Lewis Hamilton is on the brink of becoming F1 World Champion for the third time after scoring a relatively easy win in the Russian GP with four races to go. It was a critical day for Hamilton’s Mercedes-AMG team-mate if Nico Rosberg was to maintain his challenge and close down the points gap to Hamilton.
Rosberg did his prospects no harm when he claimed pole position for only the third time this season. Given what had happened when he won pole in Japan and Hamilton stole the lead, Rosberg spent much of Saturday night thinking about his start. This time it worked perfectly, Hamilton having to accept second place after they had raced side-by-side during the long run to the first corner.
But the drama had barely started. A collision triggered by Nico Hulkenberg spinning his Force India at the first corner brought out the safety car. When Rosberg backed off immediately, Hamilton almost went into the back of him, so close was the Englishman in his bid to snatch the lead.
All of that was to become irrelevant not long after the restart when a damper on the fly-by-wire throttle assembly caused Rosberg problems, a second retirement for mechanical reasons doing serious damage to his already slim title hopes. Much now depended on Hamilton having a trouble-free run to maximum points.
The first Russian Grand Prix last year had been fairly uneventful; not so in 2015. As Hamilton eased out a 3.4-second lead over Valtteri Bottas (the Williams-Mercedes having started from third), Romain Grosjean had a heavy accident when he lost control of his Lotus and spun into the barrier on the outside of the fast and very long Turn 3. The appearance of the safety car for a second time (there had been none in 2014) closed up the field and caused a dilemma for the teams.
Strategical analysis based on tyre performance had suggested one stop would be best, particularly with a long pit lane making each visit last for 25 seconds. The race had barely reached quarter distance. Would it be too risky to change tyres at this early stage and hope that they would last for 39 laps? The leaders – Hamilton, Bottas, Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel – chose to keep going. But Force India brought in Sergio Perez from fifth place. This would have a dramatic effect later on.
Bottas was the first of the leaders to stop and rejoined in traffic, a move that would prove costly as a very slick 2.2-second stop for Vettel not only leapfrogged him ahead of Ferrari team-mate Raikkonen but also the hapless Bottas. A similar stop a lap later for Raikkonen almost paid off as he rejoined wheel-to-wheel with the Williams. This battle was destined to run and run – and then stop under controversial circumstances.
All the while, Perez was turning in a solid performance in third place but his tyres were beginning to wilt. Bottas and Raikkonen (with much fresher tyres) closed in on the Force India, Bottas finding a way past on the penultimate lap, Raikkonen squeezing through as well to demote Perez to fifth.
On the final lap, Raikkonen tried an optimistic move, coming from a long way back and hitting Bottas as they braked into Turn 4. The collision caused the Williams to retire, Raikkonen creeping across the line to be classified fifth behind Felipe Massa’s Williams.
While Hamilton celebrated victory, the constructors’ title remained in the balance, Mercedes needing to score just three more points than Ferrari. With Vettel second and Raikkonen fifth, Mercedes fell short – until the race stewards gave Raikkonen a 30-second penalty for causing the collision, dropping him to eighth and giving Mercedes-AMG their second title in succession.
It may have been the cream on Hamilton’s victory cake, but he would not discuss his championship hopes.
“I’m enjoying every day; trying to live life to the maximum and really absorb it,” said Hamilton. “I’ll be at the [Mercedes-AMG] factory tomorrow because there’s still room to improve. My qualifying wasn’t perfect, for example and Nico was giving me a hard time. I’ll take the next race [United States Grand Prix on October 26] as it comes. The USA is special place – but I’m not even letting myself think about the championship. It’s about focussing on the job and not getting ahead of myself.”
On the basis of Sunday in Russia – and most of the 14 races before it – there’s little danger of anyone getting ahead of Hamilton.