A sheepish 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 by Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who allowed him to overtake and then defended him from attack by title rival Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sat next to former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone after a late arrival at the Sochi Autodrom, saw the Briton make the most of Mercedes’ strategy and a thrilling passing move on Vettel.
Bottas had started on pole and was unhappy at being asked to obey team orders that deprived him of a possible victory as he finished 2.545 seconds behind Hamilton, who looked uncomfortable at the situation after the race.
Vettel finished third and the German saw Hamilton extend his lead over him in the standings.
It was Hamilton’s third win in Russia, his fifth in six races and the 70th of his career, confirming he has the momentum to clinch a fifth title triumph with five races remaining.
“It’s actually quite a difficult day,” said Hamilton. “Valtteri did a fantastic job all weekend and was an absolute gentleman to let me by… I can understand how difficult it is for him.”
Bottas was understandably brief. “Good result for us as a team, but as everyone saw it was a difficult race,” he said.
Kimi Raikkonen finished fourth for Ferrari ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen who marked his 21st birthday with a rousing drive, including a spell as race leader, from 19th on the grid.
Renault-bound Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo and Ferrari-bound Charles Leclerc of Sauber filled the next places.
Kevin Magnussen finished eighth for Haas ahead of job-hunting Frenchman Esteban Ocon and his Force India team-mate Sergio Perez.
– ‘Difficult day’ –
Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff left the luckless Bottas with no choice, but he tried to comfort the Finn afterwards.
“Valtteri, this is Toto – a difficult day for you, difficult for us – let’s get together and discuss it later,” Wolff said.
Hamilton’s win lifted him to 306 points in the championship ahead of Vettel on 256, Bottas on 189 and Raikkonen on 186.
After light rain, it was overcast but warm and when the race started and Bottas made the most of his second pole of the year to pull clear while Vettel, in the Finn’s slipstream, challenged Hamilton for second.
The Briton resisted and, when Bottas pulled across to deprive Vettel, he took the slipstream to seize second again and draw close to his team-mate round Turn Two.
Bottas held on to the lead ahead of Hamilton and Vettel as the order settled.
The front-runners were soon joined by Verstappen who revelled in his Red Bull’s competitive pace before Bottas pitted for fresh tyres after lap 12, rejoining fifth behind Verstappen.
Hamilton took over as leader, but stayed out when Vettel pitted one lap later. He came in on lap 14 and, with his title rival enjoying a rapid lap, emerged to re-join the fray behind his Ferrari.
“How did that happen?” asked Hamilton on team radio.
Irked, the Briton chased Vettel down. He challenged to pass on the inside, but the German closed the door, forcing Hamilton to ease off and avoid hitting a wall.
Unperturbed, Hamilton attacked again. He gathered momentum through Turn Three and swooped to pass Vettel on the inside at the next turn.
This lifted him to fourth behind Raikkonen and Verstappen, who had not stopped, and Bottas. When Raikkonen pitted, the Dutch birthday boy took over as leader.
Verstappen’s pace was insufficient to stretch the field and enabled Vettel to close in on the two Mercedes, forcing a tactical decision which saw Wolff authorise an order for Bottas to let Hamilton pass him for second on lap 26.
This relegated a grumpy Bottas to third to protect the Englishman from Vettel, but cost the Mercedes pair as Verstappen pulled clear by 2.8 seconds.
The Finn complained that he was set to pass the Red Bull on team radio, prompting Mercedes strategist James Vowles to respond.”I had to do this to make sure we secured this,” he said, having explained that Hamilton had a blistered tyre.
Hamilton then reported hesitations in his engine, and his blister — both ailments clearly hampered his raw pace and forced him to manage his car as he chased Verstappen.
But the Briton, biding his time, clocked a fastest lap to move within two seconds before a half-hearted attack was repelled and he held on for victory.