While a pre-race mistake dominated the Russian Grand Prix post-race reaction, Sochi delivered a few major developments in the 2020 Formula 1 world championship. LUKE SMITH pinpoints the top talking points
Following a brutal run of three triple-headers to start the 2020 Formula 1 season, the paddock ventured to Sochi last weekend for its first standalone event of the year.
The Russian Grand Prix has rarely been a memorable race through its seven-year history, and the 2020 running wasn’t much of an exception as a pre-race penalty overshadowed the race.
Valtteri Bottas breathed a little bit of life into his long-fading title hopes with a fuss-free victory as Lewis Hamilton was subject to a controversial penalty that was the main post-race talking point.
Here are 10 things we learned from the Russian Grand Prix.
1. Bottas really needed that victory
His victory in Russia may only have cut Hamilton’s lead in the drivers’ championship to a still-daunting 44 points, but it was an important swing in momentum for Bottas.
The Finn delivered a repeat of his infamous “to whom it may concern” radio message on the cool-down lap, hitting back at criticism he had received in recent weeks.
“I just don’t get the people who have the need to criticise people,” Bottas said. “There’s been people telling me that I should ‘not bother’, I should ‘give up’, but how I am, I will never do that.
“So I just wanted to again send my best wishes to them. It just came out.”
Some social media posts resurfaced after the race where Bottas had replied to trolls sending him such messages, making the victory an important result for him on a number of levels.
Bottas still faces a vast gulf of points to make up to Hamilton, but he has at least got out of the downward spiral that appeared to be unfolding in recent weeks.
It would have been more significant or convincing had Bottas beaten Hamilton in a straight fight – but a win’s a win. He did what he had to do, picking up maximum points with the fastest lap. It can hopefully be a catalyst for Bottas to bring out the best of himself through the remaining seven races of the season.
2. A minor slip-up cost Mercedes big-time once again
Three weeks on from the pit entry saga at Monza that wrecked Hamilton’s Italian Grand Prix and denied him a near-certain victory, Mercedes once again paid the price for a rule slip-up.
Two practice starts from Hamilton during his reconnaissance laps to the grid were found to be in breach of the race director’s instructions issued on Thursday. The stewards were quick to note the breaches, the second being blatantly obvious after Hamilton parked up at the end of the pit exit slip road beyond the Turn 1 kink.
Hamilton had only acted on his team’s instructions with the second stoppage, but as track engineering director Andrew Shovlin admitted after the race: “When we saw the second one, we thought, ‘they’re not going to like that.'”
Mercedes fought its case by citing ambiguity in the rules, with both team principal Toto Wolff and sporting director Ron Meadows going to see the stewards, but were powerless to prevent two five-second time penalties from being handed down.
As Mercedes always does, it will review every aspect of the mistake and learn from it. But it nevertheless marked another missed opportunity, particularly for Hamilton, who could be far away in the championship lead and have already surpassed Michael Schumacher’s win record had it not been for the team’s slip-ups.
3. The penalty robbed us of a fascinating fight at the front
Even before the stewards began their investigation into Hamilton, his chances of winning the Russian Grand Prix looked in the balance as a result of his qualifying slip-up on Saturday.
A track limits time deletion and a red flag almost knocked Hamilton out in Q2, forcing him to qualify on the less-favoured soft tyre, leaving him at threat of losing out to the medium-shod Bottas and Max Verstappen behind.
Hamilton managed to hold onto his lead at the start and created a bit of a gap to Bottas following the intervention of the safety car, but had little chance to extend his stint as his soft tyres began to fade. As was clearly demonstrated by a number of battles in the midfield, switching from medium to hard tyres was clearly the faster strategy, meaning Bottas was likely to be the favourite.
But it would nevertheless have been fascinating to see whether Hamilton could have clawed his way back into the fight. We’ve not seen the pair of them have a proper wheel-to-wheel fight for a while, nor how Bottas performs when under pressure from his six-time world champion team-mate. (In Austria, remember, Hamilton had a penalty for contact with Alex Albon.)
As fair as the penalty may have been, it was a shame it denied us a proper battle between the Mercedes pair.
4. The FIA’s penalty points system needs to change
The 10-second time penalty was really the side story when the stewards issued their ruling on Hamilton, with the focus instead being on the penalty points.
Hamilton sat on eight penalty points heading into the Russian Grand Prix weekend, meaning these two sanctions would edge him closer to the tally of 12 that would trigger an automatic one-race ban.
Pit lane-related sanctions typically result in a one-point penalty, which the stewards duly applied for each incident. Two penalty points took Hamilton up to 10 points, putting him just one on-track incident away from a race ban.
Hamilton called the penalty “ridiculous”, and the ruling was eventually overturned as the stewards replaced the penalty points with a fine, given Hamilton had only acted on the instructions of the Mercedes team.
But it has nevertheless highlighted the need for change in the penalty points system. Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel both said the rules were in place to punish dangerous driving, not minor infringements, and said a conversation would need to be had at the next race.
The notion of Hamilton being F1’s “bad boy” because of his penalty points accrual is ridiculous, and a race ban would have not been justified as a result of a minor rule breach. Hopefully it prompts a review of the system so it polices what it was introduced to focus on – instead of resorting to pedantry.
5. Lonely Verstappen punched above his weight yet again
It’s a fairly repetitive point to make, but the Dutchman really has been one of the stars of the 2020 season.
Even on a weekend where Red Bull was expecting to struggle and feared it may not even lead the midfield given the RB16’s lack of suitability to the Sochi circuit, Verstappen managed to split the Mercedes in both qualifying and the race.
He was over half a second off Hamilton in qualifying, but was able to pip the struggling Bottas to second on the grid. And while he couldn’t keep up with the Finn in the race – after losing out off the start on the dirty inside line – and certainly benefitted from Hamilton’s penalty, Verstappen executed his race with minimal fuss to bring home another good haul of points.
Verstappen said the race was “lonely”, but it was perhaps what he needed after back-to-back DNFs at Monza and Mugello. Thoughts of a stealth attack for the title are long, long gone, yet it is still good to see him punching above his weight.
6. Sainz was at fault, but Turn 2 still needs a rethink
Turn 2 at Sochi has faced a great deal of justified criticism over the years, with the latest barrage coming in the wake of Carlos Sainz Jr’s first lap crash on Sunday.
With the FIA setting out an escape route outlined by bollards for any driver that misses the apex earlier in the weekend, Sainz misjudged the angle on the opening lap and crashed into the wall on the left-hand side of the track, ending his race and sparking a safety car.
It is not the first time a driver has been caught out by the narrow path between the bollards and the wall. In last year’s F2 race, Nikita Mazepin had a similar crash as he attempted to lose as little time as possible.
Sainz took the blame for misjudging the angle, but said Turn 2 “shouldn’t exist” due to its awkward profile and the way the slip road leads back into Turn 3.
It is certainly something that should be reviewed. Had Sainz made the same error while running further up the field, the sight of his car sitting in the track with the pack oncoming could cause concern.
The obvious reply would be that drivers need to slow down, but this is still an avoidable situation that perhaps creates more problems than it resolves.
7. Perez proved why he’s hot property for 2021
For all of the hubbub around Sergio Perez’s exit from Racing Point at the end of the year, the Mexican has responded in excellent fashion.
Perez recorded his best result of the season so far in Sochi, comfortably winning the midfield battle in P4 as he finished over 20 seconds clear of Daniel Ricciardo’s Renault. Even without the updates on his RP20 car – given to team-mate Lance Stroll on account of his better championship position – Perez was in fine form all weekend. His Turn 3 pass on Ricciardo to get ahead in that fight allowed him to really stretch the legs of the car and make it home under little pressure.
It comes at a time when Perez is trying to find a seat for 2021, with Haas or Alfa Romeo being the most obvious landing spots. Perez has said he expects clarity over his options and what may be realistic in the next week or so, but has long-stressed he only wants a programme that has potential and motivates him.
It will be a shame to lose Perez from the thick of the midfield fight next year, but performances such as that in Sochi are a timely reminder of what he is capable of.
8. Leclerc is single-handedly saving Ferrari’s season
Where would Ferrari be right now without Charles Leclerc?
After a 1,000th grand prix to forget at Mugello, Ferrari bounced back with an improved showing in Sochi as Leclerc finished sixth, marking the team’s best result since the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone.
Leclerc put in a stellar performance throughout the weekend. He was frustrated to miss out on a place in Q3, but the free choice of starting tyre meant he could benefit from the medium/hard strategy and get the overcut on Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly, allowing him to finish sixth.
But he was again Ferrari’s only driver really present in Sochi. Vettel had an anonymous race after his Q2 crash left him 14th on the grid, never getting in the fight for the top 10 as both Antonio Giovinazzi and Kevin Magnussen – racing for Ferrari customers – finished ahead.
As AlphaTauri continues to impress with another double-points finish in Russia, Leclerc is the only thing keeping Ferrari from slumping to seventh in the constructors’ championship right now.
The minor updates brought to Sochi offered Ferrari a small step forward from what sporting director Laurent Mekies called its “rock bottom” performance, but were not enough to thank for the result, according to team principal Mattia Binotto.
Another small update package is due to arrive for the Nurburgring that the team will hope offers a further benefit, which it dearly needs. If Leclerc has a bad day, it could find itself under still more pressure from AlphaTauri.
9. Domenicali’s appointment is good news for Formula 1
Confirmation of Stefano Domenicali’s appointment as F1’s next CEO arrived on Friday, marking a rare moment of unified approval throughout the paddock.
The former Ferrari team principal will take over at the helm of F1 on 1 January when existing chief Chase Carey becomes non-executive director, and finds the foundations well-laid for the coming years. The Concorde Agreement has been signed by all 10 teams and the calendar will – hopefully – regain some normality next year.
All of the drivers and teams asked about Domenicali had nothing but good to say about him. He was a man of principle at Ferrari to the very end, resigning instead of firing his engine team, and proved at both Audi and Lamborghini his skills in growing a brand.
There is also hope that Domenicali will keep F1 to its core make-up.
“Because he knows the sport inside out, I think sport comes first,” Wolff said. “He’s going to stay away from, in my opinion, artificial things. He’s a purist, but equally understands that you need to keep your spectators and your audiences interested.”
With a ‘racing man’ back in charge, Domenicali will hopefully be able to temper the desire for more eyeballs and look out for the sporting interests. It’s an exciting future that awaits under his stewardship.
10. Schumacher’s case for an F1 seat is becoming more convincing
On a weekend that saw the legacy of his father sit as a central talking point as Hamilton bid to match his win record, Mick Schumacher gave his surest sign yet that he is ready for an F1 chance.
The 2020 F2 season has been a strange one, with one driver really taking control of the championship. But Schumacher emerged in Sochi with a win and a podium to move 22 points clear in the standings with two rounds in Bahrain to go.
As Ferrari considers what to do with its set of five juniors in F2 – three of whom have a strong case for an F1 seat next year – Schumacher is peaking at the right time. His junior career has hardly been a story of blowing the competition away as Charles Leclerc did, but he has learned and improved consistently.
Mekies said it was a “good problem” for Ferrari to have Schumacher, Callum Ilott and Robert Shwartzman all fighting so far up the order in F2. But that problem is becoming easier to solve on account of Schumacher’s recent form, making him the stand-out candidate for a place at either Haas or Alfa Romeo next year if Ferrari can make a deal happen.
Seeing the Schumacher name back on the F1 grid would be a huge story. After last weekend, it’s looking more likely than ever.