With a healthy points lead for Lewis Hamilton over his F1 title rival, Sebastian Vettel, Mercedes can afford to let Valtteri Bottas win the Russian Grand Prix, after securing a dramatic pole position in Sochi today.
But if the healthy pace advantage demonstrated by Mercedes so far this weekend translates into a comfortable one-two scenario, then Mercedes may be tempted to ram home their advantage for Hamilton, denying Bottas a first victory of the season at his form track. Chances like this don’t come along every weekend.
Bottas’ second pole position of the season – his first at the Sochi Autodrom – means he maintains his one hundred percent qualifying record against team-mates at the Russian track.
“It was a nice lap. In the end I managed to also improve a little bit, but I don’t know what happened at the beginning of the lap,” said Bottas, who set the fastest second and third sectors in qualifying.
“Coming to this weekend, I knew that it’s been a pretty good track for me. I managed to get some good laps in qualifying, and the car just felt really really strong as the times show.
“I think the team have done an exceptional job bringing new bits again for this race, it’s just step-by-step improving the car, which is going to be really important for the rest of the year for the championship fight.
“It’s a massively long run from the start line to the first corner, so it’s going to be important to try and keep that position.”
Sebastian Vettel was unable to get within half-a-second of the pace as Ferrari struggled to compete with Mercedes, meaning the championship challenger might have to hope for a tactical masterstroke in order to deny Hamilton extending his championship lead.
Kimi Raikkonen took fourth, whilst the absence of Red Bull in Q3 – due to power unit component penalties – opened the door for a midfielder to take fifth place. This battle was won by Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, who finished ahead of Force India’s Esteban Ocon and Sauber’s Charles Leclerc.
Qualifying Session 1
Carrying on their form from free practice three, Mercedes topped the opening qualifying session, with Hamilton setting his quickest time on the seventh lap on his hypersoft tyres.
Of the drivers who are due to take ‘back of the grid’ penalties, all five ran in the opening qualifying session, with the two Red Bulls impressing by setting the third and fourth fastest times ahead of the two Ferraris.
The two Renaults were under threat of elimination, but despite finishing Q1 in fourteenth and fifteenth, they had a few tenths of a second in hands over Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley.
As anticipated, the McLaren and Williams cars were knocked out of Q1, with Fernando Alonso leading Sergey Sirotkin – who spun on his final flying lap and lightly tagged the barrier – Stoffel Vandoorne and Lance Stroll.
Qualifying Session 2
Both Mercedes and Ferraris had the same idea for Q2, and that was to try and progress on the ultrasoft tyres in order to start the race on them.
Unlike the last race in Singapore where the performance gap between the hypersoft and ultrasoft tyres was really big, the top two teams were able to easily progress on a set of the harder compound tyres.
The remaining drivers who will start at the back of the grid – Verstappen, Ricciardo and Gasly – stayed in the pits in Q2, as did the two Renaults of Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg.
The Renaults didn’t have penalties but, due to their lack of pace, they elected to give themselves the option of an alternate tyre strategy. They would be starting the race in eleventh and twelfth due to the penalties for their fellow competitors.
This meant that only ten drivers took part in Q2. Charles Leclerc finished as the fastest midfielder, whilst team-mate Marcus Ericsson progressed into Q3 for the first time since 2015, giving Sauber their first double-Q3 appearance since the 2015 Chinese Grand Prix.
Qualifying Session 3
With Mercedes and Ferrari back on the hypersofts for Q3, Mercedes’ pace showed no signs of abating as Bottas drew first blood by edging ahead of Hamilton by a mere four thousandths of a second, whilst Vettel and Raikkonen were more than half-a-second off the pace.
For their second flying laps, Bottas set purple second and third sectors to extend his advantage to 0.145 of a second, whilst Hamilton – despite setting a purple first sector – made a mistake by running wide at turn seven and throwing away his lap, relieving the pressure on his team-mate.
Raikkonen was on course for big improvements, but a mistake at the final corner meant he remained behind Vettel, who could only set a time half-a-second off the pace.
With Red Bull starting at the back, the midfield battle became a contest for P5, which was won by Haas’ Kevin Magnussen.
RUSSIAN GRAND PRIX, Qualifying
1 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1m31.387s
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m31.532s 0.145s
3 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1m31.943s 0.556s
4 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1m32.237s 0.850s
5 Kevin Magnussen Haas/Ferrari 1m33.181s 1.794s
6 Esteban Ocon Force India/Mercedes 1m33.413s 2.026s
7 Charles Leclerc Sauber/Ferrari 1m33.419s 2.032s
8 Sergio Perez Force India/Mercedes 1m33.563s 2.176s
9 Romain Grosjean Haas/Ferrari 1m33.704s 2.317s
10 Marcus Ericsson Sauber/Ferrari 1m35.196s 3.809s
11 Max Verstappen Red Bull/Renault No time
12 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull/Renault No time
13 Pierre Gasly Toro Rosso/Honda No time
14 Carlos Sainz Renault No time
15 Nico Hulkenberg Renault No time
16 Brendon Hartley Toro Rosso/Honda 1m35.037s
17 Fernando Alonso McLaren/Renault 1m35.504s
18 Sergey Sirotkin Williams/Mercedes 1m35.612s
19 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren/Renault 1m35.977s
20 Lance Stroll Williams/Mercedes 1m36.437s
By: Luke Murphy
All images: Motorsport Images
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