On the surface, Lewis Hamilton appears to be perfectly placed for his attempt at matching Michael Schumacher’s all-time Formula 1 wins record at the Russian Grand Prix, but it is far from a foregone conclusion.

Hamilton ended up beating Max Verstappen to pole position by over half a second, but the Mercedes driver very nearly ended up 15th on the Sochi grid in a dramatic qualifying after surviving a near-miss in Q2.

While he may be starting first for the 96th time in his F1 career - apparently the perfect position to launch his bid to level Schumacher by converting pole into his 91st grand prix victory - Hamilton is feeling vulnerable and faces two problems that see the odds stacked against him.  

The track layout at the Sochi Autodrom and long 800 metre run through the fast Turn 1 right-hand kink to the first major braking zone at Turn 2 means that the tow effect is big at the start.

In 2017, Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, used this to great effect from third on the grid as he slipstreamed past both Ferraris to surge into a lead that ultimately paved the way for his maiden grand prix win.

Bottas once again lines up from third on Sunday and is confident about his chances, joking that he was “just playing games” and actually wanted to start third in order to capitalise on the tow effect.

“It’s nice being on pole but here is probably the worst place to be on pole, with the draggier cars we have this year,” Hamilton said. “So, undoubtedly, I’m most likely to get dragged past.”

Adding to Hamilton’s task is the fact he starts on the Soft tyre, a result of the Briton finding himself on the back foot in Q2 when his first lap time was deleted for track limits and then Mercedes not having enough fuel to complete another lap.

When he did return to the track for his second attempt at a flying lap on another set of Medium tyres, Hamilton was compromised by Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel’s red-flag-inducing crash. Hamilton ultimately emerged on the Soft tyre for his final run which saw him reach Q3 by the skin of his teeth.

With two minutes and 15 seconds left on the clock, Mercedes were worried about the risk of overheating if they put Hamilton at the head of the queue at the end of the pit lane on Mediums due to the fact the team cannot restart its engine using electrical power from the MGU-K, something its rivals with Renault, Honda and Ferrari power units, can do.

It was therefore safer to keep Hamilton in the security of his garage until the last moment, knowing he would need to make his way through the traffic in order to cross the line with time to start a flying lap. In this scenario, the Soft proved the optimum tyre to use despite Hamilton pleading for the favoured Mediums.

It does mean that Hamilton faces a potential strategic headache compared to the Medium-starting Verstappen and Bottas, both of whom are expected to be able to run much longer into the first stint while Hamilton’s tyres, in theory at least, should fade much earlier.

There may be a saving grace for Hamilton, however, given that his Soft red-marked rubber should hand him a superior grip advantage off the line. Providing he has a strong launch, he could negate the tow he will be providing the chasing pack behind and retain his position. 

Either way, Hamilton is still expecting to be up against it.

“I’m on the worst tyre to start on the race but generally it’s a good tyre to do an actual start,” he explained.

“It has the biggest degradation, ten times more than any other tyre, I think it is. So that’s going to be a struggle. I don’t know if that puts me onto a two-stop, unlikely because the pit lane is too slow, so I’m just going to have to nurse those tyres as far as I can.

“These guys, if they get by, they’re going to be pulling away so I’m going to sit down tonight to try to figure out if there’s a different kind of race I can do tomorrow to keep my position.”

But is Hamilton really as exposed as he seems?

Mercedes F1 team boss Toto Wolff admitted he would have preferred both of his drivers to be starting from the front run with a set of Mediums attached to their W11s, but he remains confident that Hamilton’s supreme race craft will enable him to overturn any deficit he may face.

“It’s clearly not the optimum strategy,” Wolff acknowledged.

“After some laps the Soft is clearly going to suffer and that will compromise your whole race because you will need to pit into traffic and then it’s not a great situation.

“But we know Lewis is the best overtaker in the field and I hope he can make the way back because he was the quickest driver on track.”

These variables have set up race day at the Russian Grand Prix to be potentially – and uncharacteristically for Sochi – a tantalising prospect.

 

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