Valtteri Bottas dutifully played the team game by handing the Russian Grand Prix win to his championship-contending team-mate Lewis Hamilton to allow the Briton to add another seven points to his lead in the drivers’ standings.
Instead of the 43 it would have been if he had come home second behind Bottas, it swelled to a hefty 50 points.
Having controlled the race since the opening lap, the call that Bottas would’ve been fearing came half-way through the race.
The team justified the call to protect Hamilton from Vettel as he had a small tyre blister.
He moved over to let Hamilton through and deny third-placed Sebastian Vettel an opportunity to attack Hamilton. But at the end he queried whether they would be switching back again as that threat had subsided. He was told to remain in second place. It will take some management to placate Bottas, who was aware of the possible scenarios but who might feel that Hamilton adding to his points lead by finishing ahead of Vettel might have been enough.
After losing out to Vettel in the pit stops, Hamilton was forced to overtake his rival on-track, with Mercedes’ team orders coming a few laps later to inflict more damage to Ferrari in the drivers’ championship.
The win is an important one; Hamilton can now afford to finish second to Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in every remaining race and still have enough points to take the drivers’ crown.
In a low-key parc fermé, Hamilton was quick to praise his “gentleman” team-mate, and brought the Finn onto the top step of the podium celebrations.
“Valtteri did a fantastic job all weekend, and he was a real gentleman to let me by. Obviously, he’s now not fighting for the championship, and it’s been such a great weekend for the team. They’ve done such an exceptional job to have this advantage over Ferrari and have a one-two.
“Usually we would be elated, but I can understand how difficult it was for Valtteri. He did a fantastic job today and deserved to win.
“Championship-wise, as a team we’re trying to win both championships, and I think today it was a real team effort. Whilst it doesn’t feel spectacular, I know he [Bottas] is going to be great in the races to come.”
Kimi Raikkonen finished in a lonely fourth place, whilst an impressive opening stint from Max Verstappen helped him to easily achieve Red Bull’s aim of recovering to fifth place ahead of Daniel Ricciardo.
Sauber’s Charles Leclerc finished as ‘best of the rest’ in seventh place and took his first points since the Austrian Grand Prix.
At lights out second-placed Hamilton was immediately under attack from a fast-starting Vettel. However, Hamilton tucked into the slipstream of team-mate Bottas and managed to claw back some lost ground and hold onto P2. The Briton then defended into the next big braking zone in order to deny Vettel the place. Raikkonen held onto fourth place.
Behind them, Sauber’s Charles Leclerc moved up to sixth at the start before taking the lead of the midfield with a sensational move around the outside of a hard-defending Magnussen at the long turn three on lap two. The Toro Rossos had a torrid opening few laps of the race; both Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley spun out and retired their cars in the early stages of the race.
Further back, Red Bull’s Verstappen had a mega start to the race; he moved up to thirteenth on the opening lap before storming through to fifth place by the end of lap nine. By this time, the ultrasoft tyres were starting to wear and Dutchman’s pace was at least as quick as the leaders’, although he was still twenty seconds off the lead.
With those on the hypersoft tyres pitting after only around a dozen laps, the second Red Bull of Ricciardo was promoted to sixth place, but some sixteen seconds behind Verstappen, although some of that defecit will be attributed to some front wing damage, which would be replaced at his pit stop later on.
Mercedes were the first to blink as the leaders approached the pit stop phase; they brought in Bottas as the lead car, whilst Ferrari responded by bringing Vettel in one lap later.
Quick pit stops for both put Hamilton on the back foot, and when the Briton pitted one lap after Vettel, he marginally lost the place to his championship rival, with Vettel sweeping around the outside of turn two.
Hamilton, though, responded immediately and put the Ferrari under pressure straight away. He attacked on the following lap into turn two, but a robust defence from Vettel denied him – something which the stewards briefly investigated for a double move. He tried again on the approach to turn four and dived down the inside line and took the place from the Ferrari.
Raikkonen stayed out for a further four laps before also pitting for soft tyres, handing the lead to Verstappen, who was slowly being reeled in by ‘net’ race leader Bottas.
By lap 25, the top four were separated by just five seconds, with Verstappen – who was yet to stop – starting to hold up Bottas, Hamilton and Vettel.
In response, Mercedes gave the call to switch Bottas and Hamilton to prevent the championship leader coming under pressure from Vettel, they swapped places under braking for turn thirteen. The move allowed Verstappen to extend his lead to 2-3 seconds, with the Red Bull controlling the pace.
In the midfield battle, Magnussen was once again getting his elbows out; he edged Renault’s Carlos Sainz towards the outside of turn three in defence of ninth place, much to Sainz’s annoyance. The other Renault of Nico Hulkenberg led the midfield, but he was yet to stop after starting on the soft tyres. His stop would eventually hand seventh to Leclerc.
Ricciardo was the first of the Red Bulls to pit (lap 39), but the team persisted with Verstappen in the lead. Back-markers allowed Hamilton to briefly close right in on the Dutchman, but the leader fended off the attack into turn two before pitting at the end of lap 43 for ultrasoft tyres.
Following his stop, Verstappen held fifth place and had fourteen second to make up on Raikkonen with ten laps to go, but any hopes of him catching up to the Finn were denied when it became clear that he couldn’t extract any extra pace from the ultrasofts.
With Hamilton now in free air, he was able to increase his pace and create a two-three second buffer to his team-mate and take his eighth win of the season, leading Mercedes’ third one-two finish of the season. Bottas had enquired to his team about reversing the finishing positions, more in hope than expectation, but this was denied by the team.
“This was a difficult day for you and a difficult day for us, but we’ll talk about it afterwards,” said a sheepish Mercedes boss Toto Wolff to Bottas over the radio on the cool-down lap.
Vettel was unable to mount a late challenge to Mercedes and was forced to settle for third place, with Raikkonen taking fourth. The Red Bulls of Verstappen and Ricciardo completed their minimum comeback of fifth and sixth, whilst Leclerc was the only other driver to finish on the lead lap as he took the ‘class B’ honours.
Magnussen’s assertive race yielded an eighth place finish, ahead of the two Racing Point Force Indias of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez, who – due to their collision in Singapore – were under the instruction of team orders in order to try and attack the Haas.
RUSSIAN GRAND PRIX
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 53 Laps
2 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 2.545s
3 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 7.487s
4 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 16.543s
5 Max Verstappen Red Bull/Renault 31.016s
6 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull/Renault 80.451s
7 Charles Leclerc Sauber/Ferrari 98.390s
8 Kevin Magnussen Haas/Ferrari 1 Lap
9 Esteban Ocon Force India/Mercedes 1 Lap
10 Sergio Perez Force India/Mercedes 1 Lap
11 Romain Grosjean Haas/Ferrari 1 Lap
12 Nico Hulkenberg Renault 1 Lap
13 Marcus Ericsson Sauber/Ferrari 1 Lap
14 Fernando Alonso McLaren/Renault 1 Lap
15 Lance Stroll Williams/Mercedes 1 Lap
16 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren/Renault 2 Laps
17 Carlos Sainz Renault 2 Laps
18 Sergey Sirotkin Williams/Mercedes 2 Laps
19 Pierre Gasly Toro Rosso/Honda DNF
20 Brendon Hartley Toro Rosso/Honda DNF
By: Luke Murphy
All images: Motorsport Images
Who driver of the day at the Russian Grand Prix? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.