Well, it was already pretty clear, but now we know for certain…it’s going to be like this all the way, isn’t it? Granted, there’s still more than enough time for things to change – and, to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did – but, when all’s said and done, this is meant to be the highest level of motorsport in the world, and it doesn’t do that image many favours when there’s only two cars from the same team fighting it out at the front, but, at last, things seem to be starting to change. I mean, when you consider the way the last few seasons have played out, it would have been easy to think this sort of competition was still some way off, but such a significant change in the rules was always likely to help bunch the field up and give a few different names an opportunity, and, as a fan…this is just the kind of thing we’ve been crying out for. After several years at the top, the pace-setters finally have a fight on their hands for the 2017 Formula One World Championship…and they’re certainly not going to have it their own way from here on in, either.
Having been such an integral part of the championship since the very early days in the 1950s, enjoying so much success and collecting a vast amount of silverware along the way, it’s fair to say the past few seasons have been difficult for the once irrepressible Ferrari team as they sought to reclaim their position at the front of the grid, but, with the sport’s technical regulations receiving a much-anticipated overhaul ahead of the 2017 season, there were signs even before a wheel had been turned in anger that the red cars were back to somewhere near their best as they set the pace in pre-season testing. This upturn in performance carried through into the opening weekend in Melbourne in Australia, with former four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel producing a brilliant strategic drive to take the first victory of the season, but it was only ever likely to be a matter of time before their main rivals struck back, and, sure enough, the all-conquering Mercedes team wasted no time in responding as Britain’s Lewis Hamilton – himself a three-time drivers’ champion in the past – took the chequered flag in dominant fashion in Shanghai in China to get his title challenge up and running.
As a result, there was nothing to separate two of the greatest drivers of modern times as the series moved on to the Middle East and Bahrain last time out, but initially, both were forced to give best in qualifying as Finland’s Valtteri Bottas – an 11th-hour replacement for reigning world champion Nico Rosberg in the second of the Silver Arrows after the German’s shock retirement from the sport – grabbed his maiden pole position by a mere 0.023s ahead of team-mate Hamilton as the two Mercedes annexed the front row, leaving Vettel half a second further back in third after earlier looking like he had the pace to challenge for the top spot. The Ferrari driver, though, returned to form at the start of the race as he leapt ahead of a slow-starting Hamilton off the line before passing Bottas for the lead when the two Mercedes were forced to ‘double-stack’ in the pit lane during an early safety car period, and, despite struggling on his tyres during his middle stint, a surprise second stop for the Brit – who had taken the lead despite receiving a time penalty for driving too slowly entering the pit lane – when it looked like he didn’t have to pit again handed the German a clear route to his second victory of the season, although Hamilton was able to charge through on his fresher rubber in the final few laps to catch and then pass Bottas for second, leaving the Finn to settle for third.
In terms of the championship standings, Vettel’s victory saw him reopen a 7 point advantage over Hamilton after the pair came into the weekend dead-level, with Bottas’ second podium finish in three races saw the Mercedes new-boy move into third – albeit a full 23 points adrift of his team-mate – ahead of vastly experienced compatriot and former world champion Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari in fourth, with the gap between the two Finns a slender 4 points. After finishing on the podium in China, there was disappointment for Red Bull’s Max Verstappen as a brake failure early in the race saw the Dutch teenager’s race end in the barriers, meaning he slipped from third to fifth in the standings and only 3 points clear of team-mate Daniel Ricciardo in sixth, with veteran Felipe Massa holding the ‘best of the rest’ honours for Williams in seventh.
After the unique challenge of the dust and sand of Bahrain, there was another distinct change in environment ahead of the fourth round of the season as the championship arrived in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in Russia, with the city’s eponymous Autodrom also playing host to the last of the ‘flyaway’ races before the start of the European season. One of the newest and most modern motorsport facilities in the world, the track – which winds its way around the city’s Olympic Park that was used to host the 2014 Winter Games – made its debut on the calendar later that same year before moving closer to the start of the season ahead of the 2016 edition, and is generally considered as a street circuit by being made up of closed roads rather than a permanent race facility, although the latter part of the lap is able to be used all year round.
Measuring in at some 5.8km (3.7 miles) – the fourth longest lap on the calendar in terms of overall distance – a typical lap begins with a reasonably short run to the flat-out right-hand kink of Turn 1, which is little more than an acceleration zone onto another fast straight that leads down into the heavy braking zone for the tight right-hander at Turn 2, which feeds immediately into the seemingly endless left-hand curve of Turn 3 that loops around the Olympic Medal Plaza and down to the 90-degree right-hander at Turn 4. From there, the similarly constructed Turn 5 is followed by another fast kink at Turn 6 before a minor lift off the throttle through yet another 90-degree corner at Turn 7, with the track then changing direction through the double-apex left-handers at Turns 8 and 9 before the right-hander of Turn 10 that leads onto the back straight, taking in yet another flat-out kink at Turn 11. The final sector, however, is much more technical, with the cars having to brake around the left-hander at Turn 12 for the sharp right-hander of Turn 13 which immediately switches back to the left through Turn 14, with a reasonably tight left-right ‘chicane’ at Turns 15 and 16 being followed by two final 90-degree right-handers of Turns 17 and 18 that bring the cars back onto the pit straight.
However, with so many tight corners and few major braking zones, overtaking chances are at a premium around the lap, with the best often proving to be into Turn 2 – where the added benefit of DRS helping to make a pass even easier to pull off – or, failing that, down the inside underbraking for Turn 13 at the end of the back straight, although the tricky braking zone around the wall at Turn 12 can sometimes make this a risky move to try. Elsewhere, the relatively wide track at Turn 3 allows drivers to vary their line in an attempt to gain positions, but the build-up of discarded rubber from the tyres means any move around the outside (particularly late in the race) can be tricky as the cars run wide onto the ‘marbles’, while a good run out of the penultimate corner can sometimes open the door into Turn 18, although this depends entirely on the passing car being almost completely alongside in the braking zone.
The corresponding race here 12 months ago saw Rosberg produce one of his most dominant performances of the season to extend his phenomenal run of early-season form, with the German first emerging on top in qualifying – albeit aided by a turbo failure for Hamilton prior to the start of Q3 that prevented him from setting a time at all – to take pole by more than 0.7s ahead of compatriot Vettel, but a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change meant Bottas was elevated onto the front row in his Williams, and it got worse for the Ferrari driver at the start of the race as a controversial clash with home favourite Daniil Kvyat’s Red Bull at Turn 3 ended with the German being turned into the barriers, prompting a furious tirade to his team over the radio. Up front, however, Rosberg was in a class of his own, leading from lights-to-flag to secure a remarkable seventh successive race victory by more than 25s ahead of team-mate Hamilton after the Brit picked his way through early on to take second, with Raikkonen’s late charge on fresher rubber only good enough for third in the sole remaining Ferrari.
So, with the new season already having delivered its fair share of close racing at the front, would Vettel and Ferrari be able to continue their early promise and start to gradually edge clear of their main title rivals with another victory; after some strange decisions on strategy saw them shoot themselves in the foot in Bahrain, could Hamilton and Mercedes deliver yet another positive response to keep the red cars in their sights as the title battle started to get going, or, with the two leading teams focusing primarily on the other for outright glory, would someone else emerge from the chasing pack to ensure the fight would be more than a two-horse race? Well, it’s about time we found out – this is the story of the fourth race weekend of the 2017 Formula One World Championship, the 2017 Russian Grand Prix…
The opening stages of the first part of qualifying took a little while to get going as the drivers tried to get their tyres up to their optimum temperature on the low-grip track surface, but, once the times began to filter in, it was no surprise to see Mercedes at the top of the timesheets, with Bottas initially leading the way by more than a second ahead of the two Ferraris of Vettel and Raikkonen – both running a set of red-walled super-soft tyres rather than the faster ultra-soft rubber preferred by the majority of the field – before the German improved on his second flying lap to reduce the deficit to less than half a second. Hamilton then popped up into second (albeit still more than 0.3s off his team-mate) after aborting his opening effort when a mistake saw him run off the road at Turn 8, while, behind the leading quartet, Verstappen underlined Red Bull’s performance deficit despite being ‘best of the rest’ in fifth, with the Dutchman only a fraction ahead of French youngster Esteban Ocon’s Force India in sixth and the impressive Nico Hulkenberg in seventh for Renault.
However, the main focus was on which five drivers would be knocked out and take no further part in the remainder of the session, with any chance for drivers to improve in the dying seconds being curtailed by waved yellow flags Brit Jolyon Palmer clipped the kerb on the inside of Turn 4 and was spat off into the tyres, with the Renault driver’s mistake proving costly as he missed out on a Q2 berth by just over half a tenth, while, having complained of engine problems in his Haas, Frenchman Romain Grosjean was arguably the surprise casualty of the session as he ended up slowest of all. Elsewhere, for the first time in 2017, neither Pascal Wehrlein – the young German’s last-ditch effort to improve ending in a spin at Turn 13 – nor team-mate Marcus Ericsson made it through in their Saubers, while another difficult session for the McLaren Hondas saw Stoffel Vandoorne miss out on Q2 for a fourth race in succession, with the young Belgian’s problems being compounded by a succession of engine penalties that saw him relegated to the back of the grid.
Eliminated in Q1: 16th – Palmer, 17th – Vandoorne, 18th – Wehrlein, 19th – Ericsson and 20th – Grosjean
The pattern of Mercedes dominance continued into the early stages of Q2, and, once again, it was Bottas that held the advantage with a sensational turn of speed to set the pace by virtually half a second ahead of Hamilton after their opening efforts, and the Finn’s time was made to look even more impressive soon after as the two Ferraris were also unable to get anywhere near, with Vettel and Raikkonen turning out to be much more evenly matched – albeit almost 0.8s off the pace on the same tyres as the Silver Arrows – as they settled into third and fourth respectively. Despite having comfortably enough in hand to make it through without going for another run, the Prancing Horses then ventured out again on a saved set of ultra-softs in the closing moments, and the extra performance proved enough for Raikkonen to move up into second by the time the chequered flag was waved, although Vettel chose to come straight back into the pits rather than complete what would have been an even quicker lap.
Behind, a late improvement from Massa saw the Brazilian round out the top five ahead of Verstappen as the pair finished almost 2 seconds away from the fastest time, with a subdued Ricciardo even further back in eighth behind the remaining Renault of Hulkenberg, while, despite leaving it until almost the last possible moment to set a time, Mexican Sergio Perez found enough speed in his Force India to make it through in ninth along with team-mate Ocon. However, it wasn’t such good news for the second Williams as, after making his Q3 breakthrough last time out, Canadian rookie Lance Stroll narrowly missed out on joining his team-mate in the top 10, with the two Toro Rossos of home hero Kvyat and Carlos Sainz – the Spaniard receiving a three place grid penalty for his clash with Stroll in Bahrain – and Dane Kevin Magnussen in his Haas also failing to get through, while, despite producing what he described as a ‘perfect’ lap given the package underneath him, former double world champion Fernando Alonso was again some way adrift of a Q3 berth in his McLaren as the team’s woes continued.
Eliminated in Q2: 11th – Sainz, 12th – Stroll, 13th – Kvyat, 14th – Magnussen and 15th – Alonso
The form book, though, was turned on its head in the opening minutes of the top 10 shootout in Q3, with Raikkonen producing a superb early benchmark that was too much for even team-mate Vettel – the German almost 0.2s adrift – before Bottas managed to split the pair and get within a few thousandths of his compatriot’s time once the Mercedes got their tyres fully up to temperature, although a couple of wild moments for Hamilton in the final sector meant the Brit was some way off the pace after the opening runs. However, the improvements of the Silver Arrows weren’t enough to stop the two Ferraris as a last-ditch improvement from the championship leader saw Vettel snatch pole from under the nose of his team-mate by a miniscule 0.009s, leaving Raikkonen to settle for second as the pair locked out a first Ferrari front row lockout since the French Grand Prix in 2008, with Bottas having to settle for third despite also getting within a tenth of the top spot.
Behind, a disappointed Hamilton could only manage fourth – the Brit’s best effort some half a second off the ultimate pace as he continued to struggle with the balance of his car – ahead of ‘best of the rest’ Ricciardo as the Australian, despite looking well adrift in the earlier sessions, pulled a time out of the bag when it counted to grab fifth (albeit still more than 1.2s away from pole), with Massa able to split the two Red Bulls and secure an impressive sixth for Williams. Having initially looked quicker than his team-mate, Verstappen was unable to replicate his previous pace and was ultimately forced to make do with an unusually below-par seventh on the grid in front of another strong showing from Hulkenberg’s ever-improving Renault in eighth, while the increasingly competitive intra-team fight at Force India saw Perez narrowly emerge on top to take ninth ahead of new boy Ocon, with the margin between the pair just less than a tenth of a second.
Q3 – Top 10: 1st – Vettel, 2nd – Raikkonen, 3rd – Bottas, 4th – Hamilton, 5th – Ricciardo, 6th – Massa, 7th – Verstappen, 8th – Hulkenberg, 9th – Perez and 10th – Ocon
There were problems, however, even before the race got underway when Alonso’s McLaren ground to a halt on the entrance to the pit lane after suffering a hybrid issue towards the end of the formation lap, but, when the lights eventually went out, a sensational getaway from Bottas saw the Finn power ahead of pole man Vettel – who had also made a decent start on the cleaner side of the grid – and into the lead on the run down towards Turn 2, with Hamilton shooting up into third despite almost making contact with a slow-starting Raikkonen off the line. Behind, a poor start from Ricciardo saw the Australian lose out to both team-mate Verstappen and Massa by the time the field made it to Turn 4, but it wasn’t long before the action was brought under control by the immediate introduction of the safety car after Grosjean’s Haas made contact with Palmer at Turn 3, which ended with the Frenchman being pitched into the air before clouting the barriers on the outside after the Renault span across into his path, while Stroll was also in trouble when he span on the exit of Turn 5 as the field slowed up for the safety car.
On the resumption, Bottas wasted no time at all in pulling away from Vettel as the leading gaps immediately began to open out, but there were yet more issues amongst the chasing pack as, on lap 5 of 52, Ricciardo suddenly began to slow with smoke pouring from the right rear brake disc, and, although he was able to nurse the car back to the pits, the Red Bull driver’s race was over before it even began as he was forced to retire. Up front, Hamilton’s testing weekend continued when he began to report an intermittent loss of power in his car, and, despite initially appearing to be able to drive round the problem, the Brit soon became frustrated as he struggled to close the gap to Raikkonen in third, and was briefly forced into dropping back from the Ferrari to find some cooler air and bring his temperatures under control, but there was little for his team-mate to worry about, with leader Bottas continuing to extend his advantage to over 5 seconds ahead of Vettel as the German began to report problems with blistering on his tyres – which were, in fact, slightly fresher compared to those on the Mercedes – and, with the field becoming increasingly strung out, the order remained remarkably stagnant for almost the whole first half of the race.
With the drivers able to stretch their tyres a little further than usual after the early safety car, it was a while before different ideas on strategy began to have any influence at the front, with Bottas – who had seen his advantage slashed by Vettel in the laps prior to his stop after being held up by lapped traffic – first of the leading runners to blink and come in for a set of super-soft tyres at the end of lap 27, but Ferrari were the ones keeping everyone guessing as they surprisingly elected to pit Raikkonen first despite the Finn running behind on the road, with Vettel somehow managing to go a full seven laps further before finally pitting on lap 34 and rejoining narrowly ahead of his team-mate despite looking at one point as though he was going to drop behind. However, with such a difference in the age of their respective tyres, the battle for the win was soon on as, having flat-spotted both his new fronts with a big lock-up at Turn 13, Bottas soon started to drop back into Vettel’s clutches as the German started to make full use of his fresher rubber to slash his deficit to the leader, with the added benefit of further lapped runners almost bringing the Ferrari into the 1 second window that would allow the benefit of DRS.
However, after a firm radio message to the pit wall for ‘less talking’ over the final laps, Bottas was able to keep his head and resist a final last-ditch attack from the championship leader to secure a maiden F1 victory at the 81st time of asking, with Vettel extending his points lead despite finishing just 0.6s adrift at the chequered flag and Raikkonen securing his first podium of the year in a comfortable third as Hamilton faded badly in the final stint, with the British driver more than half a minute behind his team-mate in a disappointing fourth. Behind, Verstappen steered the sole remaining Red Bull to fifth despite finding himself almost in a race of his own after Ricciardo’s early demise, with Perez once more netting strong points for Force India on his way to sixth ahead of impressive young team-mate Ocon in seventh after the young Frenchman held on in the closing laps to score his best-ever finish in the sport with seventh, leaving Hulkenberg – who was the last driver to make a pit stop having gone almost 40 laps on his starting set of ultra-softs – to make do with eighth ahead of Massa’s Williams (which was forced into another late tyre change after picking up a slow puncture) in ninth and the leading Toro Rosso in the hands of Sainz in tenth.
Valtteri Bottas (FIN) – #77 Mercedes
RACE RESULTS – TOP 10: 1st – Bottas, 2nd – Vettel, 3rd – Raikkonen, 4th – Hamilton, 5th – Verstappen, 6th – Perez, 7th – Ocon, 8th – Hulkenberg, 9th – Massa and 10th – Sainz
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Vettel (Ferrari) – 86pts
2. Hamilton (Mercedes) – 73pts
3. Bottas (Mercedes) – 63pts
4. Raikkonen (Ferrari) – 49pts
5. Verstappen (Red Bull) – 35pts
6. Ricciardo (Red Bull) – 22pts
7. Perez (Force India) – 22pts
8. Massa (Williams) – 18pts
9. Sainz (Toro Rosso) – 11pts
10. Ocon (Force India) – 9pts
1. Mercedes – 136pts
2. Ferrari – 135pts
3. Red Bull – 57pts
4. Force India – 31pts
5. Williams – 18pts
6. Toro Rosso – 13pts
7. Haas – 8pts
8. Renault – 6pts