It was a race that no one could've predicted, and possibly the best of the season so far.
The 2021 Formula 1 season has not been short on action. In addition to Red Bull Racing providing a viable challenge to Mercedes-AMG's turbo-era dominance, Ferrari and McLaren have both seen a strong resurgence in the sport and a crop of young drivers have revealed an overflow of new talent in the sport. This season is the closest title race in years, showcasing one of the greatest rivalries in years, akin to that of Michael Schumacher vs. Mika Hakkinen in the early aughts. This weekend passed, the Sochi Autodrom in Russia played host to the latest round of racing in the F1 Championship and to say it was a race of unexpected outcomes would be a massive understatement. While we'd predicted an easy race for Lewis Hamilton, he hit his jackman in the pits during practice, hit the pitlane wall during qualifying, and on his final hot lap, spun out. This allowed Lando Norris to qualify on pole, Carlos Sainz to slot into second, and the young hotshot, George Russell to qualify third. Russia would not be as expected. This much was certain.
Love him or hate him, there can be no denying that Lewis Hamilton is one of F1's all-time racing greats. He's currently tied with Michael Schumacher for driver's championships at seven apiece, has more poles and more race wins than any other driver in history, and after signing with Mercedes-AMG until the end of the 2023 season, he might not be done just yet. But this weekend, he set a new milestone, becoming the first driver to ever win 100 races in Formula 1, becoming the sport's first-ever centurion, and reclaiming the championship lead in the process. That means of all 1,050 F1 Grands Prix that have been raced since Silverstone in 1950, Lewis has won 9.5% of them.
The win took longer to arrive than expected, having won race 99 five races ago at his home GP at Silverstone. But the weekend wasn't without trouble for Lewis, hitting the pit wall in qualifying as he came in to change from intermediate tires to slicks amidst changing weather conditions. Even after repairing the damage to his wing and giving him fresh tires, Lewis was unable to get heat into his rubber, and he spun out on his final qualifying lap, landing him fourth on the grid.
A tricky race saw Lewis unable to really stretch the legs of his Mercedes-AMG W12 E Performance (the same suffix that has now been affixed to the Mercedes-AMG GT 63 E Performance hybrid sports sedan). Had it not been for a downpour mere minutes from the chequered flag and a strong insistence from race engineer Peter 'Bono' Bonnington to change to intermediate tires, Lewis would've likely finished second to fellow Briton, Lando Norris.
Lewis might have stolen headlines with victory number 100, but Max Verstappen was arguably the driver of the day Before the weekend, Hamilton had suggested that perhaps Max Verstappen was feeling the pressure of the championship fight. Max retorted that Lewis clearly doesn't know him very well, as the 23-year-old has held his nerve in a way that belies his youth. After incurring a three-place grid penalty from his mounting of Lewis at Monza a fortnight ago, Red Bull Racing predictably elected to install a new power unit (engine/transmission/battery/electric motor combination), resulting in Max starting the race from the back of the grid. Because of this, Max didn't participate in qualifying.
The odds were against him. Sochi has never favored the Red Bull car, and the team was fairly open about its hopes - fifth place was what they were after, terming this race one of disaster mitigation, trying not to fall too far behind Lewis in the championship standings. Starting last on the grid, Verstappen was a man possessed. He started on the hard compound tire, letting him stay out longer. But he had pace the others were lacking, consistently lapping quicker than the rest of the field and overtaking other racers with composure and maturity. In the end, as the rain fell hard with a few laps to go and perfect timing from Max and co. to change onto intermediates, he leapfrogged several drivers to finish second. On a track that didn't suit his car, to climb from last to the second step on the podium and relinquish only a few points to Hamilton was a dream outcome for Max and the Red Bull team.
Turkey is up next, and it's a track that will favor Max and the Red Bull team.
This season has been a great one for young drivers, with Lando Norris and McLaren impressing throughout. The last few races have been an excellent showcase of Norris' pace, and after claiming his highest-ever finish at Monza, he looked to continue that form this weekend. He qualified fastest, taking his first-ever pole position and becoming the fifth-youngest driver to take pole in F1.
His first pole so very nearly became his first race victory. Despite losing the lead at the start to Ferrari's Carlos Sainz, he regained the lead and maintained a strong pace. With three laps left to go, Hamilton might have been hot on his tail, but he didn't look quick enough to overtake Lando. As the rain came down, McLaren offered Lando the option to change onto intermediate tires. Lando refused.
Where Mercedes told Hamilton the rain was going to get worse, McLaren seemingly missed this fact. It resulted in a middle-sector that became way too slippery, and Hamilton managed to make up a 25-second deficit as Norris skated around the Sochi Autodrom at a snail's pace. Had the rain held off for another few minutes, we'd be hailing Lando's decision to stay out as genius. Instead, we're ruing it now as an error of judgment that cost him his first win and saw him land in seventh overall, despite claiming an extra point for the fastest lap.
But Lando is only 21, and his pace, racecraft, and desire to win are all hallmarks of a great driver. His first win may have eluded him for now, but one gets the impression there are many victories in his future, and perhaps even a few driver's championships, too.
It's often difficult to draw parallel's between Formula 1 race cars and road cars, as the technological differences are so vast between the two. But the race in Sochi was a stark reminder of just how important tires are on a car, particularly when it rains. After Saturday's Free Practice 3 (FP3) was canceled due to a torrential downpour, qualifying started on a wet surface. Late in the third qualifying session, the track dried enough to allow the drivers to move onto slick tires. It was a gamble that worked in favor of Lando Norris, Carlos Sainz, and George Russell, but against Lewis Hamilton, who not only hit the pit wall due to a lack of grip but struggled to maintain the temperature in his slicks. Slick tires grip best when hot, and without siping and tread grooves to evacuate water, they result in aquaplaning the moment there's any standing water on the surface of the road/track.
Lando Norris experienced this first hand as he skated around the Sochi Autodrom looking more like a rally driver than an F1 driver. F1 cars need speed to generate downforce, but without the ability to brake safely, Lando had to slow right down, and seemingly lost all grip.
While road cars aren't legally allowed to use slick tires, semi-slicks are favored among those who track their favorite toys. The Sochi GP served as a stark reminder of how quickly a little bit of water can turn a fun, high-paced adventure into a very scary one, and goes to show just how dependant cars are on that small rubber contact patch. It doesn't matter how fancy your car is, how great the aero and suspension are, if your tires aren't in contact with the road, it counts for nothing.
The 2021 F1 season has seen the return of Fernando Alonso to F1 after he spent a stint in Indycar pursuing the Motorsport Triple Crown - wins at the Monaco F1 GP, 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the Indianapolis 500. The 40-year-old is still in search of the Indianapolis 500 victory, but he's still got what it takes to run with the best in F1. Had it not been for the late-onset rain, Max might never have made it to the podium. Alonso, despite being in a much slower Alpine F1 Team car, managed to fend off advances from Max. Earlier in the race, he managed to get ahead of Hamilton and held him at bay for some time, too. It's not the first time in the season we've seen Alonso dogfighting with the best, and one has to wonder if, given a genuinely capable car, Fernando might be able to chase down a third F1 championship.