After a long string of thrilling events, the inaugural Russian Grand Prix has been by many denounced a “snoozefest”, as it brought little on-track excitement for the Sochi circuit spectators. But at the same time, the historic race was that more monumental for handing over the first championship title of the season to the unquestionable dominators of 2014.
As with many previous Formula 1 weekends, the Mercedes team quickly emerged as the favourites of the first ever Russian GP, clocking the fastest times in all practice sessions and locking-out the front row in qualifying; although, also as recognised earlier throughout this season, the opposition from Williams was fierce and right up on the Silver Arrows’ toes. And so, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were followed by Valtteri Bottas before the lights went off – and that was the order in which they crossed the line, although that didn’t seem obvious after the first lap of the race.
The grid went into a scramble on the brand new, silky smooth Sochi Autodrom in the first stages of the race, with more cars ending going wide via the escape road on the first corner than actually following the track – among them Rosberg, who after a seemingly fantastic start that was bound to hand him the lead over his team-mate, misjudged his braking point and locked his tyres in a bound of smoke. The flat spotting dramatically reduced the durability of his compounds and launched a vibration into his car, which he could only address by pit stopping at the end of that lap for a change of rubber.
It seemed at that stage that the race winner was already decided, as Hamilton – his biggest rival now at the back of the pack – seamlessly built up his lead with no further disturbance. He did, indeed, end up crossing the line in the same circumstances – which, combined with the lack of safety car appearance and a scarce amount of overtaking during the event made it a rather uneventful affair.
With the Brit gone in the distance, the only excitement in Sochi was following Rosberg’s journey back to his starting position and the team-radio games played by different outfits, trying to mess up each other’s strategies. The track and air conditions in Russia were both very comfortable that afternoon and the chosen Pirelli compounds were judged “indestructible” by the principals; this allowed Rosberg to stick to the revised team strategy after lap one to run the rest of the race – the whole remaining 52 laps – on the newly changed tyres following his forced pit stop. Despite conflicting messages from Rosberg of “Feeling quite a lot of degradation” on lap 22 followed by “Easy… Well not easy but I can get to the end” 18 laps later, the Williams garage was still hoping the German was bluffing after he passed their frontman Bottas. And yet – Rosberg made it stick.
“Sorry guys that was very unnecessary but thank you for the unbelievable car that allowed me to fight back to take second,” he said after crossing the line in second. He later added from the podium step:
“It was a great strategy and our car is unbelievably — it’s so good.”
“Half of me is so disappointed because I messed up today but the other half is made up for the team. We have secured the most important title of the season and I am very happy and that’s why I can still smile.”
As, in fact, the double Mercedes whammy – ninth one this season – has handed the team the Constructors’ Championship title. The team stripped the trophy off four time consecutive champions Red Bull who, although managing to snatch a few victories from the Silver Arrows with top-notch drives by Daniel Riccardo in the course of the year, conceded to a lack of pace in comparison with the Brackley outfit.
“I had a good start and then a tough battle with Daniel, but from then onwards the speed was nothing special, we had the same issues as we had in qualifying. I was alone for a lot of the race, the beginning was entertaining, but after that it wasn’t that busy,” commented the orchestrator of Red Bull’s success since 2009 and a holder of four champion titles himself, Sebastian Vettel, who finished 8. in Sochi – right behind his junior team-mate.
Valtteri Bottas also didn’t seem content with his third-place finish, despite reaffirming his rightful spot at Formula 1’s forefront with a fifth podium finish this season – and setting the first ever fastest lap in Sochi.
“I need to be happy for us as a team, what we have been doing since last year is amazing,” he said.
“We were the best of the rest today but unfortunately Mercedes were quicker than us. But we did the best we could do so we are happy with more points and another podium finish.”
Once again the Finn performed better than his veteran team-mate Felipe Massa, who, however, made a decent recovery himself that afternoon following disastrous qualifying that saw him start the race from 18. The Brazilian also made a first-lap pit stop, but the strategy did not work for him as well as for Rosberg and he had to make another stop later on.
And there were more disconcerted faces at the paddock following that race – even from those who had come close behind the top trio. Jenson Button seemed uncomfortable with the turnout of events, despite scoring some precious points for McLaren together with his team-mate Kevin Magnussen, who made a recovery from a qualifying demotion to 11. after an additional gearbox change, to finish 5.
“It was a strange race. How can you do so many laps of one set of tyres? It was back to old school racing which is good from one respect but it does mean that the fastest car wins,” Button said.
“I think some of it is the circuit but I think we have improved the set up of the car and we have found some of other things that have worked for us. We will see how we get on in Texas and I am looking forward to it.”
It seemed that the scarce activity on track in Sochi affected both fans’ and drivers’ moods; but the event was subdued from the onset, with thoughts of the whole F1 community directed towards Jules Bianchi, still fighting for his life in a hospital in Japan. But with their respects paid in a variety of ways in the course of the week, there was still some room for celebration for Mercedes who claimed their first constructors’ trophy since the launch of the prize – and deservedly so.