salutary reminder of how cruel sport can be.
For Hamilton it was a chance to celebrate a unique double century of 101 poles and 100 wins, a feat unmatched in the sport.
“It’s taken a long time obviously to get to 100 and I wasn’t even sure whether it would come,” he said. “It is a magical moment. I could only have dreamed of still being here, to have this opportunity to win these races and to drive with such phenomenal talents this late on in my career. I am so proud of everything we have done. This is a special moment for everyone that has been part of it. I feel incredibly grateful for the support I have had.”
To put Hamilton’s record in perspective he had already surpassed Michael Schumacher’s 91 wins and the next most successful driver is Sebastian Vettel with 53. Hamilton remains the only driver to have taken a win in every season since his first at Canada in 2007 and is attempting to take his eighth title this season, surpassing Schumacher’s seven.
At 36 years old and in his 15th season in F1, his consistency, especially since joining Mercedes in 2013, has been outstanding – not only in the dominant wins from the front but also in taking the flag when it looked out of reach, and Russia was another of these.
The world champion’s achievement is remarkable and he rightly revelled in his success in a race that had ebbed and flowed. Indeed he conceded he might not have won but for the late intervention of rain and his Mercedes team making the right call just as Norris and McLaren gambled and lost as one of the most gripping finales of the season played out.
Nor was this a simple two-hander. Behind them Hamilton’s title rival Max Verstappen also pulled off a coup. Starting from the back of the grid because of engine penalties, he made it through the field to finish second, in front of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz in third. In an exercise in damage limitation it could not have gone better for the Dutchman. Hamilton did regain the lead of the world championship but by only two points which Verstappen and Red Bull would have taken in a flash if offered it before the race began.
Having been fourth on the grid with Norris on pole and despite a slow start dropping him to seventh, Hamilton and Mercedes kept their heads playing a long game through the pit stops that left him second, 13 seconds behind Norris with 23 laps remaining.
Norris, the 21-year-old in only his third season in F1, had driven a composed and confident race that belied his age. He deserved to be in front and was handling it with the air of a man who had been born to lead.
Hamilton caught him with nine laps to go but did not enjoy enough of a pace advantage to pass and admitted he doubted he could have done so without the rain intervening. Indeed Norris appeared entirely untroubled by having the seven-time world champion in his mirrors.
Already impossibly tense, the third-act denouement was enthralling. As rain began to fall, both drivers struggled to keep it on the island but neither wanted to blink. Hamilton rejected his team’s first entreaty to pit for wet tyres as Norris, too, stayed out. However, when Mercedes reported the rain would get worse Hamilton trusted their call which proved correct and stopped.
Norris, with a win four laps away, told his team he wanted to try to hold out on his slick tyres, only for his hopes to be washed away as the rain intensified and he spun off, handing Hamilton the lead and the win.
McLaren said it had been a joint decision but must be rueing not insisting their man came in. Norris finished in seventh.
Just how crucial the decision to stop had been was clear as Verstappen, who pitted early for wet tyres was able to launch himself through the field and move from seventh to second, a result Hamilton admitted was “mega damage limitation”.
Hamilton has long experience of the slings and arrows that an F1 driver must endure and he embraced Norris after the race but for the McLaren driver this was new territory and clearly hard to endure as he fought to control his emotions.
“I’m unhappy. Devastated in a way,” he said. “I made a decision just as much as the team. In fact, it was more that they thought I should box and I decided to stay out. So it was my decision. I thought it was the way to go.”
He will doubtless relive those final laps again, considering how differently it might have played out had he not overruled his team, but from hard lessons he will emerge stronger. Hamilton knows this and his win record reflects a wealth of experience. His time is now but Norris will surely be centre stage again sooner rather than later.
The McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo was in fourth and Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas in fifth. Fernando Alonso was in sixth for Alpine and Kimi Raikkonen in eighth for Alfa Romeo. Sergio Pérez was ninth for Red Bull and George Russell 10th for Williams.