Lewis Hamilton secured his first win in four races when he ended Ferrari’s winning streak with victory in a gripping Russian GP on Sunday.
The five-time world champion came home ahead of his team-mate Valtteri Bottas as Mercedes took advantage of Ferrari’s tactical problems.
Sebastian Vettel, who led for a third of the race, suffered a mechanical issue and was forced to retire, handing Mercedes a chance to increase their six-race unbeaten race in Sochi.
Charles Leclerc came home in third after starting from pole and losing his advantage to Vettel on the opening lap.
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HAMILTON SOARS IN SOCHI
Last week in Singapore marked the second time since the end of 2013 that Hamilton went three races without a win.
Ferrari have been the team to beat since the summer break, but Sochi is a venue that has favoured Mercedes over the past five years.
And after struggling for pace early on, Vettel’s retirement on lap 26 played into the Briton’s hands, and he took control after pitting under the virtual safety car.
With Bottas keeping Leclerc behind as much as possible and negating his younger tyres, it was difficult for the Ferrari man to mount an attack.
From there, Hamilton’s lead never looked threatened, and he returned to the winners’ enclosure in style, scoring his fifth victory at the Sochi Autodrome.
Now, siting 73 points clear, it looks inevitable that the 34-year-old will seal his sixth world championship.
DISAPPOINTING FOR VETTEL
Facing a powerful Leclerc, F1 fans around the world finally saw that street fighter figure in Vettel on Sunday.
The 32-year-old stamped his authority early on and began to show his experience and pace around the Sochi track.
Starting third on the grid, he got the jump on Hamilton and was allowed a handy slipstream from Leclerc as per the team strategy. He led for the opening six laps before being asked to let his team-mate pass.
He ignored team orders and said Leclerc would have to catch him first. At one point, he was nearly four seconds ahead of the Monaco man. The Ferrari team deferred their plan and told Leclerc they would make it happen later in the race instead.
With Vettel’s tyres degrading, Ferrari kept him out too long instead of pitting him straight after Leclerc on lap 22. His pit stop on lap 26 was 0.5 seconds slower than Leclerc’s time of 2.5 seconds.
Surprisingly, just two laps later, the German was forced to retire with power failure.
As disappointing as it was for Vettel, Ferrari’s decision to effectively shaft the four-time world champion’s strategy messed up Leclerc’s race, handing victory to Mercedes.
It’s no blame to any of the drivers but Ferrari have to ask themselves questions about their strategy.
The 21-year-old was modest when interviewed on the podium after the race, but deep down, he must have been incensed to not have converted his fourth successive pole into victory.
Starting from the front of the grid, Leclerc conceded first place to Vettel on the opening lap but when his team-mate was asked to return the favour later on, he made no effort to adhere to instructions. The order came six laps in though and that’s far too early as the Italian marque had a nice buffer to the Mercedes and were still pulling away.
Apart from one or two minor strops over the radio, Leclerc looked confident, motivated and had the strategic advantage for parts of the race.
Vettel’s retirement unfortunately played against his strategy and he was unable to pile the pressure on Bottas and take second or even pass the Finn for a late burst at Hamilton.
With Japan in two weeks time, Leclerc will be eager to bounce back with his third win of the season.
It was a sensational performance from Carlos Sainz to finish sixth – his ninth points finish of the season.
Starting from fifth, he didn’t put a foot wrong and stayed out of trouble for much of the race.
Although he would have been happier to secure fifth ahead of Alexander Albon, the confidence he showed during the race was remarkable.
It was a formidable result for the 25-year-old, who is looking like he is really enjoying life at McLaren and competing against friend and team-mate Lando Norris.
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Leclerc will start from the front of the pack for the fourth consecutive race after the impressive young driver finished a mighty four tenths clear of Lewis Hamilton.
Sebastian Vettel will line up from third ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. The Dutchman, however, will be bumped back five places following a grid penalty for changes to his engine.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team have won all five races staged at the Sochi Autodrome, but they will start tomorrow’s race as underdogs to continue that streak.
Indeed, it is Ferrari, winless from the opening half of the season, who are now the team to beat, on course here to win for a fourth consecutive time.
While Vettel ended his 13-month losing streak in Singapore last weekend, it is Leclerc who continues to impress in his opening season with the Scuderia.
This marked his fourth pole in as many races and his sixth in all this season. No driver has more than the 21-year-old Monegasque, and his margin of victory in Sochi was 0.402 sec to Hamilton and 0.425 sec to Vettel. It is also the 10th round in a row Leclerc has out-qualified Vettel, the quadruple world champion.
“It definitely feels great to be back on pole,” said Leclerc, who became the first Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher to score four poles on the spin.
“That feels very, very special,” he added. “I don’t want to think about that for now but focus on the job. It is a good start and we are looking good for tomorrow.”
Leclerc is 96 points behind Hamilton in the championship with only 156 to play for. Hamilton has not been on pole since the German Grand Prix in July, a streak of five races, but the Mercedes driver was delighted to have split the Ferraris with his final effort.
“I gave it everything I could in the end and I am so glad it came together,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to be on the front row so I am really happy.
“It was a tough qualifying session because these guys have crazy speed on the straights. They have a jet mode.”
Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas, the closest challenger to the Briton’s hopes of securing a sixth world championship, finished fifth. The Finn will join Hamilton on the second row following Verstappen’s penalty.
Earlier, Alex Albon crashed out of qualifying after the London-born Thai spun at the slow-speed turn 13 before slamming into the barriers.
Albon sustained damage to the rear of his Red Bull and the session was suspended to remove his stricken car. He will start from the back tomorrow.
British teenager Lando Norris qualified eighth for McLaren, two places behind his team-mate Carlos Sainz.
Provided by Press Association Sport
Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes team have apologised to their star driver, who claimed he was robbed of an “easy” victory in Singapore following a strategy blunder.
The world champion finished only fourth on Sunday as Sebastian Vettel saw off Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc at the Marina Bay Street Circuit to claim a much-needed win. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen completed the podium.
Hamilton had been running in second place, but was left in no-man’s land when Mercedes elected against reacting to an early pit stop by Vettel – one which enabled the German to get the jump on his Ferrari team-mate Leclerc and ultimately bring to an end his torrid 13-month losing streak.
The Briton plodded around the 23-corner course on ageing rubber for seven laps longer than Vettel and six more than Leclerc. By the time Mercedes did pull Hamilton in, it left him in a net fourth, and his hopes of victory up in smoke.
It would have been worse had Valtteri Bottas not followed a Mercedes order to slow down and ensure Hamilton did not become vulnerable to attack from Red Bull’s Alex Albon.
Mercedes’ chief strategist, James Vowles, moved to acknowledge that it was his faux pas which cost Hamilton the shot at a hat-trick of Singapore wins.
“Today there wasn’t a driver mistake, but a mistake in the strategy, and James, with his wide shoulders, said, ‘I have f***** it up’,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said.
“We had a package capable of pole, an opportunity to win, and we made too many mistakes this weekend, with too many opportunities lost. The mood in the team is one of annoyance.”
Hamilton said he had urged his team to risk the undercut (stopping before your rival to take advantage of fresh tyres) in Sunday’s pre-race meeting, but that his request fell on deaf ears.
“It’s painful for us because we could have easily won today,” Hamilton said.
“I was asking them to do the undercut, to take the risk, and go for it, but they didn’t. Two other teams got it right today and leapfrogged us.”
Like, Hamilton, pole-sitter Leclerc also fell foul to strategy. The young Monegasque appeared set to become the first Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher to win three races in a row, only to leave the pits with Vettel ahead of him.
Leclerc was furious on the radio. “To be completely honest with you, I don’t understand the undercut,” he said, believing he should have been given priority over Vettel, who was third before the only change for tyres. “We will discuss after the race.”
Later, he added: “I won’t do anything stupid, but I just think it is unfair.”
Despite Leclerc’s frustration, it became apparent that Ferrari were not favouring Vettel, rather responding to Verstappen pitting – the pair stopped on the same lap for fresh rubber.
“I am disappointed on my side as anyone would be, but it is like this sometimes, and I will come back stronger,” a more sanguine Leclerc said after the race.
Vettel, who arrived in Singapore following his Monza horror show, held his nerve following three safety car periods to take the chequered flag – a resurgent Ferrari winning for a third time in as many races since the summer break.
Hamilton may have been denied a ninth victory of the year, but he was still able to extend his championship lead to 65 points over Bottas, who finished fifth.
Leclerc, third in the standings, is 96 points adrift of Hamilton with just six rounds remaining and 156 points available.
Provided by Press Association Sport