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Graham Read
Formula 1 Correspondent
4:25 AM 27th September 2020

Bottas On Top As Hamilton Closes On Race Ban

The Formula 1 circus returned this weekend to Sochi on the Black Sea coast for this year’s Russian Grand Prix and it was Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas who reigned supreme as practice start errors earned his team-mate Lewis Hamilton two five second penalties and two more points on his race licence, taking him to him ten and just one further incident short of a race ban. All on the day the reigning champion had very much hoped to make history by equalling Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 wins in motorsport’s premier category.

Valtteri Bottas loves Sochi and was delighted to silence some of his critics
Valtteri Bottas loves Sochi and was delighted to silence some of his critics
Despite the impact of coronavirus in Russia the organisers of the event allowed approximately 30,000 fans to attend, representing half of the track’s usual spectator capacity, and it at least made the event feel a little more normal.

During Thursday’s drivers press conference Canadian driver Lance Stroll had revealed that when Racing Point is rebranded next year as Aston Martin the car’s primary colour will be British racing green, whilst still retaining some of the bright pink shade of current title sponsor BWT. That could be quite a challenge for the designers! Whilst on the subject of car colours, Ferrari returned to its usual red in Sochi after its one-off darker livery for its 1000th Grand Prix at Mugello a fortnight ago.

On Friday we had official confirmation from Liberty Media of Wednesday’s news that former Ferrari team principal Stefan Domenicali will become its President and CEO of Formula 1 with effect from January next year, with current Chairman and CEO Chase Carey becoming the non-executive Chairman. Carey has done an excellent job since he was appointed back in early 2017, but, with the American keen to now step back and return to live in his home country, the appointment of Domenicali has been universally welcomed across the F1 community.

For Fernando Alonso his return to F1 next year can’t come soon enough
For Fernando Alonso his return to F1 next year can’t come soon enough
The news in the Renault camp was that during the week leading up to the Russian event double world champion Fernando Alonso, who is returning to drive for the team next year in place of the McLaren bound Daniel Ricciardo, visited the outfit’s bases at Enstone in the UK and Viry-Châtillon in France and is so eager to get back racing in Formula 1 again.

The opening free practice session on Friday morning produced various spins and offs as the drivers reacquainted themselves with the Sochi Autodrom circuit, located at the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. The most notable incident featured a high speed backwards exit at Turn 10 for Williams’ Nicholas Latifi, which brought out red flags. Bottas posted the fastest time in his black Mercedes ahead of Renault’s Ricciardo and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen, whereas Hamilton was down in 19th place after his run on the softest (and therefore quickest) tyres was interrupted.

Come the afternoon practice period Bottas continued to top the timesheets ahead of Hamilton, with Ricciardo third as his French team continued to show impressive pace. In contrast, Verstappen was only seventh fastest, just ahead of the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc, who in turn was two places ahead of the other red car pedalled by Sebastian Vettel.

Early on Saturday morning at Sochi 21 year old Mick Schumacher (driving for Prema Racing and the son of Formula 1 legend Michael) claimed his second Formula 2 feature race victory of the season, extending his lead in the drivers championship, and the following morning added a third place finish in the redflagged sprint contest. If he continues to show such impressive form he may get a chance of a Friday run in an F1 car later this season, perhaps at Ferrari supported Haas or Alfa Romeo, and even a race seat at one of these teams for 2021 isn’t out of the question. The young German is a highly likeable lad and having the Schumacher name back in the F1 grid would no doubt have real value for the sport.

Come Saturday’s final F1 practice session the pair of Mercedes cars were again on top as Hamilton outpaced Bottas by over three quarters of a second, with McLaren’s Carlos Sainz the best of the rest. Going quickly in practice is fine, but where it really matters is in qualifying and then of course the race. Qualifying proved to be far from a smooth process for Hamilton though as he was one of four drivers to earn a subsequent visit to the stewards after a rule infringement when rejoining the track at Turn 2 in Q1. As no advantage was deemed to have been gained, all four avoided any punishment but were warned that any repetition in the race would earn a five second penalty.

Lewis Hamilton dominated qualifying, but race day was a very different matter
Lewis Hamilton dominated qualifying, but race day was a very different matter
In Q2 Vettel lost control of his Ferrari at Turn 4 and crashed heavily. The German quadruple champion was fine, but his car was badly damaged and the action had to be temporarily redflagged. It could have been far worse as Leclerc narrowly avoided impacting with his team-mate’s stricken car. At this stage Hamilton had yet to set a time as his first effort had been deleted for breaching track limits and so the pressure was on at the restart to begin his next attempt before the session ended and he did this with just over a second left on the clock.

All was fine though for the multiple champion in the final part of qualifying as he was a massive half a second faster than second placed Verstappen, setting a new track record. This left Bottas having to start from the second row on the grid alongside Racing Point’s Sergio Perez and it was pretty much business as usual for Ferrari at the moment as its drivers were only 11th and 15th fastest.

Hamilton managed to slip in a Black Lives Matter reference during his post qualifying interview, but, following the controversy after his wearing of a related T-shirt for the podium ceremony at the previous Grand Prix, all drivers were reminded that new rules meant that only official race suits could be worn on the podium and must be done up to the neck.

There was high drama in the build-up to the race as Hamilton was referred to the stewards again for failing to follow the agreed practice start regulations when exiting the pitlane, stopping twice to make starts well beyond the area of track where they are allowed and in places where they very much aren’t for safety reasons. The stewards’ adjudication was revealed seven laps into the Grand Prix, with two separate five second penalties to be applied for the pair of practice start violations. Expletives followed from Hamilton over the radio when his race engineer told him even though they were clearly self-inflicted errors by the driver and his team.

Daniel Ricciardo’s helmet design was certainly distinctive!
Daniel Ricciardo’s helmet design was certainly distinctive!
Tyre strategy was also going to be significant as Hamilton was starting on the fastest but least durable soft specification tyres unlike Verstappen and Bottas, who were on mediums. The polesitter was also concerned about the tow effect and perhaps being passed on the long 890 metre run to the first braking zone at Turn 2. His fears were justified as a fast starting Bottas quickly swept past Verstappen and almost got the better of Hamilton at Turn 2, but not quite.

To their rear Sainz ran wide and hit the barriers at the same corner, ending his race instantly and soon after Leclerc tagged Stroll, with the Racing Point driver engaging with a different set of barriers and bringing out the safety car until the car and track were cleared. Racing resumed on lap six, with Hamilton out front but about to receive the news he very much didn’t want to hear.

The leading Mercedes driver pitted on lap 16 to serve his two five second penalties back to back and then switch from soft to hard tyres, rejoining the ontrack action down in 11th position. As the race progressed Bottas led from Verstappen as both could make their own pit stops later due to their medium compound tyres and Hamilton climbed back up to fifth. Red Bull brought their Dutch charger in on lap 26 to put on hard tyres and Mercedes immediately responded to cover off the threat and do the same for Bottas.

Runner-up Max Verstappen flying round the eye-catching Russian circuit
Runner-up Max Verstappen flying round the eye-catching Russian circuit
When the pit stop phase had ended Bottas led from Verstappen and Hamilton, followed by Perez, Ricciardo and Leclerc, and so it remained to the chequered flag, with the winner also taking the extra point for the fastest lap. Hamilton ended up 22 seconds adrift of his team-mate and so might still not have won even without his two five second penalties, but after the race the Monaco based driver slammed them as “ridiculous” and perhaps more seriously accused the stewards of “trying to stop me”, a comment which could well lead to further ramifications. The victorious Finn and his race engineer though were jubilant over the radio on the slowing down lap, even if Bottas issued an x-rated comment to his critics which he has used before and which I won’t repeat here. Suffice it to say he was telling them to go away!

Next up in a fortnight’s time comes the Eifel Grand Prix, which will be held at the Nürburgring circuit in mid Germany, the first time a Formula 1 event has been held there since 2013. The race’s name relates to the area in which the venue Is located, with the German Grand Prix title not being available for legal reasons. It’s a track I have visited many times over the years and driven round, so it will be great to see F1 cars doing what they do best there again shortly.

2020 Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix

1 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 1hr34m0.364s
2 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +7.729s
3 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +22.729s
4 Sergio Perez (Racing Point) +30.558s
5 Daniel Ricciardo (Renault) +52.065s
6 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +1m2.186s
7 Esteban Ocon (Renault) +1m8.006s
8 Daniil Kvyat (AlphaTauri) +1m8.740s
9 Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +1m29.766s
10 Alex Albon (Red Bull) +1m37.860s
11 Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) Lapped
12 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) Lapped
13 Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) Lapped
14 Kimi Räikkönen (Alfa Romeo) Lapped
15 Lando Norris (McLaren) Lapped
16 Nicholas Latifi (Williams) Lapped
17 Romain Grosjean (Haas) Lapped
18 George Russell (Williams) Lapped
19 Lance Stroll (Racing Point) Retired
20 Carlos Sainz (McLaren) Retired

2020 Formula 1 Drivers Championship

1 Lewis Hamilton 205
2 Valtteri Bottas 161
3 Max Verstappen 128

2020 Formula 1 Constructors Championship

1 Mercedes 366
2 Red Bull 192
3 McLaren 106