The second half of the 2020 F1 Season kickstarted with the Russian GP in the city of Sochi. The Sochi Autodrom is a street circuit built around the Olympic Park by the legendary circuit designer Hermann Tilke consisting of many medium-speed corners.
The Russian GP was the first one-off GP of the 2020 season followed by a two-week break before the return of Nurburgring for the German GP and then a double-header in Portugal and Italy.
The sport also saw a reshuffle in its leadership with Ex-Ferrari Team Principal & Lamborghini supremo Stefano Domenicali taking over the role of CEO and Chase Carey becoming the Non-Executive Chairman.
Sochi had been a happy hunting ground for Mercedes, and their dominance in 2020 made them the runaway favourites. Hamilton was one victory shy of equalling Michael Schumacher's record of wins ( 91 ) besides extending his lead in the Championship. Red Bull hoped to see both its cars on the sharp end of the grid in its quest for a podium here. Ferrari had aerodynamic updates, and Stroll had the privilege of driving an upgraded Racing Point car, the Canadian being a beneficiary of a new chassis after his crash in Mugello a fortnight ago. Pirelli chose the softest three tyre compounds for this weekend.
Let us have a quick recap of the Russsian GP weekend.
Valtteri Bottas was the fastest driver at the end of Free Practice 1, half a second clear of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen. The Dutchman wasn't pleased with Russell in the Williams impeding him on his fast lap.
Perez and Stroll were in the top 6 for Racing Point followed by Ocon in the Renault. Kvyat had a spin but managed to set the 7th fastest time with Albon, Vettel and Gasly completing the top 10. The 2019 pole position man Leclerc was P11 for Ferrari followed by the McLaren duo of Sainz and Norris. It was a tough session for Sainz who suffered a spin at turn 10, the rear of his car hitting the barriers, leaving his rear-wing hanging precariously as he limped back to the pits.
The Alfa Romeo cars were 14th and 15th fastest followed by Magnussen and Russell. Grosjean was P18 for Haas, having gone wheel-to-wheel with Leclerc over track position during the session, leaving the Monegasque a bit flummoxed. It was a quiet FP1 for Hamilton who managed to set only the 19th fastest time on hard tyres. Latifi had a similar crash to Sainz at turn 10, the impact leaving him winded and the car a wreck. The stewards Red Flagged the session to clear the stricken car. The Canadian came out unscathed thankfully.
Free Practice 2 got underway with teams splitting the sessions into low fuel runs and race simulations. Turns 2 and 13 turned out to be notorious ones in FP2. Hamilton had a big lockup and just avoided the barriers at turn 13. Stroll, meanwhile, spun at the same spot. Norris and Albon had to use the run-off at Turn 2 after missing their braking point while Verstappen made a rare mistake and got spun around at Turn 14.
It was Bottas who had the momentum on Friday and set the fastest time, more than two-tenths clear of his team-mate Hamilton. Ricciardo carried his FP1 form into FP2 and was third fastest, but a second adrift. Sainz, Norris and Perez ensured McLaren and Racing Point representation in the top 6 while Verstappen was the fastest Honda-powered car in 7th.
Ferrari had both its cars in the top 10 with Ocon splitting the "Prancing Horses". Albon, in P12, was in an Alpha Tauri sandwich while Raikkonen in his Alfa Romeo ( in P14 ) was the fastest Ferrari-powered customer car. Latifi had a better FP2 with the 15th fastest time, edging out his team-mate, but more than two seconds slower than Botttas.
It was a disappointing FP2 for Stroll who managed only the 17th fastest time with Magnussen, Giovinazzi and Grosjean bringing up the rear of the field.
The Final Practice Session ( FP3 ) saw Hamilton find his mojo, setting the fastest time, eight tenths clear of team-mate Bottas. The Briton went wide at turn 13, skating over the sausage kerb. Only two-tenths separated four drivers from four different teams, and it was Sainz who set the third quickest time from Ocon, Perez and Verstappen. Ocon had an off-track moment at turn 17 but was able to continue without any damage. It was an encouraging session for Vettel, the Ferrari driver setting the 7th fastest time from Stroll, Kvyat and Ricciardo. Gasly was P11 in the other Alpha Tauri having suffered a spin at turn 15.
Leclerc was P12 in the other Ferrari with Russell catapulting his Williams to 13th. Issues with the general balance of the car led to incessant complaining by Grosjean, the Frenchman suffering a similar spin like Gasly's but managing to put in the 14th quickest time. Latifi and Magnussen were P15 and P16 for Williams and Haas, but more than 2 seconds slower than the fastest time of FP3. The Alfa Romeo cars were struggling in 17th and 18th while Albon, in the sister Red Bull, had a very unsettled FP3. The Thai driver needed to step up his game in Qualifying. McLaren's upgrades didn't seem to work on Norris' car, the British driver 20th at the end of the session.
Sochi is a power-sensitive circuit, and the Mercedes works team had a clear edge over the rest of the field. It was advantage Bottas in the intra-team battle. Pirelli's choice of having the softest three compounds for the weekend would bring Red Bull into the fray, but Friday running suggested that they might not be the real contenders. Renault power came to the fore, and the works team with Ricciardo was right in the mix for the top 6 along with McLaren, their customer team. Ferrari powered cars seemed destined for a long Sunday afternoon, their lack of straight-line speed costing them dear. However, the works team had both its cars in the top 10 and were optimistic of keeping it that way come Qualifying. Perez, without the upgrades, was faster of the two Racing Point cars which might have made the team to reconsider the effectiveness of the updates brought in. The midfield promised to be a closely contested affair come Sunday.
Albon and Latifi got five-place grid drops each due to a gearbox change. There was drama before the start of the race with Hamilton coming under investigation for practice starts outside the designated area. The race start drew nigh, and the stewards were yet to make a decision.
Raikkonen and Kvyat opted for the hard tyres while Leclerc, Stroll, Russell, Vettel, Grosjean, Giovinazzi and Magnussen were on the mediums. Albon, who got demoted to P15, due to the penalty had to start on the soft tyres from Q2 on Saturday.
The five red lights went out, and it was a clean getaway for Hamilton from pole position. Verstappen who was on the "dirty side" of the grid got bogged down and lost second to Bottas. Bottas got into the tow behind Hamilton, and the team-mates were side-by-side going into turn 2. Unfortunately, the Finn had to relent, and Hamilton kept his position. Verstappen tried to avoid Ricciardo who had the inside line, getting forced to go around the bollards at turn 2. Chaos unfolded further down the field. Sainz, in the midfield tussle, too was pushed off the track at turn 2, but tried to rejoin the circuit too quickly and ended up hitting the wall with his left front tyre. It was race over for the Spaniard. A slew of cars had to take avoiding action and Norris, his team came off the worst, having lost ten places on the opening lap. There was more drama two corners later with Leclerc tapping the right rear wheel of Stroll's car, the contact sending the Canadian into the barriers. He became the second retirement of the race on the opening lap. The stewards deemed it as "no action necessary".
The Safety Car got deployed by the stewards to clear the debris on the track caused by the incidents. It was a lightning start for the Haas cars, the duo up into P9 and P10 while Giovinazzi was P12 for Alfa Romeo. Russell, Norris and Albon decided to pit at the end of the opening lap for a fresh set of hard tyres with Norris' stop being longer as the team checked for damage and debris. Norris also reported issues with his steering, the team asking him to manage it till the end of the race.
Hamilton, Bottas, Verstappen, Ocon, Ricciardo, Perez, Gasly, Leclerc, Magnussen and Grosjean were the top 10 behind the Safety Car.
The Safety Car pulled into the pits, and it was a clean restart for Hamilton ( lap 6 ). Russell and Raikkonen went wheel-to-wheel, but Raikkonen held on to P15. Norris and Albon too had a tussle with Norris relegating the Thai driver to 18th. Hamilton had already opened up a 1.5 seconds gap to Bottas at the end of lap 6.
The verdict was out on the infringement committed by Hamilton earlier. The stewards penalized him with two 5 seconds penalties for two violations of practice starts outside the designated area. He would have to serve it at the time of his pitstop.
Kvyat got past Grosjean for P10 on lap 8 with Verstappen reporting grip issues on his rear tyres. Raikkonen overtook Latifi for P14 on lap 9. A three-way battle unfolded at the back of the field with Norris putting pressure on Russell for P16 and Albon waiting for the right opportunity to pounce on any mistake by the duo. Russell held on to 16th, but Norris lost 17th to Albon. Meanwhile, at the front, Mercedes asked Bottas to close the gap to Hamilton ( lap 12 ) while Russell locked up at turn 13 and lost 16th to Albon. Kvyat overtook Magnussen for P9 while Norris got past Russell for P17 ( lap 13 ).
Mercedes asked Hamilton to push to build a gap and mitigate the time lost at the time of serving his penalty. He refused to pit at the end of lap 14 and went on to set the fastest lap of the race. Perez got past Ricciardo for P5 on lap 15 while Russell pitted for mediums, having flat-spotted his exiting set. Ricciardo, having lost P5 pitted immediately after for hard tyres and rejoined in 14th. Hamilton didn't let up on his pace and set the fastest lap of the race again on lap 16 while Albon relegated Latifi to P16.
Hamilton finally pitted on lap 17, serving his 10 seconds penalty and switching to the hard tyres. He rejoined in 11th, and out of contention for race victory ( unless there was to be another Safety Car period ). Giovinazzi too pitted from 11th, rejoining in 17th with a set of hard tyres. Ontrack, Norris overtook Latifi for 15th.
Bottas, now in clear air went on to set a series of fastest laps as he prolonged his stint on the medium tyres. Grosjean and Latifi pitted on lap 18 for hard and medium tyres, rejoining in 15th and 17th respectively. Ocon and Gasly pitted a lap later, both switching to the hard tyres. Gasly rejoined in 13th while Ocon in 9th just behind Vettel. Meanwhile, Hamilton, who was in 11th moved up three places with those ahead of him pitting and got past Vettel for 7th, gaining track position on Ocon.
Magnussen pitted on lap 20 for hard tyres rejoining in 14th while Ricciardo got past Raikkonen for P9. Perez pitted from 3rd a lap later for hard tyres, rejoining in 6th behind Hamilton, and jumping Ocon who got stuck behind the Ferrari of Vettel in 8th. Bottas' pace at the front was relentless as he set another fastest lap of the race. Ocon's race was getting compromised with his inability to clear Vettel which allowed his team-mate Ricciardo to close upon him and get within DRS range. Renault instructed the Frenchman to let Ricciardo by, and he obliged on lap 25. However, Ricciardo locked up on the run into turn two and went over the kerbs, attracting the attention of the stewards.
Verstappen pitted for hard tyres on lap 26, rejoining in 4th behind Leclerc and Kvyat. He had a 6 seconds lead over Hamilton. Bottas pitted a lap later and retained his lead, switching to the hard tyres for his final stint. Verstappen cleared Kvyat for P3 ( lap 27 ) while Ricciardo relegated Vettel to 8th on lap 28. However, Ricciardo got a 5 seconds time penalty for not following the Race Director's instructions on rejoining the track at turn 2 ( the infringement on lap 25 ). Vettel lost another position to the Renault of Ocon, the Frenchman finally getting past, but all his hard work brought to nought with the time lost.
Meanwhile, Albon pitted from 11th for medium tyres and rejoined in 16th ( lap 28 ). Leclerc made his mandatory pitstop a lap later, switching to the hard tyres and ending in 7th ahead of Ocon. Albon and Russell made another stop and switched to the medium tyres. Kvyat pitted for medium tyres on lap 31 from 3rd, rejoining in P8. Vettel followed the Russian into the pits and switched to the hard tyres, relegated to 16th. Raikkonen was the only driver yet to pit and was putting up a spirited defence against Gasly in the battle for P9.
Bottas, Verstappen, Hamilton, Perez, Ricciardo, Leclerc, Ocon, Kvyat, Raikkonen and Gasly were the top 10 at the end of lap 32.
Gasly finally got past Raikkonen on lap 34 while Renault informed Ricciardo about his time penalty, asking him to push and build a gap to Leclerc behind. The Australian replied with "I shall drive faster". Red Bull informed Verstappen about the deficit to Bottas and the lap times he was setting, Verstappen replied that he focused on his own pace, vary of Hamilton behind. He had given up on his chances of a victory. Raikkonen was the last driver to pit on lap 36, switching to the medium tyres, but the left front got re-attached slowly. The Finn rejoined in 16th, 12 seconds adrift of Vettel.
Albon overtook Giovinazzi for P13 ( lap 38 ) and then got past Grosjean a couple of laps later. Grosjean ran wide at turn two and had to go around the bollards which made him vulnerable to an overtake from Giovinazzi behind. The Frenchman couldn't hold onto P13 and had to relent on lap 41. Vettel was the next driver to overtake Grosjean, the two banging wheels at turn 2, and Grosjean taking out the bollards in his attempt to adhere to the Race Director instructions. The Haas drivers lost more positions with Albon relegating Magnussen to P12 ( lap 42 ) and Raikkonen getting past Grosjean for P15 ( lap 43 ). The Virtual Safety Car period got initiated by the race stewards as the marshalls went about the job of replacing the foam bollards destroyed by Grosjean earlier.
Gasly pitted from 9th, trying to take advantage of the VSC period, but it ended as soon as he entered the pit lane. He switched to the medium tyres and lost two positions in the process. Grosjean pitted for medium tyres, rejoining in 18th and last. The battle for 9th was hotting up with Norris, Albon and Gasly on laps 45 and 46. Albon closed in on Norris with DRS assistance, but Norris slowed him down on the exit of turns ten and eleven, making Albon vulnerable to Gasly who wasted no time and relegated him to 11th. It was now Gasly's turn to go wheel-to-wheel with Norris who was putting up a stoic defence. It was job done for the Frenchman on lap 48 with Albon doing the same a few corners later. The Briton eventually pitted at the end of the lap for a fresh set of medium tyres, ending up in 15th behind Raikkonen.
Giovinazzi, who was having a strong weekend with Alfa Romeo was on the cusp of scoring points again when he got past Magnussen for P11 on lap 49. Meanwhile, Verstappen at the front decided to push till the end and set the fastest lap of the race. A three-way battle unfolded between Magnussen, Vettel and Raikkonen who had reduced the deficit after completing his pit stop. Kvyat was now within DRS range of Ocon and had P7 in his sights ( lap 50 ). Verstappen reduced Bottas' lead to 5.5 seconds who responded by snatching the fastest lap of the race from the Dutchman. Raikkonen kept up the pressure on Vettel, hoping to make up a position on his former team-mate while Russell pitted for soft tyres on the penultimate lap.
Bottas took victory from Verstappen, taking home the point for the fastest lap as well. Hamilton recovered to 3rd but was unhappy with the punishment meted to him. These three drivers finished on the podium for the sixth time in 2020. Perez came home in a commendable 4th with Ricciardo finishing in 5th for Renault. The Australian retained his position despite the time penalty. Leclerc was 6th for Ferrari, followed by Ocon who held onto 7th from Kvyat. Gasly and Albon completed the top 10. The stewards had dished out a five-seconds time penalty to Albon as well, but the Thai driver, like Ricciardo, had built a big enough gap to retain the final scoring points finish.
Giovinazzi produced a fine drive in 11th for Alfa Romeo, shame that he was unable to finish in the points again. Magnussen did well to fend off a late challenge from Vettel and Raikkonen while Norris finished a dismal 15th for McLaren. Latifi was 16th with Grosjean and Russell the final classified drivers.
Mercedes were flawless in their strategy calls, and an early pit stop was damage limitation for Hamilton. Bottas kept it clean throughout and managed his race pace well. Red Bull and Verstappen weren't able to mount a serious challenge and would be happy to have split the Mercedes drivers nonetheless. Racing Point had a bitter-sweet weekend with Perez doing an exceptional job in the older-spec car but Stroll suffering from an early end to his race. Renault had the best result from the midfield teams with both drivers finishing in the points. McLaren would want to put this weekend behind them as soon as possible. Leclerc produced a stellar drive in his under-performing Ferrari, the Monegasque benefitting from great strategy calls from the pit lane. The Alpha Tauri drivers finished in the points again ahead of Albon who had another compromised weekend due to the gearbox penalty. He has the backing of the team still, but patience would be running out for some of the top brass. Giovinazzi drove a strong race for Alfa Romeo and drives such as these will help in his quest for a contract in 2021. Magnussen remained the better of the two Haas drivers while Vettel's poor form in the 2020 Ferrari continued. Raikkonen would rue his qualifying mistake since he had the speed to finish higher than he did. Williams went backwards again on a Sunday.
Bottas was going through a lean patch since his finish outside the points ( British GP ). His inability to capitalize on Hamilton's mistakes drew a lot of criticism from fans and experts alike. He vowed to keep pushing and not give up until it's over and this victory will do his confidence a world of good. Hamilton would have to wait for another day to equal Schumacher's record.
The F1 Fraternity now travel ( in a fortnight ) to the legendary circuit of Nurburgring, the venue for the Eiffel GP. Seven years have passed since it hosted an F1 race. The inclement weather has produced some exciting races in the past. Bring on round 10 of the 2020 F1 Season!