Once again, Mercedes entered the Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix in Sochi—a track they’ve dominated since its inclusion on the calendar—expecting normal service to resume. Like Singapore last week, Ferrari showed good pace during all three practice sessions suggesting that they have solved their medium and slow-speed corner pace.
Qualifying set up a battle between Ferrari and Mercedes as Red Bull endured an engine change that would see both their drivers starting with penalties so they weren’t believed to factor into the qualifying equation. Daniil Kvyat would start at the back due to an engine change and would not participate in qualifying.
Saturday’s Free Practice three saw Charles Leclerc ahead of the field in his Ferrari and his teammate, Sebastian Vettel, struggling 3 tenths off his pace. Could Lewis Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas get their Mercedes ahead of the Ferraris? The questions remaining was centered around tire wear and degradation and if there was a possible weakness for Ferrari, it could be long-run pace and tire wear.
As the sun came out casting shadows over the track, there were shadows cast over Williams as they trundled out first for Q1. Ferrari were next on Medium tires with Alpha Romeo following.
Vettel aborted his first attempt after over cooking turn 13’s braking zone as Leclerc jumped to the top of the time sheet an McLaren’s Carlos Sainz with a tidy run just 8/10’s off Leclerc followed by teammate Lando Norris. With 12 minutes left, Mercedes had yet to set a lap.
Vettel had to abort his second run due to a spun Robert Kubica and yellow flags meaning he had to make yet another run. Would he need new set of tires in order to do so?
Lewis Hamilton jumped to the top of the time sheet but made his run on Soft compound with Bottas in 4th. Mac Verstappen, who has looked quick all weekend long, jumped to 2nd while his teammate backed it into the wall damaging his rear wing prompting a red flag. Critically, Vettel had yet to set his fastest attempt languishing down in the elimination zone in 19th.
The session restarted with 6:38s left in the session. Vettel came out on Soft compounds to ensure he gets a time in on an open track. Vettel jumped to the top of the time sheets and secured his move to Q2.
Mercedes sent both drivers back out even though they were in the safe zone. It seemed they were going out on scrubbed tires. All the team, except Ferrari, came out in the final moments but it was McLaren that was leading the entire field having timed it right. Sainz slotted 6th, Norris in 7th but both were jumped by Kevin Magnussen in a Haas F1 car for 6th.
Out in Q1- Kubica, Russell, Raikkonen, Albon, Kvyat
The session started with the Merc out first on Medium compounds while Ferrari came out on the Softs. The strategy was being set as the tires used to set your fastest time in this session are the tires you start the race on. Vettel, because he had to use the Soft compound in Q1, started on a used set for his initial run in Q2.
Hamilton led Bottas to the top of the time sheets but Ferrari were coming strong on Softs and setting fast sector times. Charles Leclerc jumped to the top on Softs by 0.657s in front of Vettel. If Vettel used scrubbed tires, it was likely he would make another run on new tires as these are the ones he will start the race on.
The Haas F1 duo were languishing down in the elimination zone after Magnussen had set a good time in Q1. Their initial laps were on Softs. From 6th to 12th, the time gaps was under two tenths of a second. A very tight midfield was creating tension and teams looking for a tow for a tenth or two.
With 4 minutes left, the cars came out and Vettel came out on a new set of Softs. Clearly banking this to be his fastest lap and the tires he would start on. It was a big risk with all of the traffic on track or if a yellow flag came out because if this lap was compromised, Seb would start the race on a used set of Softs.
Lando Norris jumped to 6th just ahead of his teammate Sainz but both were moved down with a good lap from Romain Grosjean who slotted 6th. Both Renault’s barely made the cut with Daniel Ricciardo leading Nico Hulkenberg for 9th and 10th. Vettel slotted 2nd quickest behind his teammate, Leclerc, and on new Soft tires. Verstappen was ahead of the Merc in 3rd but he will suffer a 5-place grid penalty for an engine change regardless of where he qualifies.
Mercedes and their Medium compound strategy is banking on running longer than Ferrari and having better tire wear on Softs for the second stint.
Out in Q2- Stroll, Magnussen, Giovinazzi, Perez, Gasly
The stiff suspension of Bottas looked harrowing on his provisional run for pole and while he was setting green sector times, as was Hamilton, it was Vettel who was setting purple sectors to leap the Merc with Leclerc jumping his teammate into provisional pole position.
It was an interesting result with 3 tenths over Vettel and over 5 tenths ahead of the Mercs. Verstappen managed 5th with Hulkenberg sending a message that he may be here to race the McLaren’s for best-of-the-rest in 6th. Lando was the quicker of the McLaren drivers.
With 3 minutes left int he session, the Ferrari’s came out with Vettel leading Leclerc. All the team came out with the Ferrari’s leading Max leading the Mercs.
Vettel’s lap was unraveling with slower sector times while Leclerc was setting purple sectors and improving his time on pole position. Hamilton had a terrific final sector and shoved Vettel down to third with Bottas trailing Verstappen in 4th.
The Race Strategy:
As has traditionally been the case at the 53-lap Russian Grand Prix, a one-stopper is going to be the quickest strategy – but which one stopper?
In theory, the fastest way is to start on the soft for 15 to 19 laps and then go to the hard. In practice, there might be an advantage to start on the medium instead for 14 to 22 laps and subsequently switch to the hard. This strategy also offers more flexibility in the event of a safety car, for example.
A slightly slower one-stopper is to start on the soft for 22 to 26 laps and then switch to the medium for the rest of the race: this would probably require some degree of pace management.
A two-stopper will always be slower under normal circumstances, but the fastest two-stopper on paper is: start on the soft for 16 to 18 laps, move on to the soft again for another 16 to 18 laps, then medium to the end.
KEEP AN EYE ON
- Strategy. The beginnings of a big strategic battle were already seen in qualifying, with Mercedes adopting a very different approach to Ferrari. This means that they will both be using opposite tactics on race day.
- Performance. The pace has often been slightly quicker than last year, despite a tire selection that’s a step harder compared to 2018. This should allow the drivers to push hard throughout each stint, so expect a fast race tomorrow.
- Pit stops. There’s low wear and degradation, so both the ‘undercut’ as seen in Singapore, as well as the ‘overcut’ – gaining an advantage by staying out longer than your rivals – are far less likely to be effective.
- Red Bull and Toro Rosso. Each of these teams will be starting with a car at the back of the grid, after Alex Albon crashed in Q1 and Daniil Kvyat sat out qualifying. All the Honda-powered cars are also taking grid penalties: what can they do in the race?
Results of Russian GP qualifying:
|5||Carlos Sainz Jr.||McLaren/Renault||1m33.222s||1.594s|
|9||Max Verstappen||Red Bull/Honda||1m32.310s||0.682s|
|11||Sergio Perez||Racing Point/Mercedes||1m33.958s||2.330s|
|12||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo/Ferrari||1m34.037s||2.409s|
|14||Lance Stroll||Racing Point/Mercedes||1m34.233s||2.605s|
|15||Kimi Raikkonen||Alfa Romeo/Ferrari||1m34.840s||3.212s|
|16||Pierre Gasly||Toro Rosso/Honda||1m33.950s||2.322s|
|18||Alexander Albon||Red Bull/Honda||1m39.197s||7.569s|
|20||Daniil Kvyat||Toro Rosso/Honda||–||–|