I’ll be honest, I’ve never completely warmed to the Sochi semi-street circuit track. As an armchair spectator at home, the whole thing looks the same to me and I would struggle to recall any specific corners or memorable elements of the track. It’s perhaps fitting then that we’ve not really had any killer races is Russia that are worth remembering. The 2019 edition was no different.
Lewis Hamilton benefitted from the safety car to win his first race after the summer break, finally breaking the red cars’ chokehold. This should have been another Ferrari victory though and I’m sure Mercedes must be just a little concerned now for, without the safety car, either Vettel or Leclerc would have taken the top step of the rostrum without a doubt.
Ferrari’s afternoon was mired by the apparent intra-team politics that were once again kicking off in the background. Vettel had an immense start, surging forth from third on the grid to pass Hamilton and slipstream his Leclerc before passing his teammate and gaining the lead. Initially, it looked like Seb was back, revitalised by his Singapore victory. However, team radio soon revealed a different story and it became clear that there had been some form of pre-race agreement in place that might have helped Vettel gain first place on the road. There was talk of Seb letting Charles by but Vettel was already pulling out a lead and apparently in no mood to comply. Shades of Multi-21?
Whatever the truth behind this mysterious agreement was, it’s not the sort of thing we want to be sitting down to watch at the weekend. To the fans, it looked like Vettel had made an incredible start and put one over on both his big rival in recent years (Hamilton) and the young new upstart from the opposite side of the Ferrari garage. Game on. But then we get all of this crap about agreements and letting other cars by. No thanks. Remember when these sorts of orders were banned in the Schumacher era? I can’t say I fully blame Vettel for holding the lead. After all, there was every possibility that he would have been able to seize it anyway without assistance. He’d certainly already beaten Hamilton and there was nothing to say that he wouldn’t have been able to slipstream Charles and take first place unaided.
The controversy was ultimately rendered elementary in due course, however. Ferrari swapped the pair back around through pit strategy but before we got to see the teammates go at it tooth and nail, Vettel’s car ground to a halt with a power unit failure. The irony was that Vettel’s breakdown triggered the safety car that allowed Hamilton to steal the lead from Leclerc. Ferrari pitted Leclerc again, allowing Valtteri Bottas to get the other silver arrow into second place, a position he would hold until the flag.
Vettel was still voted Driver of the Day by the fans though – a verdict that I didn’t agree with at all. For me, it was all about Alex Albon in the Red Bull, and his charge through the field to fifth place after starting the race from the pit lane. Albon impressed once again with a series of aggressive yet controlled desperado moves as he battled through the midfield, overhauling two former Red Bull drivers – Kvyat and Gasly – in the process. All of this with brakes that were not working properly. For me, Albon has done enough to show that he should get the Red Bull drive in 2020. His assertive performance in the car in the races following the summer break has already overshadowed anything that Pierre Gasly had done in the season’s first half.
The only big surprise at the Russian GP was that Romain Grosjean was eliminated in a clash on the opening lap…and it wasn’t his fault!
Thankfully, we’re off to a classic venue for the next race – Suzuka.