Lando Norris came agonisingly close to winning the Russian Grand Prix
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There could not have been a driver more deserving of victory this season than Lando Norris. The young Briton has driven impeccably for McLaren and has pound-for-pound been a better performer than even Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.
To lose victory in the Russian Grand Prix as he did, after pole position and then almost 50 laps of near-faultless and nerveless driving was painful viewing. Even before he impotently slid off and Hamilton took the lead in the rain at Sochi, the race was lost.
The gamble to stay out on slick tyres in the wet failed, costing McLaren a second successive victory after nine winless years and helping Hamilton to his 100th Grand Prix and a two-point championship lead over Max Verstappen, who started last and finished second.
After 40 laps of set-up and intrigue, the crucial period came in the final 10 laps as Hamilton, who found himself in the midfield in the first stint, edged his way into contention, cranking up the pressure before the rain fell.
Could McLaren have been more decisive in bringing Norris in? Might he have lost it anyway in the dry or the wet? We break down the crucial final laps and offer our verdict on how it played out.
Laps 43-46: Norris has the pace to hold Hamilton back, could he have won in the dry?
Norris was doing a fine job at holding off Lewis Hamilton in the closing stages
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With just 10 laps remaining, it was clear the Mercedes was the fastest car in clean air, but Hamilton could not get close enough to leader Norris to think about overtaking. The Mercedes driver repeatedly closed in in the first two sectors, only for the McLaren to pull out a few tenths in the final part of the lap, giving enough of a cushion at the start of the lap and – crucially keeping him out of DRS range.
Hamilton had also struggled in his first stint in the dirty air of the other McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo. As fast as Hamilton is, nabbing Norris in a now race-winning McLaren looked a tricky task with laps running out.
Had it stayed dry would Norris have won? It would have taken all his skills but given that we know the McLaren is a difficult car to overtake, the odds were in his favour.
Lap 47: Down comes the rain…
It did not stay dry, though. With victory in the balance, Norris looked assured and calm at the front. Then light rain started to fall on part of the circuit. “Okay Lando, umbrellas are going up,” Norris was told on the team radio. “It’s spitting quite a bit,” he said in reply.
Conditions dampened and lap times dropped off by four seconds to around 1min42 but it was still too early to change to intermediate tyres. Except for a few corners in the middle of the circuit the track was dry. At this point it was the right call from both drivers to stay out.
Norris was the first to make a mistake in the slippery section, running wide and nearly gifting Hamilton the lead. No drivers had yet opted for a tyre switch, though Carlos Sainz in the Ferrari asked his team to ready both intermediate and soft compound tyres.
Rain is falling at Turn 5, Norris is slipping around and Hamilton is ready to pounce #RussianGP #F1 pic.twitter.com/rpEiT6kzLj
— Formula 1 (@F1) September 26, 2021
Lap 48: Leaders stay out on slicks… as others pit for intermediate tyres
The rain continued to draw in. Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel received a message on the radio: “We think it might get worse before it gets better.” With just a handful of laps left, every driver and team have a call to make, some more crucial than others and some with a lot more to lose than others. Lap times have slowed to around 1min55.
“It’s pretty slippery but it’s not raining much,” was Hamilton’s view as Mercedes nudged him towards pitting. Norris managed to keep a small lead. Bottas, Sainz and Russell were the earliest to pit and switched to the intermediate tyres, hoping to make up ground on drivers who delayed the call or did not stop. The leading two drivers stayed out on old slicks.
Lap 49: Norris makes his crucial error, staying out as Hamilton pits
Mercedes' decision to pit Hamilton was crucial in deciding the race
Credit: Sergei Fadeichev/TASS via Getty Images
“Track pretty slippery from here to turn 10, lots of cars going off,” Norris was told. “Yeah! Shut up!” he replies, showing the gravity and difficulty of the situation and indicating that he thought slicks were fine. They were – for most of the lap. “What do you think about inter – what do you think about inter?” he is then asked frantically, responding emphatically with a “no!”.
In the wet second sector, the intermediate runners were between five and 10 seconds quicker than those on dry tyres, but there was little difference in the first and final sectors. Norris did a 31.7sec compared to Bottas’s 31.6sec. The decision facing Norris and McLaren was difficult and crucial but one that probably cost them the race.
Hamilton was ordered in and complied. With Bottas going well, Mercedes saw that switching to intermediates could work for Hamilton, so it was a sensible decision.
Was Mercedes’ focus on the race win or on title rival Verstappen? Mercedes had warned the rain would get worse. Verstappen had just changed to intermediates and the possibility of him gaining crucial championship points on Hamilton despite starting from the back meant Mercedes had little choice but to cover him. With Norris staying out, it turned out to be a win-win for Hamilton. Or, at least, a win-and-not-lose, situation.
Lap 50: Norris reaches the point of no return
Hamilton exited the pit lane around 26 seconds behind leader Norris. In the first sector, the McLaren driver still had good pace (37.9sec compared to Bottas’s 37.7sec) but it soon becomes apparent that McLaren should have pitted him, overruling their driver’s call.
In the increasingly wet middle sector alone Hamilton made seven seconds on Norris. McLaren’s chance of a race win was all but done – the 20-odd seconds Norris would lose by stopping would put him out comfortably behind Hamilton, who was just 14 seconds behind at the end of the lap. As strange as it looked, McLaren had to then stay out for the final two laps and hope that Norris could somehow hang on…
Lap 51: The inevitable happens… Norris in a spin as Hamilton takes the lead
The lead was stable until Norris reached turn four, where he ran wide again, his advantage dwindling to just two seconds. At turn five the deal was sealed: the McLaren spun off in the wet, its rear narrowly missing the barrier. Norris could barely keep it going forward as the rain intensified.
By the time Norris had changed to the correct tyres, he was down in seventh
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In total he lost 50 seconds to Hamilton in the first two sectors as his gamble ended in painful fashion, a maiden win slipping away. Seventh and three points was all he has got for a weekend of impeccable driving, marred by two laps of chaos and marginal decision-making. It was an incredibly harsh outcome for such a fantastic and complete performance.
Verdict: McLaren made a mistake but even being right might not have been enough
With hindsight, McLaren should have been more decisive in overruling their driver or, at the very least, telling him that intermediates were the quicker and correct tyre, which they never did. All Norris had was questions and information about what other drivers down the field had done.
Both choices carried risk and reward. In the moment, they had the most to lose and Hamilton and Mercedes had the advantage of being second and being able to cover what Norris did or, as was the case, doing the opposite.
Unlike their driver, McLaren could also see the weather forecast. For the initial rainy period, slicks were the correct tyre and then it was a marginal call, but it became clear that they would soon not be. McLaren listened to their driver when it should have been more of a conversation. Mercedes were more decisive and were rewarded. The lines, though, are incredibly fine.
Norris and McLaren made the wrong call, but they might have even lost out to Hamilton with the correct one. A slow wheel change here, a mistake on the out or in-lap here and then Hamilton is ahead. Norris is proving to be excellent in damp conditions, though Hamilton is among the best ever. But in staying out Norris was denied the chance to do what the man behind him has now done 100 times.
There is plenty of doubt over teams in making tough strategy decisions in real-time, but there is no doubt over Lando Norris’s standing as a driver.
Lando Norris spin a ‘tragedy’ but 100th win for Lewis Hamilton is ‘staggering’
By Phil Duncan
Ross Brawn said it was a “tragedy” that Lando Norris missed out on becoming the sport’s youngest British winner in Sochi.
Norris, the McLaren driver who took his maiden pole position on Saturday, had been on track to complete the double 24 hours later, leading the Russian Grand Prix at Sochi’s Olympic Park with just five laps remaining. However, his dreams of a maiden race victory evaporated when he initially refused to stop for the intermediate rubber when it began to rain and then spun off. He edged around the rest of the lap and then dropped down to seventh after belatedly coming in for tyres.
“Lando will be hurting right now. We all felt his pain when he slid off the track. It was a tragedy,” said Brawn, Formula One motorsport executive. “You could ask, should his McLaren team have taken the lead and insisted he pit when he said he didn’t want to? I’d say it’s 60/40 in favour of the team making the decision. That sinking feeling a driver or a team gets when they realise they made the wrong call, and the lead is evaporating before their very eyes, is horrible. They have my sympathies, but that kind of drama is what makes F1 so fantastic.”
Norris’s loss was Lewis Hamilton’s gain, with the seven-time world champion taking advantage of the dramatic rain-hit conclusion to bring up a century of victories and assume control of his title battle with Max Verstappen. Hamilton, 36, drew level with Michael Schumacher’s tally of 91 victories last October, and a year on has moved nine ahead of the German driver, who was the first man to win seven world titles.
The Mercedes driver put pen-to-paper on a two-year contract extension earlier this season, and Brawn, who was integral in persuading him to leave McLaren, has predicted he could now pass the combined totals of Alain Prost (51), Ayrton Senna (41) and Sir Jackie Stewart (27).
“One hundred is a milestone no one thought anyone would ever reach,” said Brawn, who was technical director of Ferrari when Schumacher dominated the sport at the turn of the century. “Michael’s tally of 91 was so far ahead of what anyone else had ever done at that point that it never seemed conceivable that anyone would get near it. But then Lewis beat it – and now he has 100 wins. There is nothing stopping him.
“Who knows where it’s going to end up? I think we could certainly predict 20 more as he’s still massively competitive and motivated. It’s just staggering as it’s a centenary no one ever thought would be achieved.”
Hamilton will now head to the 16th round of a scheduled 22 in Turkey a week on Sunday holding a two-point advantage over Verstappen in his quest for a record eighth world title. The Briton’s Red Bull rival drove from last to second, climbing up the order in the closing stages after he took an early decision to switch from slick to wet tyres.