Mercedes have won all of the previous races at the mixed characteristic, low grip and degradation Sochi track; leading 100% of the laps in all three of the races since 2014. Ferrari would have been forgiven, then, for feeling a little in ‘away territory’ this weekend. But, this is of course a new regulation car, meaning that the challenges are different for the teams. Furthermore, last weekend in Bahrain the Mercedes seemed to struggle with rear end grip and so the Ferrari had the better race-pace. Simply, if there was ever a year to beat Mercedes at a circuit they have dominated, then perhaps this is it: Ferrari have never been here with such a fast car.
I would like to take this opportunity here to write very quickly about the tragedy that has befallen young Billy Monger. The 17 year old F4 driver was involved in an horrific accident at Donington Park on the 16th of April, sustaining injuries that has required both of his lower legs to be amputated. It is touching that the entire motorsport community has come together to help him in his time of need; tripling the amount of money his team asked for on a just-giving page set up to help him recover. The F1 paddock was extremely important in raising awareness for Billy, with Jenson Button and Max Verstappen both donating £15,000 for the cause. Further to boot the cars and drivers had stickers on this weekend to recognise the struggle of the young Brit. I wish him all the best in getting better and hope he is able to drive with prosthetics as soon as possible.
The 3.6 mile circuit on the cusp of the Black Sea is more of a test of downforce for the cars, especially in the 3rd sector of the track, which in the past has been compared to a street circuit. This will give great hope to teams further down the grid as they strive to score vital points, but in the words of Paul DiResta “the straights are more power efficient here” and that will prioritise engine ability for good acceleration and not necessarily top speed even despite the long sweeping kilometre long start-finish section. Only 7 points separated the leading drivers at the start of this weekend and the gap from 7th to 4th in the constructors is just 9 points: in such tight battles every point matters.
Mercedes (1st & 4th)
Valtteri Bottas, P1:
Bottas’ first ever win in Formula 1 will come as a relief on two fronts for him. A huge weight be lifted off his shoulders as he joins fellow countrymen Heikki Kovalainen and Keke Rosberg in being a race winner, as well as former World Champions Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen. Additionally, I remarked last week that Bottas needed “to fight back quickly to prove his championship credentials: a win would go such a long way right now” and lo and behold, he has his win. He will be over the moon with how he handled the pressure from Vettel in the last 15 laps of the race, but also that he has laid down his marker at Mercedes, winning the race and also out-qualifying Hamilton by half a second on Saturday to boot. He will look to further challenge the Brit next time out.
Lewis Hamilton, P4:
Hamilton had a bizarre weekend, he was just completely off form. A bad qualifying performance on Saturday compounded into a poor and issue troubled race: he finished a huge 36 seconds off of his race-winning team mate. In the post race interview Lewis said that he “knows where he lost the pace” but that will come as little consolation. Whisper it quietly, but Hamilton may have a real fight on his hands with Bottas this season. This weekend marked the second time in a row that he has been out-qualified by the Finn and perhaps now we can assume that Bottas’ troubles in Bahrain more show the issues with the car, as Lewis suffered a similar fate this time out. Simply put, they may be more equally matched than some people had anticipated at the start of the year.
Yet again we have a change at the top of the constructor table! It has been back and forth every weekend since the start of the season. However, the singular point that comprises the gap to Ferrari is testament to the fact that this will be a real season long fight for the Germans. The other intriguing thing for Mercedes is what they do with their drivers from here on out. I anticipated last week that Hamilton might have soon become the ‘number 1’ driver for the team, with all the favouritism and perks that comes with. However, they leave this race weekend with a win each and 10 points between them. Mercedes have no grounds to favour Lewis anymore and if Vettel keeps his head down he might be able to make use of any in-fighting that takes place at Mercedes.
Ferrari (2nd & 3rd)
Sebastian Vettel, P2:
After qualifying on pole Vettel will be mildly disappointed by only taking home 2nd place. But the moment Bottas got away after the saftey car came in, Seb was playing catch-up as he couldn’t switch his Ultra-Soft tyres on well enough. However, Vettel did do well to claw in the Finn after the switch to Super-Soft, getting to within a second at the conclusion of the race. That, coupled Hamilton’s poor performance down in 4th that allowed Seb to extend his lead at the top of the driver’s table, will be cause for optimism. As a championship contender with his eye on the long term Vettel got the job done resoundingly well this weekend. He also put more shade between himself and his team-mate in terms of the team’s affections; pipping him to pole on Saturday by just 0.050 seconds and then comfortably outperforming Kimi in the race.
Kimi Raikkonen, P3:
Part of me felt hard-done by that Raikkonen did not secure his first pole since France 2008, as I have a soft-spot for the straight-talking Raikkonen. However, I am aware that Kimi will have more opportunities for rewards: the Ferrari has often been the best car on the grid this season and unless something drastic happens that will continue to be the case. A podium is a good haul for this weekend but Kimi needs to do more if he intends to keep his seat. Grosjean wants to drive for the Scuderia, Perez has often been lauded as an option and a certain ‘Spanish Samurai’ might have his eye on a return if he can engineer it. But then again, Raikkonen’s future is subject to debate every year and he is still with us, so this transfer talk is still far too early.
Whilst Ferrari will not be happy to have conceded the lead in the constructor’s table to Mercedes again, there will be opportunities to take the lead again as the teams are very closely balanced. The real story this weekend is that Ferrari recorded their first 1-2 in qualifying since France 2008; being such long time ago this was sorely needed. As I laid out in the introduction, Mercedes have dominated this circuit. That the Scuderia kept pace throughout the whole weekend shows the good work they have done to catch up.
Red Bull-Renault (5th & DNF)
Max Verstappen, P5:
A much better weekend, apart from being beaten by his team-mate in qualifying which he said was “mystifying” on Saturday. However, he did regain the ten point advantage over Ricciardo that he had before the Bahrain Grand Prix and for that he can be very happy. The concern will be that despite finishing 5th, it was a whole 45 seconds down on leader Valtreri Bottas: the gap will have to come down sooner rather than later for Verstappen. He is an incredibly ambitious young driver and wants to be in a car that is able to win races on a regular basis.
Daniel Ricciardo, DNF:
Daniel Ricciardo was forced out of the race with a brake failure on lap 5; the same issue that forced Verstappen to retire in Bahrain. However, beating his team-mate again in qualifying proves that he is still equal at the team, despite all Verstappen’s plaudits. Ricciardo has had more car issues and retirements so far this season, which explains the points deficiency to the Dutchman. He will need to claw back those 13 points before he can feel fully comfortable of his top status as the elder driver though.
A direct swap for their drivers’ fortunes this weekend is hardly cause for celebration. The RB13 is nowhere near as fast as it should be following a change in aerodynamic regulation; it is rather living up to it’s tagline of ‘unlucky for some’ too. However, 5th place gives them a fairly stable foundation for the “revamped” car that they plan to introduce ahead of next time at the Spanish Grand Prix.
Force India-Mercedes (6th & 7th)
Sergio Perez, P6:
Perez is quite simply one of the best drivers on the grid this season so far in my opinion. I thought that he might struggle with the change in regulations, as his strength in the previous set up was keeping the fragile Pirelli tyres in a good state, which this season is less important for pace in race conditions. But he has resoundingly proved me wrong so far; this P6 is his highest finish so far to boot. I hope that bigger teams are paying attention to Perez should the driver market be very active this season.
Esteban Ocon, P7:
Before this race Ocon had the consistency of a brick wall; finishing 10th in every race which in itself is very impressive for a driver embarking on his first full season in the sport. However, this race he went even further and finished a very handy 7th place. He is still yet not on the pace of his team-mate Perez, finishing behind in qualifying by just 0.1 seconds and following him home in the race. But, Esteban will be very pleased with his start to the season and will aim to be the lead driver in a couple of races this season, which I think it would not be silly to think he will achieve.
Force India are a perfect example of why consistency is so important in the midfield. In all of the races so far both of the drivers have finished in the points and it has allowed the team to slowly create a small gap between themselves and Williams, who haven’t had the same luxury. In fact, Red Bull’s unreliability is allowing Force India to make up ground towards the top 3 as well. So far, so good for the “Pink Panthers” of the grid.
Williams-Mercedes (9th & 11th)
Felipe Massa, P9:
Massa’s fine return from retirement continued again in this race. Unlike the rest of the field he had to make a second pit-stop due to a vicious flat spot on his tyre, but still he managed to finish well and in the points. What is still clear to see is that he had the complete beating of his team-mate again this weekend, qualifying an impressive 6th once again and almost a full second ahead of the young Canadian. I am beginning to think that Massa might be destined to stay on a little further than just this one season and the sport will be happier for it; it seems right that there is a Brazilian on the grid given the sports history with the nation.
Lance Stroll, P11:
Whilst what I have said above is true and Stroll does still not look like threatening Massa’s status in the team, Lance will be much happier with this weekend quite simply because he managed to finish the full race distance. Rather amusingly he has to ask his team for instruction as to what to do after the end of the race, thinking that he had to stop in the pits and not parc-fermé. But that is all just a part of his immaturity at this stage, which will soon dissipate: he has finished his first race and points will be the next target, then he can finally think about taking on Massa in a proper inter-team rivalry. He just needs time, because the “tables will turn” as he put it in a resolute interview.
Williams will not be very happy that they are behind their main rivals Force India even at this early stage. The two teams have been locked in an almost 3 season long fight over the 4th and 5th places in Formula 1. Both have Mercedes engines, both have competent staff and engineers trying to get them as high as possible. But Williams’ drivers have just not been as consistent in their delivery so far, that needs to change as soon as possible to give them the upper hand in this enticing little battle.
Toro Rosso-Renault (10th & 12th)
Carlos Sainz, P10:
After Carlos’ strange rush of blood last race in Bahrain this was a much more standard and measured showing from the Spaniard. Once again he chalked up points whilst his team-mate drew a blank. He will be pleased with his very marginal qualifying victory over Kvyat as well. However, he will want to make the most use of this early season before the possibility that the Toro Rosso car starts to slip in performance compared to the field around them.
Daniil Kvyat, P12:
This time last year was one of the most awful times in Daniil’s young life; crashing twice into the back of Sebastian Vettel and sending the 4 time champion into retirement. The subsequent backlash saw Kvyat demoted from Red Bull to his current seat at Toro Rosso. Whilst he did not do well in this race, it is rather amazing that Daniil was here at all; at one point last year I thought he was a goner. Instead he wasn’t far off his team-mate this time around at his home race, but he will desire points again soon.
A very quiet race weekend for Toro Rosso; 1 point keeps them in touch with the group above them; but they will want a more solid double-points result in the near future if possible. Luckily next weekend should motivate Carlos Sainz, given that it is his home race. Maybe he can pull in more points next time around. Kvyat might follow suit.
Haas-Ferrari (13th & DNF)
Kevin Magnussen, P13:
Magnussen and Grosjean would probably argue that this circuit didn’t fit their car’s characteristics and they probably would be correct. By qualifying 14th on Saturday that shows that to be the case. However, Magnussen did do well at the start of the race under the safety car caused by his team-mates misfortune. He rose to 10th before having to serve a 5 second penalty at his pit-stop for track extending. He could have had a point, but in all likelihood would have been caught nearer the end of the race by Sainz.
Romain Grosjean, DNF:
I am not quite sure whether Grosjean is to blame for his first lap incident with Palmer which took him out of the race. He did seem to be pushing his luck a little at turn 2, fully riding the curb in an effort to take the inside line. However, Palmer did not do much to avoid turning into him either. Regardless, this was a bad weekend for the Frenchman as once again Haas had a mixed weekend. This time it was Romain’s turn to qualify far below the car’s pace down in 20th.
Again it comes my attention that Haas need to make sure they gain more consistency in the races coming up. I think they have the pace to finish higher than they have done so far. Grosjean’s P8 at the power-sensitive Bahrain track is a testament to that and they should try harder over at the next tracks to show that their car is as good as it can be. I spoke last week about how Haas changed their brakes from Brembo to Carbone Industrie for this race. But weirdly, Grosjean still had the same issues which probably indicates something wrong with the car itself rather than the braking system.
Renault (8th & DNF)
Nico Hulkenberg, P8:
Another points scoring position for Hulkenberg will do wonders for his optimism surrounding his new team. He will be again irritated that both drivers of his former team finished above him, but he will know in the long term that Renault have a good chance of becoming a strong factory team. He is contracted for next season, unlike his team-mate and so will already be looking for signs that next season’s Renault will be able to deliver him to positions higher up the field.
Jolyon Palmer, DNF:
I am confused by Jolyon Palmer. Whilst he is clearly still a very good driver of cars, I don’t really know whether or not he deserves to be in F1. I think I am beginning to see through the ‘GP2 Champion’ line that Sky Sports routinely spouts to excuse the awful mistakes. Yes he often has difficult race meetings and that continued this weekend with a power issue in last 20 minutes of FP3, but he hardly covers himself in glory either. After crashing out in qualifying he went one better and was involved in yet another incident with Romain Grosjean, one which caused them both to retire. Whether or not that was his fault it is irrelevant really; he hasn’t scored any points and is routinely trounced by Hulkenberg. The vultures will be circling unless he improves soon.
Renault will be buoyed by Hulkenberg’s performance again, in both qualifying and the race. They will also be happy that they have cut the deficit to the Haas team soon. But is is vital that Palmer starts pulling his weight for the French team: the tightness of the midfield means that every point is vital to gaining positions in the final constructor table with the subsequent prize fund each place recieves. For the good of the team both drivers need to be in the points as soon as possible; Palmer may be warming up but in F1 you either hit the ground running or you are simply not good enough.
Sauber-Ferrari (15th & 16th)
Marcus Ericsson, P15:
A very quiet weekend for Marcus Ericsson: he will be happy to have beaten Wehrlein in the race, but disappointed to be out qualified. The major cause for optimism is that Marcus didn’t retire in this race. He will probably be looking forward to Monaco more than anything, as it represents an actual opportunity for points.
Pascal Wehrlein, P16:
A bit of a disappointing follow-up to an impressive 11th place in Bahrain. He will want to beat his team-mate as much as possible for this season, having been cast off to Sauber by Mercedes instead of into a more competitive seat. Ocon over at Force India is rapidly becoming the best prospect of the junior programme and Pascal has lots of work to do.
The huge news is that Sauber will race with none other than Honda for 2018 and drop their year old Ferrari engine. Now, this is a baffling development for many in the paddock, given how horrible the Japanese engines have been for McLaren. But in a small way, this does make sense; with a year old engine Sauber are instantly on the back-foot at the start of every season. A current engine allows them to have development that they don’t have. Also if Honda do make any big steps forward between now and next season and can compete with Renault then this will be an inspired decision to get the engines while they are terrible and probably as cheap as chips.
McLaren-Honda (P14 & DNS)
Stoffel Vandoorne, P14:
It is laughable that finishing in 14th is a relative high for McLaren currently. Stoffel will be pleased to have been able to complete the race at all: the pathetic issues that keep plaguing the Honda engines struck down his team-mate before the lights even went out today. What will be doubly frustrating is that lack of power for Vandoorne near the end of FP1 meant he had to start at the back of the grid due to yet another engine change. However, it is of no doubt that Stoffel is still far off the pace of Alonso, the gap was close to half a second in qualifying on Saturday. At this point the only fun Vandoorne can have is trying to beat Alonso, so he will want better in future.
Fernando Alonso, DNS:
If you have read the blog before, it is no secret that I am a Fernando Alonso fan. It is also no secret that I think what Honda are doing to the latter end of his career is nothing short of criminal. Today, the Japanese engine out did itself in terms of unreliability and failed on the formation lap, it’s MGU-H packing in yet again. It was Fernando’s first ‘Did Not Start’ since the infamous Michelin tyre fiasco at Indianpolis in 2005. Talking of Indianapolis, there is some light at the end of the tunnel for Alonso and his fans in the form of the Indy 500 on May 28th, which Fernando will race at. Another light at the end of the tunnel might come in the form of interest from other F1 teams who can give him what he deserves; but at the end of my post about Alonso’s career I have elaborated on why he might find a move hard to get.
Bad to worse to feeble. I had thought that McLaren might have done slightly better on the Sochi Autodrom, especially in the last sector’s tight 90 degree corners which might have negated their power deficit. Apparently there is another engine in the works and that can only come as soon as possible, providing it doesn’t move a further step backwards: Honda seem to like doing that really. It is also kind of hilarious that McLaren, a huge historical titan of the sport will be sharing the same awful engine as the lowly Sauber team next season; but maybe having another set of data available to them will help both of the teams in the long-run. For this weekend they were where they deserve to be; the second fastest yet most unreliable car.
Race Review & Analysis
The first thing to say about today’s race is the obvious: there was very little over-taking on track. In fact I can only remember a couple which happened at the very start of the race; the most impressive being Bottas’ sweep around the Ferraris in the run down to Turn 2. That double over-take, combined with a very good restart after the safety car was what really won him this race. There is very little else to talk about in terms of passing. But I don’t think people should panic or start worrying about the state of play: the last two races have had a lot of over-takes and Sochi is in truth, quite a narrow street circuit.
The excitement from this race came directly from the tension of the gap between Bottas and a charging Vettel in the last 15 laps. It seemed that Valtteri was just hanging on towards the end as Sebastian clawed into his lead; both drivers had to pull out all the stops to attempt to gain the upper-hand. I rather think despite Bottas’ cool head, that if the race had been a couple of laps longer then he would have lost the lead: The Ferrari just seemed quicker on the Super-Soft all weekend, especially in the last sector where Mercedes struggled. Furthermore, Vettel had much newer tyres and would have passed.
I think that just goes to show what fine margins the top two teams and their respective drivers are dealing with here; a couple of corners here and a few unsettled moments there and we would have had a different race-winner completely. This is far from the two horse race we have had in the last season; indeed Mercedes have taken the lead of the standings by just a solitary point, but Vettel still leads the driver’s table. This is going to run and run with many twists, turns and reveals aplenty. Stay fixed, this season is already a cracker and it’s only going to get better and better. Another cause for celebration in the future of F1 is that the hideous Shark fins and T-wings have been banned for 2018. But that is a minor footnote.
Next Time Out: Spanish Grand Prix
The teams have come a long way since testing in March, but if that is anything to go by then we might expect Ferrari to be at the top of the table at The Circuit De Catalunya. Whatever happens, Mercedes will definitely not want a repeat of their dramatic crash last year. But Ferrari have of course taken some notable steps in performance from last year, their front row lock out alone is testament to their ambition and resurgent abilities: they may well be the fastest outright car now. Away from the machines, the leading drivers have also taken highs and lows in equal measure by this point, so there will be plenty of dynamics affecting the weekend mentally. Red Bull, as stated above, will also be bringing what is considered as a whole new chassis to Barcelona: can they join the fight and make this a 6 way title fight by bringing Riccardo and Verstappen into the mix? Make sure to tune in next time to find out, I hope to see you then.