Lewis Hamilton took a huge step towards a fifth Formula 1 drivers’ championship by winning Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix in Sochi after Mercedes told its drivers to switch positions mid-race.

Hamilton recovered from losing a place to championship rival Sebastian Vettel in the pit stops to pass the Ferrari driver and pull clear, before Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas waved him past for position following a call from the pit wall.

COTA #2 - Tremendous Turn 1

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The move aided Hamilton in his march to a fifth victory in six races that sees him pull 50 points clear of Vettel in the drivers’ championship. It means a second-place finish in all of the remaining five races will be enough to give Hamilton a fifth world title.

Vettel made a better start than Hamilton off the line to pull alongside the Mercedes on the run to Turn 2, only for Hamilton to tuck into pole-sitter Bottas’ slipstream, allowing him to stay ahead.

Bottas and Hamilton were untroubled by the Ferraris through the opening stint, only for Vettel to come into contention through the pit stops.

Bottas pitted at the end of Lap 12 for Soft tyres, with Vettel following suit one lap later. Mercedes opted to keep Hamilton out until the end of Lap 14, resulting in the Briton hitting traffic that meant Vettel could get the jump on-track.

Hamilton quickly gained on Vettel and tried reclaiming the position into Turn 2, only for the Ferrari driver to pull an aggressive defensive move under braking to stay ahead. Hamilton vented his frustration over team radio, but managed to get the pass completed two corners later, diving down the inside at Turn 4.

Bottas and Hamilton were able to pull away once again, but their charge was stunted by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen up the road, who had charged from 19th on the grid to the lead of the race after scything through the field early on. Running on Soft tyres, Verstappen was planning a long stint before pitting, bunching up the cars behind.

Fearing that Vettel may get ahead of Hamilton, who was reporting a blister on his left-rear tyre, Mercedes gave Bottas the call to let his teammate through on Lap 25. Chief strategist James Vowles explained the decision to a frustrated Bottas, who was now left to fend off Vettel behind.

Hamilton was able to keep both his teammate and Vettel at an arm’s length, but could not pass Verstappen until the Red Bull driver - celebrating his 21st birthday in style - pitted from the lead of the race with 10 laps to go, taking on a set of Ultrasofts for a final sprint to the line.

With 53 laps in the book, Hamilton crossed the line to celebrate his third Russian Grand Prix victory and continue Mercedes’ perfect streak in the race, with the team securing its third one-two finish of the season.

Bottas took second place for the sixth time this season, but asked in the closing stages if Mercedes planned to swap positions back. He was told they would finish as they were running, and that it would be discussed after the race.

Bottas finished ahead of Vettel in third, whose title hopes took another hit. The Ferrari driver now trails Hamilton by two race wins with five rounds remaining this year.

Despite Verstappen’s rapid pace on the Soft tyres, he was unable to find much pace from the Ultrasofts after pitting, meaning he could not catch Kimi Raikkonen in P4 through the closing laps.

Daniel Ricciardo was unable to emulate his teammate’s pace in the sister Red Bull, ultimately finishing the race sixth after suffering minor front wing damage early on that he had to run with until his late pit stop.

Charles Leclerc finished as the top midfield driver by taking seventh place for Sauber, getting the jump on Haas’ Kevin Magnussen with a stunning overtake around the outside of Turn 3 in the opening laps. The move proved decisive, with Leclerc finishing over 15 seconds clear of Magnussen come the chequered flag.

Force India drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez spent much of the race toiling behind Magnussen, prompting the team to switch the drivers around twice. Neither could make an overtake, though, leaving them to settle for P9 and P10.

Romain Grosjean took 11th for Haas ahead of Nico Hulkenberg, whose hopes of gaining an advantage by starting on Softs outside of the top 10 failed to pay off, with the German finishing 12th for Renault. Teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. was forced into a second pit stop, leaving him 17th overall.

Marcus Ericsson finished 13th for Sauber ahead of McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, who endured a quiet race en route to P14 ahead of Williams’ Lance Stroll. Alonso’s teammate, Stoffel Vandoorne, finished 16th in the sister McLaren ahead of Sergey Sirotkin, who ended his first home grand prix as the last classified finisher in P18.

Toro Rosso drivers Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley both retired at the end of Lap 4 after suffering simultaneous brake failures, causing both drivers into high-speed spins.

The 2018 F1 season continues with the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka next weekend.

 

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