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F1: Sochi 2021. There's only so much glory to go around.

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

If there was any justice, there would have been three top steps on the podium in the 2021 Russian Grand Prix.

But that's not how it works.

One has to feel sorry for the nowhere man of the Russian GP. So let's start with him, the man who was on the real podium but was invisible: Carlos Sainz. Storming off the line, in front for the first few laps and hanging in just close enough to pick up the pieces when things went wrong but just far enough away that he wasn't actually a podium contender had it not been for a bad call by the race leader. So cheers to the Ferrari driver: it takes huge effort and determination to be there or thereabouts for a full grand prix and points make prizes. It doesn't matter how you come by them and the fact is that he, and his team, deserved to finish where they finished: it wasn't luck, it was speed, planning and grit.

But ahead of him were two people that stole the limelight. Max Verstappen: started 22nd but only because there aren't more places on the grid. After his crash with Hamilton at Monza - about which both drivers now seem both chastened and contrite - he was given a three place grid penalty. Both drivers say much the same: we are here to race hard and if there's a gap, we go for it. But the Stewards think that should be tempered with a bit of common sense. Sochi is a track which is quite featureless: it has no hills, its almost a street circuit but it has some decent straights and stopping zones. It also has three very distinct sectors which have very different characteristics. Set up is not easy. But the track is relatively open and overtaking is far from impossible. So, as Verstappen's team, Red Bull, knew that he would soon need some new engine parts that would exceed his allocation, it was decided to put them all into the car this weekend (they can be swapped out and used later) and take all the penalties at one go. Although several other drivers took engine penalties because of the relative ease of overtaking compared to some other circuits, Verstappen was always going to be last. Or maybe not quite, under the rules. The system works like this: penalties for components are applied in the order the teams notify the FIA. Red Bull were the second team of four to give notification. So Verstappen's place was three from the back. Then his grid penalty was applied so he went to the back.
If another car had taken the same engine or gearbox penalties after those four, then Verstappen would have been four from the back and after his grid penalty, he'd have been second from last.

So when Bottas's notice reached the FIA, he was putting himself ahead of Verstappen but anyone notifying later would have been behind Verstappen.

Right: rules and complications out of the way, long story short, Verstappen finished second. A storming drive through the back half of the field had a bit of a pause and then a second wind brought him up to fourth, ahead of Ricciardo. It was an absolutely stellar drive that, on any other day, would have seen him lauded as F1's hero of the day.

But this was not an ordinary day: Hamilton had started fifth. He was bogged down surrounded by cars going in every direction by the time the pack arrived at Turn Two, the first proper corner on the track. Worse, the cars around him, except Sainz had the same engine. Williams are having a resurgence. Russell summed it up saying "you start wanting to get out of Q1 then when you do that you want to be in Q3. Then when you do that, you want to score points. And when you do that you want to be on the podium and so on." P3 in qualifying isn't a podium but it's pretty blood close, especially for a team that, had, sadly lost its impetus. Latifi has sorted himself out and is happy with the car and it shows. He's getting closer to Russel than looked possible. Russell is making a nuisance of himself up at the front these days. Known as "Mr Saturday" for his qualifying performances, he capitalises on his grid position to run further up the order than the Williams strictly deserves, or perhaps we should say "deserved" because it seems to be becoming something of a habit.

Just as Alonso had a struggle to pass him earlier in the season, so Hamilton knew that Russell was likely to impede his progress and, until the pit stops, that's exactly what happened. Several teams got in a bit of a pickle at pit stops again. For some reason it seems that the FIA's new rule intended to add time to pit stops has had an unintended consequence: maybe it's just coincidence but more and more stops are being fluffed. Add that to the long (25 seconds) time loss for a stop and fortunes were made and lost by initial tyre choices. At various times, a top three driver could come back out in fourth - or fourteenth. The mid-field became almost a lottery and Russell got stuck in it, to eventually finish 9th.

But in the beginning he ran third, which gave Sainz and Norris some quiet time while Hamilton was chewing at his steering wheel in frustration. Simply, it's not great around the corners but Russell can make it wide and but it's fast down the straights. Hamilton had no choice but to maintain station. But once free, as Verstappen closed in behind, Hamilton set off to chase down Norris. Hamilton had a goal: to be the first F1 driver ever to reach 100 victories. He'd been trying for several races but it was proving difficult. And now, chasing Norris, Hamilton still had no certainty that it would come: 100 races wins is good but there's a championship to lose and Verstappen's rapid run through the field made Hamilton's options very narrow indeed: a safe second would be far, far better than another DNF or, even, being bumped down, behind the Red Bull.

Norris is on a roll. Pole position evaded him in the rain in Q3 in Belgium when he crashed out. Qualifying P2 at Monza left him elated and that's where he finished in the race. In Russia, a series of mistakes by Hamilton put him out of the running for pole, Verstappen had run his car to prove it was working then parked it. But surely Bottas and the Ferraris, to say nothing of Vettel and Ricciardo would be snapping at Norris' heels. No: he took pole by a majestic half a second. It was McLaren's first pole since Hamilton drove for them at Interlagos in 2012, more than 170 races ago. He kept his nose clean, and got his tyres properly conditioned at the start then, much to Sainz' surprise, suddenly Norris was in front. And he just stayed there.

In the first four laps there was damp. Norris later admitted that he had had some trouble but on a dry track, he was faultless.

The track didn't stay dry. The big issue with being first is that you are always the pathfinder. There was no traffic for Norris to follow so he couldn't see if other cars were sliding. Hamilton was able to sit roughly a second behind the McLaren, ready to pounce but more importantly, watching track conditions. As they worsened, a sudden downpour arrived. It was sudden. It was a downpour. It was not the drizzle that most teams expected. Moreover, most teams were a long, long way back. They had plenty of time to react and the pit lane filled up with cars swapping to intermediate grooved tyres. Hamilton and Norris, tied together with a short rope, didn't want to go in. Mercedes told Hamilton to pit; McLaren didn't tell Norris nor did they tell him how big the rain was. Norris, with his limited information, was asked if he wanted to pit, became frustrated at being asked the same question and shouted "no." Still no one said "there's buckets of it coming down and you'll fall off."

And he did. He struggled around one lap, undamaged, as Hamilton, then Verstappen, then Sainz, Ricciardo and Bottas all want past. Then, sliding helplessly, he slipped out of the pit entry, across the white line, managed to get the car back and into the pits, facing a penalty for both white line infractions. Fresh inters brought him into finish a despondent seventh.

Norris' performance during the race until the deluge was the stuff of champions. Matthew Marsh, in the last broadcast from Star / Fox Sports Asia after Disney's inexplicable decision to abandon many channels which have substantial following in favour of streaming services, said that it was one of the best, if not the best, drive he had ever seen. He should know: he's had a long career in racing. I don't agree, actually: Button in Canada, Senna at Donnington, Ronnie Peterson anywhere it was raining.. Pretty much anyone in a Lotus Type 72... And that's just in the modern era.

But nevertheless Norris' performance was stunning. We must remember that he is still younger than Hamilton was when Hamilton came into Formula One.

So, it turned out, that Hamilton came in first to get his 100th win; Verstappen did a stunning job to finish P2. Sainz thoroughly deserved to be behind Verstappen.

Norris didn't get the win that looked assured with a lap and a half to go. His car didn't break. He didn't crack under pressure. He had speed in hand over Hamilton. He made the only decision he could, being just one second ahead of Hamilton: if Norris had pitted and Hamilton didn't and if the rain had not suddenly dumped a prodigious amount of water in a matter of moments, Hamilton would have beaten Norris but more than 20 seconds. As the first of two drivers, Norris could not make the decision first - even if he had had the information about the heavy rain which, we must remember, came to Hamilton only a very short time before he arrived at the pit lane.

Norris didn't win but the loss was not - when we look at all the circumstances - his fault nor, probably, that of his team. Ultimately, it all came down to the question of when the rain made its presence known and the relative position of the cars at that time. Literally three minutes longer before the downpour and F1 would have another new winner.

Hamilton and Verstappen stole the limelight from Sainz. But Norris stole it from everyone and if there was a podium place for what might have been, Norris would be on it.

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