BEHIND THE HEADLINES – Russia – British drivers play 1 v 100

Behind The Headlines Features

Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix was a historic day in what’s been a record-breaking calendar year for Lewis Hamilton, a year ago a mistake cost him the chance to equal Michael Schumacher, this year it was a long wait for his 100th win. Meanwhile, one of his rivals buying to be his successor Lando Norris was on course for his maiden win, and title rival Max Verstappen was a winner as well coming from last to second.

Hamilton reaches a century

“If he can achieve this after seven races, what might he achieve?” were the words of James Allen as Hamilton won in Montreal in 2007. Who would have tough fourteen years later we would be sitting here, as we have often said in the last year, talking about so many milestones in sporting history?

Hamilton as we often say after wet-dry races is one of the best drivers in the wet, races which spring immediately to mind is Silverstone in 2008 and Hockenheim in 2018. Hamilton, I think from watching him over the years is a driver over the last decade we have seen talent and luck come together to see him smash every possible record.

After the race while admitting that the 100th win was “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 with Mercedes, on and off the track, and this is a special moment for everyone that has been part of it.”

The last calendar year has been historic, although in Sochi last year when he lost the chance of equalling Michael Schumacher with those two five-second penalties for practice starts.

On a weekend where qualifying was uncharacteristic mistakes in qualifying – crashing twice – and after losing three positions to seventh on the opening lap. It seems to me at least, these errors only make Hamilton even stronger. Amazing sometimes to normally think drivers by or around his age start to slow down or tamper off, but in my view, he is different he is a rare driver who doesn’t get fluffed by mistakes.

That was proved again in Sochi despite crashing twice in qualifying, as well the winless drought of four races unheard of for Mercedes in the hybrid era. This could I think be a turning point, although may not as dramatic as we have seen saw with Sebastian Vettel in 2018 and 2019, Nico Rosberg in 2016.

Norris v Hamilton how the race was won & lost

Lando Norris has been one of the stand-out performers this season, and Sochi was his best race weekend of his career. The McLaren driver has looked quick all weekend and in qualifying in mixed conditions he took his first pole position, but when the mixed conditions returned, he made in hindsight a bad decision.

It was a very difficult call, with five laps to go all the drivers faced the difficult decision whether to switch to the inters and risk losing position or risk crashing running while also would have been a disaster. The way he controlled that race I think he could have won, echoes of Sakhir last year, I have a feeling that there have been so many first wins since Sergio Perez won and George Russell lost that race.

It would be easy to point blame at Norris and McLaren for the lost of the win, but everything hinged on those final eight laps. In some ways, it reminded me of Montreal in 2011, how Norris ran wide to lose the lead to Hamilton in the closing stages. Brits we are used to changeable conditions.

Seven key laps

Lap 46 | Norris leads Hamilton by 1.345, as we see the umbrellas start to go up. Norris informs Will Joseph, race engineer that the rain is getting heavier in the middle sector.

Lap 47 | Hamilton continues to close the gap by just over two tenths, meaning that in a few laps he would have been within DRS range.  Norris meanwhile loses time going 3.6 seconds slower on that lap but it was still uncertain if the rain would set in. McLaren believing Hamilton would not be able to get close enough to past

Lap 48 | Gap closes to 0.996, as the intensity of the rain increased both drivers were equally struggling meaning that the feeling was that Norris could hold off Hamilton. The key thinking at this point was Mercedes considering the switch to inters. Mercedes had already decided to pit Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, to make an early switch to intermediates.

At this stage Hamilton wanted to continue on the tyres, saying “It’s pretty slippery but it’s not raining much.” Meanwhile, Joseph could also see the conditions worsening and was keen to coach his driver round the track. Bottas meanwhile was gaining a lot of time on inters.

Norris was lapping Yuki Tsunoda. “Box, box. Box, box for inters,” Bonnington told Hamilton. Hamilton at the time admitted that this was a big mistake, but in hindsight after the race seeing Norris’s mistake later in the race made him think it was the right call.

Lap 49 | The gap increases to 2.087, with five to go although a miscommunication sees Joseph tell Norris there were four instead of five laps to go. The middle sector times for those on dry/wet tyres started to equal out, reaching the crossover point between the two compounds.

At this point, both the rain radar and the sector times of those on intermediate tyres were starting to merge towards the same conclusion. The middle sector of Bottas’ out lap from the pits on intermediate tyres was 5.3s faster than Norris’ middle sector on the same lap and he gained another 1.5s in the drier final sector.

As we now know and as predicted, the rain moved in. prompting  Mercedes to pit Hamilton and Red Bull to bring in Verstappen, while both Carlos Sainz and Daniel Ricciardo spun off on this lap. This lap I think was the key in outcome of the race, Mercedes making the decision to pit, knowing the weather was changing.

Norris at this point was about to enter Turn five, knowing that the corner was going to tricky because of the dampness as he entered the corner seeming to have control. At this stage, he was on course for victory. still overruling Joseph on stagey saying “It’s stopped raining, man.”

Lap 50 | Norris leads Hamilton 18.4 seconds following the Mercedes drivers switch to inters. Joseph tells Norris “Okay, Hamilton has taken it — he’s gone to an inter,” Norris replied “Yes I see, I see. We just need to commit to slicks.”

But this was the trickiest lap for Norris, as he passed the Haas of Nikita Mazepin, he couldn’t hold the position and had to re-pass the slowest car on the grid. While this was going on he was being chased by Hamilton who gained four seconds, meaning if Norris stopped now it would have handed the lead to Mercedes. McLaren took the decision “boom or bust”

Lap 51 | Norris’s lead cut by 3.9 seconds to 14.9, as things started to further deteriorates as the rain got heavier. He had already looked to struggle through Turn One to Three, but going through Turn Four he hit a wall of spray before spinning his McLaren at Five. “F***** it’s so wet boys…  can’t do this”

As he continued, he struggled for grip he then ran wide crossing the white line between the pit lane and the race track. As he did so, Verstappen passed him to take second place. Norris lost seventy-three seconds on that lap alone to Hamilton and Verstappen

Lap 52 & 53 | Norris loses seven places now battling for seventh place and two laps to go doesn’t improve and takes finishes the race seventh.

Norris devastated

Watching those closing stages I had memories both of Canada in 2011 when Vettel lost the lead on the race running wide on the last lap to Jenson Button and the well documented Sakhir last December, what Mercedes described as a “colossal f*** up,” when a puncher and pit stop error cost George Russell a fairy-tale Mercedes debut.

Norris was in a position for the second race in a row to take his maiden win, imagine if he won both in Monza and Sochi, he would be only the second driver to do that after Hamilton. He deserved it so did McLaren, after Norris was prepared to give up his chance of a first win to help McLaren take there first in almost a decade, it must be tough.

Images spring to mind again of post-race in Sakhir, with Russell collapsed in tears on the grass outside Mercedes paddock building. team principal Andreas Seidl is convinced that Norris won’t take the let down to heart, and both he and the Woking-based squad will come out of the Russian GP better prepared for the future.

Seidl, when asked by on what impact recent frustrations will have, “I think it will we make him and the team stronger because it’s these moments where you learn the most as a team. It’s always easier if everything goes to plan. A moment like this is a big disappointment, but an opportunity to learn and to do better as a team together with Lando next time around.”

I think McLaren can be proud of what they have achieved not only in the last two races, but eighteen months, they have come a long way since Honda and fighting for ninth just five years ago, and have under Zak Brown and Andreas Sidel returned this year to fight with Ferrari and Alpine.

Norris appeared to have the win in the bag as the laps counted down, with Hamilton behind him struggling to get much closer to the McLaren.

I feel recently that all drivers going for their maiden win, the more expected winners have had things go wrong, Russell in Sakhir, Sainz in Monza and we can now add Norris to the list of drivers who have missed out on their first wins because of strategy mistakes.

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