I m last year the GP wrote Russia a simple story. The tire compounds were too hard for the Sochi Autodrom. Therefore the race became a procession. Tactically, there wasn't much to gain a year ago either. It was different this time. The asphalt has gotten a bit rougher in the past 12 months. Pirelli brought softer tires to Russia. The Hypersoft was too soft, the Ultrasoft too unpredictable. The soft tire turned out to be the best racing tire. Everyone used it at least once. Four drivers as starting tires, 16 as tires for the final.
This mix made the 16th round of the World Championship a reasonably exciting affair. It was most hectic at the command post, which later celebrated a double victory. Mercedes not only had to protect its two drivers against Sebastian Vettel's attacks. The defending champion also intervened in the racing direction. Valtteri Bottas had to make way for Lewis Hamilton on lap 25, and the Finn never got that position back.
The worst-case scenario for Mercedes
would be the Russian GP 'Normal', Bottas should have won the race after winning the start. But the lead of half a second over the Ferrari in training suddenly disappeared during the race. Sebastian Vettel had eye contact with the Mercedes most of the time. And once he even split the Silver Arrows.
That was the worst-case scenario. Hamilton corrected the loss of space due to Vettel's undercut after one round, but at a high price. His aggressive pace right at the start of the stint affected the left rear tire. He drew bubbles. The telemetry showed: Both rear tires were too hot.
This meant that Mercedes was faced with the following situation on lap 25: Bottas was just 1.8 seconds behind Max Verstappen, who had started the race with soft tires anti-cyclically and would certainly not voluntarily make room. It was feared that the Dutchman would compress the pursuers even closer. Hamilton drove 1.5 seconds behind Bottas and had Vettel on his neck. The Ferrari driver started to catch up in the DRS area with only 1.3 seconds behind.
So what to do? Hamilton would have had more trouble keeping Vettel in check with his tire problems than Bottas. “The swap was meant to protect Lewis. There was no room for improvement. Bottascouldn't escape because of Verstappen, and Lewis would have had to pay for it, ”confirmed the engineers.
Before the race, Mercedes had discussed many scenarios for which a stable control would be necessary. This constellation was not there. It was a decision that had to be made ad hoc at the pit wall. In the end, it was never reversed, although it would have been safe to do so.
The strategists' explanation: “It was no longer about risk. It was about the fact that we want to win both world titles. And Lewis’s not won yet. ”Team principal Toto Wolff defended himself with the same argument. “A 50 point lead is a solid lead. But what if we don't finish in one of the next races like in Austria? Then seven points given away could fall on our heads. ”
That is why Vettel succeeded in the undercut
The key to the conflict of conscience Mercedes was sent into was in Vettel's undercut. That was only possible because the Ferrari driver did not want to leave the rearview mirror of the Mercedes after the lost start. Then Mercedes made two mistakes from Hamilton's point of view. The power of the early pit stop was wrongly calculated, assumed 0.9 seconds and later found that the advantage was 1.8 seconds.
Instead of anticipating Vettel's undercut with Hamilton, front runner Bottas was allowed to go first to the box. The lead over Sergio Perez was big enough. The pit stop window would never have been enough for Verstappen. That was 23 seconds, but the Red Bull driver set the same times as the front and was only 19 seconds behind. Why Bottas first? 'We wanted to secure his leadership,' said Wolff.
Vettel followed Bottas. Hamilton fell by the wayside. Mercedes apparently believed in an overcut, just as Hamilton started on the ultrasoft tires while driving freely. But the plan was thwarted by Sergey Sirotkin. The Williams pilot disturbed Hamilton's circles in the third sector. 'We pitted Lewis one lap too late,' said Wolff, blaming himself equally. “I was debating with James Vowles on the radio during that phase. We were distracted. ”Vowles is the chief strategist of the Silver Arrows.
To show how Vettel got into the Mercedes sandwich, we show the IN and OUT rounds of Bottas, Hamilton and Vettel. The Ferrari driver won both disciplines. The IN lap by three tenths, the OUT lap almost two seconds faster than Hamilton. That had its price. Vettel used his entire battery supply for this. Based on the GPS measurements, the Mercedes engineers saw that Vettel ran out of juice at the exact moment he had fended off Hamilton on the home straight. So before the Omega curve, at the end of which Hamilton surprised him.
Hamilton found Vettel's defense close to the limit of what was allowed. Hecomplained to the radio about two lane changes. The stewards saw it differently. “It was a lane change with a delay in between.” Vettel's last chance would have been a traffic jam behind Verstappen, but Mercedes did not allow it to happen. With the stable management, Bottas was chosen to be the man-marketer of Hamilton, and the Finn played this role perfectly.
The start trick by Mercedes
The speed of the Ferrari in the race surprised. While you lost the entire training over half a second per lap on the Mercedes, Vettel was able to follow them in the race. The reason was the vote. After Ferrari struggled to keep the tires in good condition across all three sectors on Friday, a rear wing with more downforce was pulled out of the box on Saturday. It helped the Ferrari drivers with tire management.
But it was also counterproductive in a duel. Vettel had a better start than Hamilton, pushed his nose into the lead for a short time, but then fell back again. “We were traveling with a smaller wing. That helped. We just had to make sure that Vettel didn't get any slipstream, ”explained the engineers. Vettel confirmed: “Valtteri and Lewis played it perfectly.”
Toto Wolff revealed: “We agreed on the start in advance. In the event that one gets off worse, the other should pull it. As soon as Vettel comes close to them, they should swarm out. ”Although the DRS effect with the large wing was stronger, Vettel could not benefit from it. He rarely made it to the DRS division, and when he did, Bottas had a slipstream from Hamilton.
Could Red Bull have won without an engine penalty?
At Red Bull you had to follow suit Ask the race whether it wouldn't have been better to postpone the engine change to another race. The team was a bit surprised by the speed of their cars themselves. Motorsport director Helmut Marko revealed that they had corrected past aero upgrades that went wrong, which was the key to good form on a power track. 'I am now confident that we will do even better with this car in Suzuka, Austin and Mexico,' said the Austrian.
Verstappen was able to set the pace of Mercedes and von in the first stint with the soft tires Ferrari go with. Sometimes he even drove away from them. The Dutchman only lost time on the ultrasoft tires. That was because the medium tire compound wasn't working as hoped. 'We would have better taken a Hypersoft,' said the team. Verstappen could have delayed his stop a bit, but not much longer. 'In the last laps before the stop, the tires really started to wear out,' admitted Marko.
Waiting for a safety car began to pay off less and less. 'If a safety car had come after our pit stop, we would have been in good shape with fresh tires,' interjected team principal Christian Horner. Would haveVerstappen can even win from a normal starting position in the third row without the engine penalty? Marko: “Not winning, but a podium would certainly have been there.” This is how the Mercedes strategists saw it: “Red Bull could certainly have hurt the Ferrari and one of our cars.”
Renault would have no tactics helped
In the midfield this time, in contrast to Singapore, the Hypersoft starters prevailed. The decisive maneuver already took place in the second lap. Charles Leclerc passed Kevin Magnussen. The second key moment was Magnussen's earlier pit stop against the Force India pilots. Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez's overcut didn't work. They took turns biting their teeth on the HaasF1. The double exchange of places was determined from the pit wall.
Renault came away empty-handed. When asked whether one would not have qualified better in the top ten with hypersoft tires, Nico Hülkenberg said: “We would not have scored any points today with any tactics. We were too slow for that in all respects. ”Although Hulkenberg had sneaked up to the Force India pit stop window within five seconds, Renault pitted him on lap 35. That also surprised the driver: “I would have held out a few more laps. My tires were still good. The call for a pit stop came quite suddenly, so there was no more time to discuss. ”