Team orders hands Hamilton victory in Russia

Lewis Hamilton

Mercedes employed team orders to ensure Lewis Hamilton won the Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix and head team-mate Valtteri Bottas to the flag in Sochi.

Bottas headed the early stages and remained in front of Hamilton following the pit stop cycle before a call from the pit wall moved the Finn aside for the championship leader.

It was a move designed to safeguard Hamilton’s advantage over Sebastian Vettel in the title fight at a time the Ferrari looked as though he could mount a challenge on track.

The decision saw Hamilton scamper two seconds clear of Bottas in an effective race lead, at a time when Max Verstappen led the race having not stopped, as Vettel remained tucked up behind the second Mercedes.

It remained that way to the flag to further cement Hamilton’s position at the head of the championship standings, much to the frustration of Bottas.

A strong start for Vettel was defended by Hamilton, who picked up a slipstream from team-mate Bottas before making an attempt for the lead as they braked for the first corner.

Bottas held his advantage while Hamilton forced Vettel wide as they continued their duel, the Mercedes drivers holding their 1-2 advantage as Vettel slotted into third.

By the end of the opening lap Bottas was more than a second clear, a pattern that remained constant until the call from the team.

Kevin Magnussen found himself falling victim to Charles Leclerc on the second lap, the Sauber driver passing the Haas the long way around Turn 2, Magnussen then immediately defending from Esteban Ocon.

Verstappen was also moving forward, climbing into the top 10 after less than three laps having started from 19th on the grid.

The Dutchman claimed six places on the opening lap before carving his way through on Carlos Sainz, Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez, Esteban Ocon, Magnussen, and Leclerc in quick succession to sit sixth after eight laps, while in the same time Daniel Ricciardo had climbed only to 12th.

Toro Rosso’s tough weekend saw both cars eliminated from the race on Lap 6, both Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley suffering unusual spins caused by braking issues that ultimately ended their races.

Early tyre management from Vettel saw the lead battle condense as they approached their stops, the Ferrari driver edging his way back towards the two Mercedes after they pulled out a small advantage in the opening 10 laps.

Bottas pitted from the lead after 12 laps, giving the Finn a pace advantage on fresh tyres as those on ultrasofts began to struggle for grip.

Ferrari didn’t initially react, leaving both Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen on track allowing the pole-sitter the opportunity to use the undercut to hit home his early track advantage.

Vettel stopped next time through, emerging behind Bottas but gaining time on title rival Hamilton who stayed out on track.

Mercedes made the call a lap later, Hamilton diving to the lane and swapping his ultrasoft tyres for a set of softs, rejoining the race wheel to wheel with Vettel but having to cede the spot as they braked for Turn 2.

An attack from Hamilton saw the pair come close to contact at Turn 2 on the next lap, backing out at the last moment as Vettel forced him towards the inside wall.

The aggressive move was briefly looked at by the stewards, who deemed no further action was warranted.

It was only a stay of execution for Vettel as the Mercedes driver rounded up the Ferrari before diving down the inside at Turn 4 to reclaim the place.

Raikkonen stopped from the lead at the end of Lap 18, rejoining fifth as Verstappen took over the race lead courtesy of starting on the soft compound tyres rather than the ultrasofts.

Mercedes call then saw Bottas step aside for Hamilton to allow the Englishman through after 26 laps.

Hamilton was beginning to suffer blistering on his rear tyres, the team electing to drop Bottas behind Hamilton to play rear-gunner against Vettel.

Ricciardo stopped late, taking a new front wing along with a new set of tyres before setting the fastest lap of the race with a 1:33.345.

The final piece of the jigsaw to fall into place was Verstappen, who finally stopped after 43 laps.

His impressive opening stint saw him climb from the back row of the grid to the lead, and run faster than the Mercedes deep into his stint, rejoining fifth with a set of ultrasoft tyres.

At the flag, Hamilton headed team-mate Bottas for another Mercedes 1-2, with Vettel third for Ferrari.

Raikkonen was fourth with Verstappen unable to mount a late charge following his stop to settle for fifth.

The balance of the top 10 was Ricciardo, Lecerlc, Magnussen, Ocon, and Perez.

The result moves Hamilton 50 points clear of Vettel in the championship, the equivalent of two full wins, with five races remaining.

Results to follow