Jules Bianchi’s shocking accident at Suzuka inevitably led to quiet and concern amongst the entirety of the Formula One paddock. With just the solitary week separating Suzuka from Sochi, the sadness was still raw by the time the inaugural Russian Grand Prix weekend was underway.
Out of respect for the Frenchman, only 21 cars would navigate their way round the brand new Sochi Autodrom while Bianchi’s specially built Marussia sat poignantly in the garage.
Bianchi would not be forgotten throughout the weekend but the teams and drivers all knew that, despite the distressing events of the previous weekend, the show must go on.
Lewis Hamilton carried a 10-point advantage over team-mate Nico Rosberg in the Drivers’ Championship and sought a fourth successive win for the second time this season.
As for the Constructors’ title, Mercedes knew another one-two finish could be enough to seal their first ever Constructors’ success. After Germany secured 8 gold medals at the Winter Olympics in Sochi earlier this year, would Formula One’s German representatives strike gold as the sport visited Sochi’s Olympic Park for the first time?
THE RACE: Hamilton cruises while Rosberg recovers!
Despite the threat of Williams’ flying Finn, the grid had a rather familiar look to it with Hamilton and Rosberg once again occupying the front row.
Well…familiar from the front at least. As for the grid in general it was anything but familiar with only 21 of the expected 22 getting set for race day in Russia.
Bianchi may be in hospital but everyone within Formula One made it crystal clear that the talented 25-year-old was firmly in their thoughts in Sochi: as they vividly illustrated pre-race.
THINKING OF BIANCHI
Before the race began, the drivers formed in a circle on the pit straight before collectively standing in silence as a mark of respect for their injured colleague.
FOM pictures had begun to make a habit of computerised messages over the track (such as ‘Bernie says…’) but this time a digital message of support for Bianchi was laid along the pit straight to emphasise the widespread acknowledgement of the battle he is fighting.
Every driver also carried the slogan ‘Tours Avec Jules #17’ on their crash helmets as an additional mark of respect. They may be fierce competitors but the aftermath of that disheartening moment at Suzuka accentuates that Formula One is one massive family.
It was a heart-warming act of class from everyone involved before the drivers professionally turned to their pre-race preparations with their colleague still strongly in their thoughts.
ROSBERG’S HOPES GO UP IN SMOKE!
With turn one a flat out curve, the drivers would be hard on the throttle for what must feel like an eternity before finally braking for turn two.
Hamilton looked to have had the perfect getaway and covered Rosberg through the first right-hand kink. But the lengthy period devoid of the brake pedal enabled Rosberg to claw his way back via his team-mate’s slipstream before veering to the inside line.
But turn two ultimately saw the moment that we were denied a fascinating duel for victory. Rosberg was fully alongside Hamilton as the pair reached the braking zone before the German spectacularly locked both front tyres and emerging ahead of Hamilton via the escape road.
Rosberg adhered to orders to give the place back to Hamilton but was forced to pit at the end of the first lap due to vibrations caused by the severe flat-spots on both front tyres. He sounded somewhat defeatist and deflated on his radio as he informed his mechanics of his desire to pit as he knew he had blown his hopes of victory (and possibly even a reasonable points finish).
His mechanics fitted a set of the harder prime tyres and sent Rosberg on his way with ambitious aim: 52 laps on that set of rubber. The track surface was smooth and seemingly forgiving on Pirelli’s choice of tyre compounds, but even a 52-lap endurance mission seemed an astronomical ask: or was it?
THE PIRELLI TYRE MARATHON!
Like Rosberg, the Williams of Massa peeled into the pits even before beginning lap two. His fuel flow issues in qualifying had left him immensely out of position and he hoped that a strategy similar to Rosberg’s would enable him to stage a recovery. However, unlike the Mercedes, the Williams was fitted with the softer option tyres. Could the Brazilian manage an impressive 52 laps on the more fragile softs?
As the two began their monumental stints, the drivers ahead were all briefly jostling for position before making their one and only stops. Magnussen and Vergne were engaged in a short but thrilling fight as the pair went side-by-side for the whole of the elongated turn four while the Red Bulls of Vettel and Ricciardo nearly touched on the opening lap.
Aside from those momentary bouts of intrigue, there was precious little to report in terms of on track action for the remainder of the Grand Prix. Once an order was established, said order was largely undisturbed, aside from a determined Rosberg, who methodically picked off slower cars on his road to recovery.
Pirelli’s choice of medium and soft tyres were made to look tremendously conservative as the smooth asphalt and lack of cambered corners, bumps, an undulation meant that the tyres had unexpected longevity.
It was easy to see why Pirelli would have wanted to go down the safer route given that a new circuit brings an air of uncertainty while on paper the long-lasting turn four appeared a corner where harder rubber was required to meet its demands.
Unfortunately though, all those factors added up to a predominantly uneventful procession. Almost every driver had a relatively smooth and incident-free pit stop, meaning position changes were few and far between. The notable exceptions were Rosberg, who was forced to wait to avoid exiting his pit box in the path of Massa’s Williams, and Alonso, who suffered a delay with his front-left.
Rosberg put his poor pit stop behind him to pick his way through the pack until he ultimately found himself in 3rd place after all had made their solitary scheduled stop.
Rather than merely nursing his primes to the finish, the German driver had amazingly managed to sustain solid pace throughout the race. There was a short-lived scare when he reported signs of wear, but he later informed his engineer that weirdly the tyres came back to him.
He was even setting competitive lap times as he hunted down the Williams of Bottas for P2. Turn two rapidly became Rosberg’s signature overtaking spot and he applied the same tactic against the impressive Finn. The Mercedes opted for the inside line on the run down to turn two and braked extremely late into the corner. He forced his way down the inside of Bottas, who was forced to take to the run-off area to avoid a collision.
Rosberg’s move was risky but rewarding and he looked set for 18 valuable points to minimise what at one stage threatened to be major damage to his championship aspirations.
HAMILTON’S STREAK CONTINUES!
The afternoons of the Mercedes duo could hardly have differed more. Rosberg’s race was frantic as he desperately sought as many points as he could muster with a tyre endurance mission to add to his troubles.
The 2008 champion led every single lap and was completely untroubled as he took the honour of becoming the first ever Russian Grand Prix winner. It was his fourth consecutive victory, a potentially fantastic omen given that every driver who has recorded four in a row in one season had gone on to win the championship that year.
Rosberg, looking to put that particular record to bed, recovered superbly to finish 2nd and lessen the blow in terms of Hamilton’s ever-increasing championship advantage. Bottas brilliantly secured his fifth podium of 2014 with 3rd place in what was a sublime weekend all-round.
McLaren had looked much-improved from Friday Practice and their best weekend since Australia enabled them to leapfrog above Force India to 5th in the Constructors’ Championship. Button completed one of his best weekends of the season with 4th while 5th for Magnussen saw the team earn 22 much-needed points. Might they be on the way up?
Alonso’s botched pit stop ensured he finished behind both McLarens but he was still the highest placed driver without the luxury of the strong Mercedes engine. The Spaniard finished just ahead of both Red Bulls: Ricciardo in 7th and Vettel in 8th. The second Ferrari of Raikkonen was 9th while Perez completed the points in his Force India.
In the end, Massa’s strategy failed to guide him into the top 10 although, despite a second stop, the Brazilian was still within a second of 10th place. Hulkenberg in 12th and Vergne in 13th were the final drivers to finish on the lead lap while home-favourite Kvyat endured a miserable home Grand Prix, falling to 14th from an outstanding 5th on the grid.
With only three races remaining, Sauber are worryingly still devoid of a championship point as Gutierrez could only manage 15th while Sutil took 16th after being spun around at turn two by Grosjean’s Lotus. The Frenchman was 17th ahead of team-mate Maldonado and the improving Ericsson in 19th and last of the classified finishers.
The Swede’s Caterham team-mate was one of only two retirements in Russia; Kobayashi pulled off with what the team suspected were brake-related issues. Less than 10 laps into the Grand Prix though, you just had to feel for the Marussia team. After an immensely tough week, they could only watch in despair as Chilton, their sole representative on-track, pulled into the pits after the Briton sensed vibrations in the suspension.
MERCEDES CROWNED CONSTRUCTORS’ CHAMPIONS!
Hamilton’s sensational recent run of form appears relentless as he seeks a second Drivers’ Championship. The British driver extended his advantage over team-mate Rosberg to 17 points with only three rounds remaining.
But, while the fascinating scrap for the Drivers’ title is still far from over, a ninth one-two of the season for Mercedes saw the team claim their first ever Formula One Constructors’ Championship.
They were successful in the early to mid 1950s, particularly with the highly decorated Juan Manuel Fangio at the wheel, but had never achieved the championship as a constructor since the Constructors’ Championship was not inaugurated until 1958.
It was undeniably a well-deserved success for Mercedes since their W05 was clearly the car to envy and also one of the most dominant Formula One has ever seen. We may look back on this car in possibly a similar way to the 1988 McLaren, the 2002/2004 Ferrari, the 1992 Williams and the 2011 Red Bull as the car that, in terms of performance, was in a league of its own.
They had endured an extremely tough period of mediocrity since taking over the 2009 championship winning Brawn team but have now developed into a team that is the pinnacle of Formula One at this moment in time, including a top quality driver pairing in Hamilton and Rosberg.
Mercedes naturally celebrated their excellent achievement with tremendous passion and joy post-race but it was also fabulous to how classy they were in reiterating their consideration for the battle that Jules Bianchi is currently fighting in hospital.
It was incredibly pleasant and refreshing to see such an act – after the political controversy of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and subsequent shooting of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, President Putin’s well-documented attendance at Sochi and then the dreariness of the race itself – to reaffirm where focus and attention really did belong in such a difficult week for everyone close to and within Formula One.