On lap 1 of the Russian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton found himself with a run on pole-sitter Lando Norris and nowhere to go. He lifted hard to avoid a crash, falling all at once from third to eighth. He would be stuck behind a train of traffic for the next thirty laps, while Norris would push out to a twelve second lead on the field. Then things got out of control.
Hamilton's race was seemingly ruined by a long stint behind George Russell in third, but when half of the "DRS train" behind Russell chose to undercut the Williams in an attempt to get ahead, Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo stayed the course. Both cleared the pit delta to the Williams on pace without undercutting, then stopped for their scheduled stop. A slow stop left Ricciardo behind Russell, but Hamilton came out just ahead on fresh hard tires with half a race to go and a wide variety of cars ahead of on track.
Once the Mercedes got into clean air, none stayed ahead for long. Hamilton was in second in what seemed like a heartbeat, then methodically closed a gap of more than twelve seconds to just two in ten laps. Hamilton was just over a second behind Lando Norris with six laps to go, setting up what would have already been a classic finish between the fastest and the hungriest drivers in the field. Then, finally, rain forecast for today's race throughout the past week hit. Not heavy rain, mind you, but enough to ruin the racing surface immediately.
Half the field quickly stopped for intermediate tires, but Hamilton and Norris stayed out for another lap. A sketchy, difficult lap saw both drivers go off track, but with just four laps to go Norris decided to stay out again. Hamilton did not, turning the massive 40-second gap he had built over third-placed Carlos Sainz Jr. over the dry stint into an opportunity for a risk-free stop. He had four laps to close what was a 25 second gap, but it was done in a lap and a half. By the time Hamilton actually saw Norris again, the race was already decided. Hamilton flew into the lead for what would become a win by nearly a minute, while Norris would struggle to a distant seventh.
Behind Hamilton, somehow, was Max Verstappen.
The Red Bull driver screamed through the field in the opening laps, bouncing up into the top ten from the back of the grid on hard tires in the first stint before falling into a slower rhythm on medium tires in the second. He seemed stuck in seventh while Hamilton was fighting for the win, but the rain came at a crucial time and Red Bull stopped him at the perfect time. While the cameras were focused on the battle for the win, Verstappen screamed past every other car that had moved onto intermediates and every other car choosing to stay out on dry tires alike. He finished 53 seconds adrift from Hamilton, but he was nine full seconds ahead of Sainz after running four positions behind him on track with seven to go.
Sainz completed the podium, a respectable result after a long day that saw him lead the opening laps and fall back in the field after a disastrously slow first stop. Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas would recover to fourth and fifth in the rain after difficult days of their own. Fernando Alonso, Norris, Kimi Raikkonen, Sergio Perez, and George Russell completed the top five after Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel fell out of the points in the wet conditions.
Hamilton's win is his 100th, making him the first driver in the history of the series to hit triple digit wins. It also inches him forward in his fight for a record eighth championship. While he was in position to gain even more before Verstappen's own stellar run through the rain, the Mercedes driver has moved back into the championship lead by a margin of two points.
F1's next scheduled race will be held at Turkey in two weeks, the track that held no grip at all throughout its return race weekend last season. This season-long fight is far from over, though: The unbelievably long 2021 F1 schedule goes until December 12th.
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