If there was a sense of déjà vu in the paddock on Sunday, it was easy to pinpoint the cause – another Russian Grand Prix, another coronation ceremony for Mercedes in the World Constructor’s Championship. And yet, the same can’t be said for the two drivers at the centre of it all, as their state of minds compared to 2014 could not possibly be more different.
Where last year Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg engaged in a dogged battle for the driver’s championship that went down to the bitter end, this time the pair leave Sochi with Hamilton barely a hair’s breadth from the title, after a failed throttle damper cost Rosberg any chance of a victory. It was a particularly cruel twist of fate given the German had established an early lead, only to see Hamilton utterly untouchable for the rest of the race. As things stand, the Brit can take his third world title with a 1-2 in Austin.
After Hamilton, the race proved a far more exciting one than its inaugural edition, with Force India’s Sergio Perez taking a surprise third after some Finn-on-Finn action between Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas cost either from beating the Mexican to the podium. With five retirements during the race, the door was open for further overachievement, with Sauber’s Felipe Nasr and McLaren’s Jenson Button taking advantage in sixth and ninth respectively.
With one title down, and one to go, what can we make of the 2015 Russian Grand Prix? Read on to find out.
With the driver’s championship well within Lewis Hamilton’s grasp, spare a thought for Nico Rosberg.
Compared to last year, it’s remarkable just how absolute Rosberg’s change of fortunes has been. Not only has he been completely trounced in a qualifying battle he won last year, nor bested in races nine wins to three, but the reliability gods have seen fit to focus their wrath on him too. We got the worst example of that on Sunday, as the issue with the W06’s throttle that has now affected both drivers reared its ugly head in two very different situations – for Hamilton, it came in a race where he was fighting just to reach the podium, whilst Rosberg’s turn came almost immediately after his best start since May.
It’s easy to write-off Rosberg’s travails as a footnote to Hamilton’s largely dominant 2015 campaign, especially given the latter has clearly been the superior driver after a 2014 season that was deceptively close due to his own reliability problems, but Rosberg is a fine driver in his own right, one whose current place in the standings does him a disservice.
With four races remaining, Rosberg now has a very different title fight on his hands, as Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel now has a seven point lead on his compatriot. Coming into the year, the goal for Rosberg was to prove he had the quality to win a world championship, and while in that respect he has been completely overshadowed by Hamilton, the margin by which he has missed is not entirely of his own doing. The standings will say that forget Hamilton, Rosberg struggled to keep up with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in a clearly superior car, when a result like Sunday’s could’ve so completely changed that story. On pure talent, he may not be in the class of a Hamilton, Vettel or Alonso, but nor does that make him a “number two driver” – unfortunately, that is exactly what the standings say he is.
Another year, another podium-out-of-nowhere for Sergio Perez.
Starting seventh on the grid, Perez was able to make the most of a prolonged stint on soft tyres to take the fifth podium of his career, in the process delivering our annual reminder that he is a driver to be reckoned with.
After Romain Grosjean’s massive crash on lap 13, Perez was one of four drivers who elected to pit under the race’s second safety car, taking what seemed like a massive gamble given Pirelli had predicted only one tyre change per car for the race. With another 40 laps to go, it seemed unlikely Perez would be able to fight with the likes of Ferrari and Williams in the latter stages, but apparently the Mexican decided to rewrite the script.
It seems like a sniff of the podium brings out the best in Perez, because he didn’t put a foot wrong for the rest of the race. After conceding second to the faster Sebastian Vettel, he started comfortably matching times with immediate challengers Daniel Ricciardo and the aforementioned Bottas, while also managing to sustain the life of his tyres. Particularly impressive was his duel with Bottas, as the Williams took five laps at full engine power to get past a car he had comfortably out-qualified.
Of course, there was a large degree of fortuity to Perez finishing on the podium, as he was eventually passed for both third and fourth by the two Finns with one lap to go, but this was a fight no one would have faulted him for conceding twenty laps earlier, let alone at the death.
Podium or no, Sunday’s race highlighted why Perez deserves a mention when discussing future high-profile race seats. For all the hype surrounding his teammate Nico Hulkenberg, it is Perez who has been responsible for both of their podiums since they both signed with the team for 2014, and at 25, there’s no reason not to expect him to continue to get better.
Lambasted as a boring addition to the calendar a year ago, the Sochi Autodrom was able to provide us with some real excitement at the second time of asking.
With several huge accidents and a battle for third culminating in the most memorable one of them all, 2015’s edition of the Russian GP was a far cry from the dull procession of a year ago, leaving us to decide between two very different races as to which is a better reflection of the circuit.
If 2014 demonstrated the track had a lack of real passing opportunities, it seems the switch to softer tyre compounds has gone a ways to alleviating that problem. While we were deprived of any battle at the front with Rosberg’s retirement, further down the field drivers were more than able to make moves stick, with the right-left hander of turns 2 and 3 becoming a favourite spot for drivers looking to make a move.
Is that enough to change general perceptions made last year? Probably not, and by no means does the track measure of to the likes of Istanbul for pure racing. Certainly, it is done no favours by its locale – a resort town on the Black Sea, much of Sochi’s natural beauty fails to translate through the camera lens, giving way to a particularly colourless, sterile environment that seemingly puts a damper on the atmosphere.
Compared to previous tracks on the calendar, it can perhaps best be described as the best possible version of Valencia. Street circuits can be hit-or-miss from year-to-year, but 2015 gives us hope for more good races than bad ones. In the end, the truth is with a contract until 2020, we have little choice but to get used to it.
Can Rosberg finish the season on a strong note? Does Sergio Perez deserve more respect? Has your opinion of Sochi changed after Sunday’s race? Sound off in the comments below.