After three races without a victory in the 2019 Formula 1 season, Mercedes returned to the top step of the podium at the Russian Grand Prix.

The German manufacturer’s first win since the summer break came under somewhat fortuitous circumstances after another Ferrari implosion in Sochi, as Lewis Hamilton took another step towards his sixth world title.

Here are some of the of the main talking points from the Russian Grand Prix…

Fortune favours Mercedes

Mercedes’ eighth one-two finish of the campaign may well have been its luckiest yet, but a bold strategy call and a brilliant drive from Hamilton had the German manufacturer in prime position to capitalise on any issue for Ferrari.

Ferrari gave itself a self-inflicted headache in a race it should have dominated by trying to orchestrate the event, but Hamilton was a constant thorn in the Scuderia’s side as his early pace thwarted plans to reverse Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc after the German had benefited from his teammate’s slipstream to snatch the lead at the start.

An earlier pitstop allowed Leclerc to regain first place before the race turned on its head and dramatically swung in Mercedes’ favour as Vettel ground to a halt with an MGU-K failure.

The incident prompted a Virtual Safety Car period, which Mercedes took full advantage of by pitting both of its drivers while speeds were restricted, enabling Hamilton to re-emerge in a lead he held due to running longer into the race than the Ferraris.

That was a direct result of a decision taken by Mercedes during qualifying as both Hamilton and Bottas set their fastest laps in Q2 on Pirelli’s Medium compound - a contrasting strategy to Ferrari, which had instead opted for the benefit of gripper, faster tyres at the start of the race.

Mercedes knew full well it was unlikely to challenge Ferrari on outright pace given its straight-line speed deficit and therefore had to think outside of the box. Its strategy gamble, coinciding with a handy slice of fortune, worked to perfection.

Speaking about the decision to start on Medium tyres, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said: “It was crucial, because one of the things that we were looking for or that we were hoping for was a late Safety Car.

“And only the Medium was able to extend the stint and that’s what happened, caused by their [Ferrari’s] car failing.”

Hamilton’s ninth win of the season has opened up a 73-point cushion at the top of the championship, edging him ever closer to a sixth world title.

Politics brewing at Ferrari

Ferrari faced the latest flashpoint between its drivers in Sochi as fractions continued to rise within the Scuderia’s ranks between its young-charger Leclerc and the experienced Vettel.

Its team orders debacle came in its desperation to secure a second consecutive one-two finish and fourth straight win of 2019, while attempting to pay Leclerc back for the strategy which inadvertently cost him victory in Singapore.

Leclerc stuck to a pre-race agreement by providing Vettel with a tow on the long drag down to Turn 2, with the German muscling his way past Hamilton into second, before moving into the lead under braking as Leclerc backed out of any potential on-track scrap.

The next stage of the plan - for Vettel to allow Leclerc back past into the lead - was complicated by Vettel’s superior pace compared to the Monegasque, vindicating Vettel’s argument to remain ahead with Hamilton’s Mercedes keeping tabs on both despite being on harder tyres.

There were shades of the infamous ‘Multi 21’ incident as Vettel refused to budge out front. Pitting later than Leclerc ultimately saw him lose out on the race lead, before engine drama brought his race to a premature end. That signalled a Safety Car period which Mercedes duly profited from to sweep up a surprise win.

While both drivers insisted they still have trust in each other and the team, the tensions are beginning to rise as Leclerc continues to threaten Vettel’s position as team leader.

Ferrari finds itself with two top-level drivers constantly battling each other for glory, and such a scenario is always likely to lead to strain within a team as time goes by.

Speaking about the management situation he now faces to keep both drivers happy, Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said: “I still believe it is a luxury,”

“I still believe it is a luxury because we have two fantastic drivers.”

Back-to-the-future for McLaren

The big news over the Sochi weekend came ahead of qualifying on Saturday, with McLaren announcing it would return to Mercedes power from 2021.

With McLaren and Renault agreeing to part ways at the end of 2020, the Woking squad has instead opted to reunite one of F1’s most famous and successful team-engine partnerships heading into the sport’s new era.

Following two steady seasons with Renault after a disastrous four-year failed collaboration with Honda, McLaren has made gains up F1’s pecking order, but in its bid to return to winning ways, it has opted for Mercedes engines - the benchmark in performance and reliability throughout the V6 hybrid era.

"This agreement is an important step in our long-term plan to return to success in Formula 1," McLaren CEO Zak Brown explained.

“Mercedes is the benchmark, both as a team and a power unit, so it is natural we would seek to secure a relationship with the company for the next phase of our journey.”

McLaren previously ran with Mercedes engines between 1995 and 2014, claiming three drivers’ titles and one constructors’ world championship, with its most recent grand prix victory (Brazil 2012) and podium (Australia 2014) both achieved during that spell.

The British outfit will be hoping it can channel some of its former glory when it links back up with Mercedes in a deal set to run through until 2024.

On track, McLaren enjoyed another strong performance in Sochi as Carlos Sainz Jr took a brilliant sixth, with teammate Lando Norris making it a two-car points finish in eighth. The result has seen McLaren surpass past triple figures (101 points) for the first time in the V6 era as it moved 33 points clear of Renault in the midfield tussle.

Future stars crowned in Sochi

The Russian Grand Prix weekend also witnessed the crowning of new champions in F1’s support series, with FIA Formula 2 and FIA Formula 3 back in action.

In F2, Nyck de Vries secured the drivers’ title in fine style by winning the feature race from pole position to beat nearest rival and Williams test driver Nicholas Latifi to the crown.

The Dutchman, who will graduate to FIA Formula E with Mercedes for the upcoming 2019-20 campaign, rounded out the weekend with another impressive drive to second place in a truncated sprint race, which was halted by a nasty crash.

The inaugural F3 season concluded in Sochi as the ever-consistent Robert Shwartzman claimed two podium finishes on home soil to secure the championship ahead of Prema teammates Marcus Armstrong and Jehan Daruvala.

Expect the Ferrari-backed driver to make the step up to F2 for 2020, along with a number of other standout talents of the F3 field including the likes of Armstrong and Red Bull junior Juri Vips, who won the season finale in front of the watchful eye of Helmut Marko.

 

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