In the game of Russian roulette, the weather in Sochi presented to everyone, some lost and others won. Lando Norris lost what was shaping up to be his first Grand Prix victory a day after securing his first pole position, but then the rain came with five laps to go. It was a heart-wrenching decision to try to hang on to his slick tires or do what his McLaren team implored and refuel for the intermediates. Looking back, it is obvious that he made a bad choice, but at the moment there was no obvious good or bad for the drivers or the teams. For the pilot, it was about reacting to the conditions right in front of him at the time – and it seemed like the rain was dying out. For the team, it was about reading the lines of a weather radar and trying to translate them into lap time comparisons of the two types of tires. Not an exact science.
Instead, Lewis Hamilton won – for the 100th time. But even he had argued with his team over whether or not to enter and delayed the decision by a round.
Another winner was Max Verstappen, starting from last place with his Red Bull after a powertrain replacement and taking advantage of the late rain to move up from seventh to second in a remarkable damage control feat.
But the decisions that shaped the result started long before race day.
Power supply replacements
Considering Max Verstappen’s three-place grid penalty for his Monza incident, it hasn’t been too difficult for Red Bull to win the fourth Honda engine of the season here as well. The combined penalty for this and all of the associated components allowed it to start from behind, but on a track where overtaking slower cars is quite possible.
Ferrari got a spec upgrade, with an 800V electrical system in place of the previous 400Vs for more efficient battery use and a small power boost. Since Charles Leclerc’s existing battery was a reliability issue (it had been damaged in the severe crash in Hungary), his car came up for replacement and the multiple grid drops that would result. He would keep Verstappen company in the back row.
Mercedes had a more difficult decision to make regarding Valtteri Bottas’ powertrain. The new one he took from Monza already showed a potential problem. He raced qualifying here with an older high mileage unit. Considering he had only qualified seventh, was it worth replacing him with a new fifth unit? Since only the internal combustion engine would be changed, this would only result in a 10-seat grid drop. As a compensatory bonus, this may have allowed him to delay Verstappen’s progress in the field and therefore his potential point score. Mercedes made the call, Bottas had no choice but to accept it.
This place gives a good lap time reward for downforce. In addition, qualifying was certainly wet, increasing the advantage of more downforce. But there’s this super long stretch from the start of the pit straight to turn 2. So there’s a conflict.
The low-bank Merc is inherently low-drag and could therefore afford a fairly large wing. On Friday, the team has its biggest (on Bottas’ car) back to back with its next biggest (on Hamilton’s). He decided to go with the bigger one. This resulted in better lap times and the straight line speed was still very respectable.
McLaren divided their picks, higher support for Norris, lower for Daniel Ricciardo.
Red Bull charged Sergio Perez with the rear wing. But he knew Verstappen was not going to play in qualifying because of the grid penalties. Starting from the rear, he would need help. Getting stuck behind Nicholas Latifi’s Williams on Friday when managing the Perez wing decided they would cut it.
Tire choice Q3
The weather forecast took its turn for the first time on Saturday. Qualifying took place on a wet track which was gradually drying up. Q1, Q2 and the first runs of Q3 were definitely a territory reserved for intermediates.
The Mercs had dominated so far, still Hamilton with a practical margin from Bottas now that the two were on the same levels of downforce and the track was slippery. But now, as a dry line started to go down with the clock, what to do? Stay on intersections or go in for slicks – which would take about three laps to get up to temperature?
For Williams, there was no choice to be made; George Russell had done brilliantly to enter Q3 but used all his inters to do so. There was no real bet for him to go to the pit at the end of his Q3 lap and have slick tires. Even if it turned out badly, he would be 10th. This is what it probably would have been anyway if everyone had only been running inters.