Lewis Hamilton took a big step towards clinching his sixth Formula 1 world title by winning Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix in Sochi, benefitting from a Virtual Safety Car period to beat Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.

In a race that saw Ferrari squabble internally over team orders with Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel in the early stages of the race, Hamilton managed to snatch victory away after a long first stint allowed him to pit under the VSC, gaining enough time to get the jump on Leclerc.

Pole-sitter Leclerc had been left frustrated after losing the lead to Vettel early on in a tactical move by Ferrari, but remained on course to win the race after recovering the position through the pit stops.

But it was a retirement for Vettel due to a power unit issue that caused the VSC which inadvertently cost Leclerc victory, with a late pit stop ultimately dropping him to third as Mercedes scored a one-two finish.

Vettel had managed to tuck into Leclerc’s slipstream on the long run to Turn 2 off the line, passing to the inside with little defence being put up by his teammate. The move turned out to be pre-meditated, with Ferrari informing Leclerc soon after that it would swap the drivers back around shortly.

Vettel quickly pulled out a gap over Leclerc and requested that Ferrari delay switching the positions around so they could both move clear of Hamilton, who sat a couple of seconds behind Leclerc in third place.

Ferrari made three requests to Vettel to give up the position before telling Leclerc it would swap them around later in the race. Leclerc made clear to Ferrari that he “respected” the pre-race agreement, finishing with: “But it’s no problem. Manage the situation.”

Vettel got his head down through the opening stint of the race to move 4.5 seconds clear of Leclerc before Ferrari brought the latter into the pits at the end of Lap 22, giving the Monegasque the undercut. Leclerc took a fresh set of Medium tyres before getting his head down to try and make up the gap to Vettel.

Vettel was quick to inform Ferrari that his rear tyres were “falling off”, only to be told to stay out for fear of Hamilton going long in third place. Hamilton had been told to go 15 laps longer than his planned target, piling pressure on Ferrari.

Vettel ultimately came into the pits on Lap 26, with the four-lap offset being enough for Leclerc to make up the gap. Vettel emerged from the pits three seconds behind his teammate, the swap having been completed.

But things soon went from bad to worse for Vettel when he reported an issue with his MGU-K, causing him to slow on-track. Ferrari told Vettel to stop his car, the German doing so at Turn 14 before snarking over team radio: “Bring back those f**king V12s.”

Vettel’s stoppage triggered a Virtual Safety Car period that did serious damage to Leclerc’s race. Mercedes’ decision to go long with Hamilton paid off as it brought the Briton into the pits under the VSC with the field slowed, allowing him to get the jump on Leclerc.

The VSC was upgraded to a full Safety Car on Lap 29 when George Russell crashed out after an apparent brake failure on his Williams. With both Mercedes’ drivers having pitted for fresh Soft tyres, Ferrari opted to bring Leclerc in as well to match their strategy, leaving him third for the restart behind Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

Leclerc quickly put pressure on Bottas when the race returned to green with 21 laps remaining, getting DRS on the Mercedes driver once it was activated. But even with Ferrari’s straight-line speed advantage, Leclerc struggled to get close enough to make anything more than a half-hearted attempt at a pass, giving Hamilton more breathing room at the front of the field.

Leclerc grew increasingly frustrated in third as the laps ticked down, asking Ferrari to “give me everything” on his car to try and bridge the gap to Bottas.

Up front, Hamilton was able to cruise home and record his ninth victory of the season for Mercedes, extending his lead at the top of the drivers’ championship as he closes in on a sixth world title.

It continued Mercedes’ perfect win record at the Sochi Autodrom after a sixth successive win for the German marque, with the one-two finish also adding to its sizeable lead at the top of the constructors’ standings.

Leclerc closed up on Bottas in the final few laps, but was unable to get ahead, leaving him a disappointing third for Ferrari as the team’s winning run came to an end. An attempt to pick up the fastest lap bonus point in the final stages also fell short, running four-tenths of a second off Hamilton's benchmark.

Max Verstappen recovered from his grid penalty that meant he started ninth to cross the line fourth for Red Bull, having struggled to stay in touch with the leaders after running Mediums for the second stint. Teammate Alexander Albon charged from the pit lane to finish fifth, matching his best F1 finish.

Carlos Sainz topped the midfield fight for McLaren in sixth place ahead of Sergio Perez, while Kevin Magnussen lost his eighth-place finish due to a time penalty for not adhering to track limits at Turn 2. This handed a place to Lando Norris in the second McLaren, leaving Magnussen ninth for Haas. Nico Hulkenberg picked up the final point on offer in P10 for Renault.

Lance Stroll narrowly missed out on a points finish in 11th for Racing Point, with home favourite Daniil Kvyat taking P12 for Toro Rosso, two places clear of teammate Pierre Gasly. Alfa Romeo drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi lagged to P13 and P15 respectively, the former’s race being hindered early on after a penalty for jumping the start.

Williams suffered its first double DNF of the season as Robert Kubica joined Russell on the sidelines mid-distance, while an early clash eliminated Romain Grosjean and left Daniel Ricciardo with damage that would ultimately end his race.

The 2019 Formula 1 season continues with the Japanese Grand Prix on October 13.

 

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