Lewis Hamilton increased his lead in this year’s drivers’ world championship to 50 points when he claimed an accomplished victory, aided by Mercedes team tactics, in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix.
The defending four-time champion, who started second on the grid, was helped again by Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who allowed him to overtake and then defended him from attack by title rival Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari, as he battled to finish second.
Hamilton now has the equivalent of two victories in his pocket with just five rounds remaining and 125 points left to play for.
Here, we look at the key takeaways from Sochi.
The Briton produced a consistent display to take his fifth win in six races, all but ensuring a fifth world title.
He stayed composed and drove solidly around Sochi and benefited from team orders to allow him to overtake leader Bottas on lap 25 and go on to secure victory.
Hamilton now has a seventh win this season – and the result in Russia only strengthens his grip on the world championship.
The team strategy may not have been spot on for his pit spot on lap 14, but Hamilton’s aggression to overtake Vettel two laps later furthered proved his class over his German rival.
DREAM OVER FOR VETTEL
The race was always going to be a war of strategy. It would come down to which team could employ the best one-stop strategy around the fast track in south Russia.
And for all the criticism of late, Ferrari actually got their strategy calls right, with Vettel getting out ahead of Hamilton after the Mercedes pit-stop on lap 14. However, Hamilton passed him two laps later and regained his place.
Vettel did up his game to try and challenge Bottas in second in a bid to to put Hamilton under pressure, but it proved little too late.
With 50 points separating him from Hamilton in the drivers standings, it looks like his chances of a fifth world crown are all but over.
Coupled with some poor team strategy and his own personal errors this season, the 31-year-old has simply not been good enough to stay consistent in the title battle.
No driver will enjoy the tag, but Bottas carried out a superb wing man job for Hamilton’s win.
The Finn – who started from pole – was not happy at being told to make way for Hamilton on lap 25, but it was the right thing to do.
It’s pointless to keep a faster car behind a slower one, especially if it exposes a firing Ferrari to attack from behind. Even if Hamilton wasn’t leading the championship, it was the right thing to do.
A seventh podium of the season will surely add some gloss for his otherwise industrious weekend, but this was meant to be Bottas’ day and unfortunately his team spoiled the party.
It was a sensational performance from birthday boy Verstappen to finish fourth.
Starting from 19th due to an engine upgrade, he soared to fifth inside the opening eight laps. And although his car was far superior to what was in front of him at the beginning of the race, to move up 13 spots inside such a short space of time shows his drive and class behind the wheel.
After holding the lead briefly,Verstappen finally pitted with nine laps remaining and went on to finish in a commendable position in the points.
Although he would have been happier to secure a podium, the confidence he showed to overtake the Renaults and Haas during the race was remarkable.
Still, it was a formidable finish for the 21-year-old, who is slowly looking back to his best after recent disappointments in Hungary and Silverstone.
A rare mistake from Hamilton in qualifying allowed Bottas to put his car on pole position for the Russian Grand Prix as the dominant Mercedes duo locked out the front row.
Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, who heads into Sunday’s race at the Sochi Autodrom 40 points behind Hamilton with only six rounds remaining, lines up in third after finishing more than half-a-second adrift.
Mercedes must be applauded for their refusal to adopt team orders in recent seasons, allowing Hamilton, and his former team-mate Nico Rosberg, to battle for victory.
But with Vettel – albeit spluttering towards the end of the season – still within striking range, and Mercedes just 37 points ahead of their Italian rivals in the fight for the constructors’ title, Toto Wolff, team principal for the Silver Arrows, indicated he will not allow his drivers to go wheel-to-wheel.
“We are not in a part of the season where I enjoy two Mercedes cars racing each other at the front,” he said.
“As much as I hate to say it as a race fan, but you need to calculate a little bit more at this stage of the season.”
Wolff revealed he will sit down with both Hamilton and Bottas, and the team’s senior engineers, on Sunday morning to discuss their strategy.
For Hamilton, he will want to win the race on merit, and it is implausible that he will demand Bottas steps aside. Bottas meanwhile, is searching for his opening win in a season where he has been a distant second to his team-mate.
“None of us like team orders because we have seen it in the past from other teams,” Wolff added. “Lewis wouldn’t want that because he wants to go for the win on his own, and Valtteri would not want it because he needs that victory.
“It is going to be difficult to tell Valterri that he is not allowed to race after putting it on pole. It is a very tricky decision to make.”
Bottas, who finished 0.145 sec clear of Hamilton, but is 110 points adrift in the championship, said: “My approach to the race is to win. You can’t have any other goal starting from pole.
“Obviously Lewis is leading the championship with a bit of a gap to Sebastian, and a very big gap to me, so you always need to keep those things in mind.”
Hamilton, magnanimous in defeat, added: “All of our goals is to win this race. Valtteri just did the better job today.”
Up until his mistake, Hamilton had been in a class of one and appeared set to claim the 80th pole of his career after topping the time sheets in the first two phases of qualifying.
But, three tenths up on Bottas in the opening sector of his final hot run, he ran wide at the right-handed turn seven and was forced to abort his lap.
It marked the first significant error of Hamilton’s title defence, yet it did not prove as costly as it may have been with Ferrari, despite running an upgraded package, well off the pace.
Vettel desperately needs to beat Hamilton in Sochi to stop the Briton, who has won four of the last five rounds, from running away with the title.
But to stand any chance of victory, the 31-year-old German will now have to navigate his way past not one, but two Mercedes cars at a track where overtaking is notoriously troublesome.
His best chance will come off the start line, and the 220mph charge down to the second bend. Last year, Bottas started behind both Vettel and Kimi
Raikkonen before winning the drag race and clinching the win.
“I have spoken to Valtteri and reminded him of what happened here last year,” Vettel said. “Maybe we can turn it around tomorrow. That would be nice.”
A rare mistake by Lewis Hamilton allowed his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas to take pole position for the Russian Grand Prix.
Hamilton had been in a class of one at the Sochi Autodrom this weekend, and appeared on course to claim the 80th pole of his career after topping the time sheets in the first two phases of qualifying.
But the British driver, three tenths up on his team-mate in the opening sector on his final hot run, ran wide at the right-handed seventh turn and was forced to abort his lap.
Hamilton finished 0.145 seconds down on Bottas while Vettel, 40 points adrift in the championship race, qualified a distant third.
Vettel desperately needs to beat Hamilton on Sunday to stop the British driver from running away with the title.
But the 31-year-old German will now have to navigate his way past not one, but two Mercedes cars at a track where overtaking is notoriously difficult, to stand any chance of victory.
Like Mercedes, Ferrari have brought a revised package with them to Russia, yet Vettel was never in contention here, finishing an eye-watering six tenths off the pace. His team-mate Kimi Raikkonen finished fourth.
“It was a nice lap,” Finnish driver Bottas said. “I think Lewis aborted his, but it feels good.
“I am really happy, for sure, but it is only the first step of this weekend and it is a long run from the start line to turn one.”
Hamilton, magnanimous in defeat, paid tribute to his team-mate. “Valtteri did a better job,” he said.
“It was intense naturally, but my last two laps were not special and you can’t always get it right. At least we are still in the fight for tomorrow.”
Vettel started on pole last year, but was beaten in the race after Bottas got the jump on him on the opening lap.
“It was important to get as close as important to them,” he said. “It should have been a lot closer, but not enough to be a threat.
“I just spoke to Valtteri and reminded him about what happened last year. Hopefully we can turn it around. That would be nice.”
The second phase of qualifying, which last 15 minutes, was rendered completely meaningless with five drivers, the number of cars eliminated from Q2, not bothering to post a time.
The Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo and the Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly already knew they would be sent to the back of the grid due to a series of engine penalties.
Renault meanwhile, took the tactical decision not to run either Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg to ensure they would start outside the top 10, in 11th and 12th, and enjoy a free tyre choice for the race.
Brendon Hartley, who finished 16th, and Fernando Alonso, one place lower, will also take grid sanctions for exceeding the number of permitted engine parts, meaning a quarter of the 20-strong field have been penalised.
Elsewhere, Kevin Magnussen qualified an impressive fifth for Haas ahead of Force India’s Esteban Ocon.
Local driver Sergey Sirotkin qualified only 18th while his Williams team-mate Lance Stroll, bound for Force India next year, finished last.