Russian grand prix: A story of heartbreak and history

Max Verstappen’s Red Bull | Glen Wheeler/Unsplash

It is in the DNA of Formula 1 to guarantee high stakes, high-risk, high-octane racing. If I were to pick a race from the fifteen races so far this season that exemplified this definition, I would sit you down to watch this year’s Russian grand prix.

An outstanding qualifying, in mixed conditions, provided Lando Norris with his first pole position with his former teammate and friend Carlos Sainz Jr. sharing the front row with him. Fellow Brit, George Russell, tucked in behind the two at P3, which is a story in itself! Sunday’s race was destined for thrills and spills.

It’s lights out and away they go, as they say. Norris got an excellent start, Sainz a relatively poor one and was soon swamped by Russell in the Williams. The race calendar’s longest straight, however, diminished Norris’ flying start due to the immense tow (the act of a car pushing through the air, creating a clearer, faster path for the car/s behind), giving Sainz the ability to pass the McLaren after turn two. Despite the high-speed tousling for positions, surprisingly, twenty out of twenty cars found their way out of lap one.

Then, across the radio came the call that sends f1 spectators into a frenzy: “Rain expected in the next ten minutes”

Lewis Hamilton, starting from fourth, had found himself in an unrelenting DRS train led by the other McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo. Hamilton found his threat to be minimised and the podium just out of sight. The laps began to wrack up at a fairly consistent pace with Verstappen and Leclerc charging through the field from the back after their engine penalties. Some early pitters (such as Sainz) mixed the strategy up, suggesting some cars were opting for a two-stop race whilst others stayed on the one stop strategy.

Norris was still the de facto leader of the grand prix, since he had pitted unlike the three cars ahead, and with every lap he drew closer to his first ever F1 win. Then, across the radio came the call that sends F1 spectators into a frenzy: “Rain expected in the next ten minutes.”

Suddenly, one-stop, two-stop strategies are unimportant. It’s raining on some corners, it’s dry on others. Do you stick with slicks, the faster tyre, by far, in the dry, or change for intermediate tyres than can handle wet weather conditions but are much slower? Can you make the last few laps? What are the competitors around you doing? Do you want them to react to you or you react to them? Lando Norris, with a hungry Lewis Hamilton less than a second behind him, opted to stick to his hard tyres. In that one decision, Norris saw his first F1 win tumble away and replaced with 7th place.

tEN MINUTES OF RAIN AT THE SOCHI AUTODROM HAS FURTHER GURUANTEED AN INCREDIBLY TIGHT AND TENSE CONCLUDING ARC OF THE 2021 SEASON

This is what I find so absorbing about Formula One: its capacity for fortunes to change in an instant. Hamilton was running out of laps to try and get past Norris, yet came home to take the win and became the first driver in the sport to win one hundred races. Max Verstappen who started 20th finished 2nd and Carlos Sainz who had dropped back down the order after poor Ferrari strategy calls (being told halfway through the race that 5th was the highest expected finishing position for him) ended up on the podium.

These rapidly changing fortunes can bring great elation or as Lando Norris explained, reflecting on his race: “A bit of heartbreak, you know.

Looking ahead to the remaining seven races of the season, it is far from decided. Lewis is two points ahead of Max in the driver’s championship and will, no doubt, require a fourth engine and/or power unit change which incurs a penalty to the back of the grid. Ten minutes of rain at the Sochi Autodrom has further guaranteed an incredibly tight and tense concluding arc of the 2021 season with, most definitely, more stories of heartbreak and history to come.