When Michael Schumacher retired from Formula One, first in 2006 and then in 2012 after a brief three-year comeback, it seemed unlikely that his record of 91 wins would be broken in less than a decade.
However, last year at the Portuguese GP, Lewis Hamilton claimed his 92nd victory. Ever since, the F1 world had been waiting for him to hit the 100-win mark.
Despite quickly racking up seven more victories, the reigning champion has had to wait a while for the milestone since his 99th British GP win in July this year.
And for roughly 48 of the 53 laps at Sochi, it looked like he would have to wait for another race when he saw McLaren’s Lando Norris get so close to his first GP win.
Bad luck: Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton hugs McLaren’s Lando Norris in the parc fermé during the Russian F1 Grand Prix at Sochi Autodrom. Narros made an error of judgment when changing tires and awarded a victory to Hamilton. – Fake images
However, in the final moments of the race, things took a grim turn for McLaren when it started to rain at the Sochi Autodrome.
As Norris and McLaren bet to stay on dry tires on an increasingly wet track, Hamilton and Mercedes made the right move at the right time to help the reigning champion create history by becoming the first driver to score 100 Grand Prix victories. .
It was known, heading into the weekend, that there was a good chance of rain.
The last free practice session was canceled due to rain on Saturday, but qualifying started on time.
For the first two parts of the hour-long session, the drivers used intermediate tires to pass. In the final part of qualifying, the top 10 run, the rain subsided after most of the drivers set their first interest times with Hamilton on provisional pole.
Then few drivers like Norris, George Russell and Carlos Sainz perfectly timed the change from intermediate tires to dry weather tires, allowing the McLaren driver to take pole position. Hamilton meanwhile had a tough lap and was only able to finish fourth when he spun on his last lap.
Missed opportunity: Lando Norris leads the group during the Russian F1 Grand Prix in Sochi. – Fake images
Pole in Sochi is not the best place to start the race as the long straight allows the drivers behind to pass the leader at turn two and this is what happened when Ferrari driver Sainz quickly passed Norris. to take the lead.
However, Ferrari could not keep up to stay ahead without losing tire performance and Norris was able to regain the lead on lap 13.
Hamilton got off to an even worse start, sliding into seventh place, before finding his way back once the cars ahead of him pitted for new tires.
After the first round of pit stops, Norris led Hamilton by a comfortable eight seconds. In the final third of the race, Hamilton staggered in fast times and got within two seconds of Norris, but had trouble getting close after that.
Just as the race was coming to a close, the teams knew a rain band was about to hit the track, but no one knew the intensity and how long it was going to last.
The predicted rain came on lap 47 and the decision that caught the teams’ attention was whether to pit for intermediate tires, hoping it would continue to rain, or stick with dry tires and wait for the showers to pass.
It was here that McLaren failed to read the conditions and was decisive in his calls, paying the price when Norris threw away his first win to finish seventh.
When the first stretch of rain came, the drivers at the bottom of the order took the risk of entering the pits on intermediate tires, in particular Valtteri Bottas, who was running outside the top 10. Immediately, based on his times, it was evident that it was the tire more Quick.
But just as the first spell died down, Mercedes insisted that Hamilton stop on lap 49. The team knew another swath of rain was heading towards the circuit, even though the driver wanted to stay out.
Meanwhile, Norris, thinking that the rain was about to subside, refused to stop and the team did not give him the information on the next rain band.
The team’s lack of assertiveness toward Norris, as Mercedes did to Hamilton in the end, turned out to be his downfall.
Driving F1 cars with dry tires on a wet surface is like sliding on ice. As the rain intensified, Norris turned the wrong way before dragging himself into the pits to change tires on lap 51.
By then, the damage was done when Hamilton took the lead of the race with ease and created history when the checkered flag fell.
On Saturday, an early change to dry tires helped Norris claim his first pole position, but on Sunday, hesitation to change tires at the right time undid all the good work.
Even as Hamilton celebrated his 100th victory by regaining the championship lead, the big winner was his title rival, Verstappen.
Sochi is a circuit where Red Bull was not fast enough to challenge Mercedes. So Red Bull took a new power unit out of the three allotted for the Dutch driver to accompany him for the remainder of the season, forcing him to start from last.
Verstappen worked his way across the field to run in the top ten and was on track to finish sixth or seventh. However, when the rain came, he was among the first to change tires on lap 48. It allowed him to jump to a surprising second place, but almost 50 seconds behind Hamilton.
It was always going to be a damage limitation exercise for Verstappen in Russia and the rain gods did him a favor by getting him on the podium.
With the remaining tracks set to marginally favor the Red Bull car, the 24-year-old will feel good about his chances of an inaugural title, preparing for the exciting final seven races of the season.