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Has there ever been a luckier win?

Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc

By Sean Kelly, C4F1 statistician

The first Russian Grand Prix was held in 1913, and over the last 106 years Mercedes-Benz are still yet to be beaten in the event (admittedly with a 100-year break along the way).

For as long as that streak continues, they may never have a luckier victory than the one they enjoyed on Sunday, claiming a 1-2 that seemed certain to belong to Ferrari.  After a weekend that saw Charles Leclerc take pole and Sebastian Vettel overlook apparent team orders to lead the first half of the race, his retirement directly contributed to Leclerc losing the win….

Leclerc was three years old when Michael Schumacher scored seven consecutive pole positions across the 2000 and 2001 seasons, and no Ferrari driver had achieved as many as four in a row since then until Leclerc did so on Saturday afternoon.  It was also the first time any non-Mercedes driver took four straight since his now-teammate Vettel in 2011.

Lewis Hamilton had set a sensational lap to split the Ferraris in Q3, but paradoxically that played into the hands of Vettel, who was pushed back to third, leaving him in the best position to tow past both Hamilton and Leclerc on the run to turn two.  Third place is clearly a desirable starting position in Sochi, as Valtteri Bottas led the first lap from the same place in 2017.

The radio-infused shenanigans between Leclerc and Vettel dominated the first phase of the race, but when Vettel’s MGU-K failed it allowed Lewis Hamilton to pit under the Virtual Safety Car and emerge ahead of Leclerc, a misfortune compounded when Ferrari eventually chose to pit Leclerc under the actual Safety Car, costing him a place to Bottas that he never reclaimed.

Thus, the second half of the race saw Lewis Hamilton effectively cruising to victory – and taking the fastest lap bonus – while his teammate acted as a rear gunner.  It maintained Mercedes-Benz’s 100% record in Russian Grand Prix history (also giving them a fourth 1-2 finish in the six races held in Sochi), but it saw Formula 1 history created along the way.

Sochi 2019 was the 143rd Grand Prix led by Hamilton in his career, breaking Michael Schumacher’s all-time record, a title Schumacher had held since surpassing Ayrton Senna’s 86 races led at the 2001 Belgian GP (coincidentally, also the race where he surpassed Alain Prost’s all-time record of 51 race wins).

Hamilton extended his current points streak to 28 in a row, and should he score in all the remaining races this year he will equal his own all-time record of 33 straight points finishes.  Because Valtteri Bottas finished second, Hamilton cannot clinch the championship at the next race at Suzuka, but with a 73-point advantage his coronation in either Mexico City or Austin now appears a formality.

Leclerc may have lost a likely win through no fault of his own, but third place was enough to move clear of Max Verstappen for third in the world championship, although he will be moderately disappointed to lose ground to Valtteri Bottas, having only been 31 points adrift before Sunday.

He also achieved a first in Sochi history.  As a circuit with notably low tyre degradation – coupled with an unusually high 25-second pit delta time – Sochi is normally a race bereft of pitstops.  No driver had ever finished in the top four on this racetrack when making more than one stop until Leclerc did so on Sunday.

Max Verstappen is 22 years old on Monday, and fourth place was surprisingly his and Red Bull’s best-ever finish in Russia, after receiving a grid penalty for the second consecutive year, allowing Honda to get ahead on power unit elements before their home event at Suzuka.

As always, the Dutchman was in a different league to the other Red Bull.  Alex Albon had arguably his worst day since being promoted for his Toro Rosso by crashing during Q1 on Saturday, but an admirable recovery on Sunday means the British-born Thai driver has now scored in six straight events, including finishing in the top six in every race for Red Bull so far.

Beyond the usual affairs among the top three teams, McLaren claimed some headlines with the announcement of their return to Mercedes-Benz power for 2021.  They yet again proved the best of the rest in Sochi, with Carlos Sainz tying his career-best qualifying performance by lining up fifth on the grid.  He didn’t have the pace to contain the Red Bulls, but the retirement of Vettel meant that he claimed a top six finish for the sixth time in 2019.

This result ended a poor run for Sainz, who had not scored a point since the summer break and prior to Sunday had only scored 1 point in Sochi in his career.  With teammate Lando Norris finishing eighth, it pushes McLaren through the 100-point barrier for the first time since 2014, ironically their last year using Mercedes-Benz engines.

The filling in Sunday’s McLaren sandwich was Sergio Perez’s Racing Point, who in finishing seventh kept up his 100% record of points finishes in six Sochi starts.  He’s now finished seventh or better in three of the last four races, having been pointless in the prior eight races.

Speaking of pointless runs, Kevin Magnussen ended a four-race dry spell for the Haas team by finishing ninth.  He crossed the line eighth, but was given a five-second penalty for running ride at turn two, a sanction that both he and team principal Guenther Steiner found extremely harsh and weren’t shy about emphasizing on the team radio at the chequered flag.

The final point was claimed by Nico Hulkenberg, scoring for a fourth straight race.  Having been eliminated in first lap accidents in Sochi in both 2015 and 2016, the German will have been relieved to avoid a third-such incident this year, but his teammate Daniel Ricciardo was not so fortunate.  The universally-popular Ricciardo was effectively eliminated from contention in an opening lap collision with Antonio Giovinazzi’s Alfa Romeo.

Giovinazzi somehow managed to also hit Romain Grosjean at the exact same time, but while both Ricciardo and Grosjean spun out, Giovinazzi was the one who continued!  Grosjean’s run of bad luck must surely soon come to an end.  This was the Frenchman’s seventh retirement in 16 races this season, and his 743 laps completed this year are a massive 214 fewer than Lewis Hamilton.

Next up is Suzuka, a track on which Mercedes have won in every year of the hybrid era, and where Ferrari have not won for 15 years.  They might be stewing over their missed opportunity in Sochi for quite a while….

 

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