A report by Rebecca Clancy The Times of London.
The fortunes of Lewis Hamilton and Lando Norris could not have been more contrasting at the Russian Grand Prix yesterday. For so long it looked as though the two Britons would share the podium, with Norris claiming his maiden race victory. Instead, the heavens opened and turned the race on its head — leaving Hamilton free to secure his 100th grand-prix win.
The 36-year-old retook the lead in the drivers’ championship with a slice of good fortune in Sochi. Hamilton had been right behind Norris but could seemingly find no way past his compatriot, 15 years his junior, until a cruel twist in the rain late on.
Both McLaren and Mercedes asked their drivers, who were 30 seconds up the road from the rest of the pack, if they wanted to come into the pits for the intermediate tyres used in wet conditions. Both said no. The difference was that Mercedes overruled Hamilton, a seven-times world champion, and demanded that he make a pitstop, which he duly did at the second time of asking. McLaren left their driver out until, with only three laps remaining, Norris became a passenger in his own car, unable to keep it on the track, and was forced to go into the pits. It was too little, too late and, having looked set for the greatest day of his Formula One career, he had to settle for seventh.
Hamilton expressed sympathy with a “devastated” Norris after the McLaren driver was was denied a maiden win in trying circumstances.
“I’m devastated, it is heartbreaking,” Norris, 21, said. Hamilton, 36, offered encouragement to his younger rival. “I sympathise with Lando,” he said. “He is so young. He has so many wins up ahead of him.”
Hamilton had not won since his home race at Silverstone in July and admitted yesterday that he had wondered if he would ever achieve his 100th race win.
“It’s taken a long time to get to 100 and I wasn’t even sure whether it would come,” he said. “It’s a magical moment. I could only have dreamed of still being here and having this opportunity to win these races and get to drive with such phenomenal talents this late in my career.”
“My dad called me last night and he has always been that one to reassure me and to continue to support me. I feel incredibly grateful for the amazing support that I have had.”
Hamilton’s victory came 14 years and 108 days after his first triumph in Montreal, Canada, in just his sixth race. He is already the most successful driver in F1 history, having passed Michael Schumacher’s previous record of 91 victories last year on his way to matching the German’s seven world titles.
Hamilton had not won a race since his home grand prix at Silverstone in July, and this was a crucial win, taking him back above Max Verstappen — who finished second in his Red Bull — in the title race by the slender margin of two points with seven races remaining.
It would have been a greater margin but for a superb drive by the Dutchman, who had started last after incurring a penalty for taking a new engine. Verstappen made a perfectly timed switch on to the intermediate tyres before anyone else and Hamilton could have been forgiven for being surprised to see his rival on the podium after the race.
“To come from last to second is a huge effort — the Red Bulls are so fast,” Hamilton said. “They’ve been quickest pretty much most of the year. They’ve done a great job. To come from last, have a penalty, two penalties, whatever it was, and come back to second, that is mega damage limitation.
“We’ve got to see what we can do moving forwards. It’s going to be tough to beat them, but we’re going to give it everything.”
On a cold and overcast Sunday afternoon by the Black Sea, Norris had started on the front row after securing his maiden pole position but was passed by his former McLaren team-mate Carlos Sainz, who eventually finished third in his Ferrari.
Norris bided his time and got back past Sainz to take the lead. He looked in command as the laps ticked down but was about to discover just how cruel sport can be.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/FMmva/1
With five laps to go, light rain fell but only in certain corners of the track, so both he and Hamilton decided not to switch tyres, while some of those behind did. However Mercedes were adamant that their man should come in and having defied the call to pit once, Hamilton was told the rain was only going to get heavier and he stopped at the second time of asking.
Norris accepted the blame for not coming into the pits but McLaren should take some responsibility for not telling him the rain was going to get heavier, as Mercedes did to Hamilton.
“I’m unhappy — devastated in a way,” Norris said. “I guess we made a call to stay out. I think we stand by that call of course. It was the wrong one at the end of the day but I made a decision just as much as the team.
“I had the confidence beforehand. I’ve felt capable of doing it for a while, but it’s just a bit of heartbreak. It is a terrible feeling to be on the verge of winning a grand prix and then losing it, not because of a silly error but in this kind of way.”
Norris congratulated Hamilton on his achievement after the race
“Everything until then, the guys did an excellent job and have done all weekend. So I’m happy with basically everything apart from that one decision which we’ll review and hopefully try not to make again.”
While the rain helped Hamilton, it played into Verstappen’s hands even more as the 23-year-old went from seventh to second in his Red Bull after his pitstop.
“The race itself was not very easy because it was very difficult to pass,” Verstappen said. “Once you got stuck it was very easy to also damage your tyres. But luckily with the rain, that helped us to make that last jump.”
Before the rain fell it had been a superb drive by Verstappen from last on the grid and he was just as surprised as Hamilton to find himself in second, managing to limit the damage done in the championship, which he had been leading by five points heading into this race.
“With the penalty we had, to lose only one spot is definitely not too bad,” he said. “When I woke up this morning, I definitely didn’t expect this result.”
It had not initially been a good weekend for Hamilton. On Friday he knocked over his front-jack mechanic after hitting the “magic” button on his steering wheel which made him miss his pitbox. On Saturday he hit the wall entering the pitlane and then hit the wall on his final qualifying lap and it initially looked as though his weekend would not improve.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/j62XL/3
Starting fourth, he was seventh by the end of the first lap after a bad start but through a great recovery drive he caught back up to Norris to be running second when the rain fell and was in position to take advantage of the conditions.
With a third of the season remaining, there is still little to separate Verstappen and Hamilton in a year which is living up to the hype of being the best fight for the championship in a decade.
“For two thirds of the season so far [Red Bull] have had the edge,” Hamilton said. “There is still everything to play for in these next races. It will continue to be really close between us. I have to be hopeful for some good races up ahead.”
The next race is in two weeks in Turkey, the scene of one of Hamilton’s best drives and where he won the world championship last season.
There is no chance of that this year and with nothing to split Hamilton and Verstappen, this fight is looking like it will go all the way to the wire.