Nico Rosberg’s previous attempts at winning the Russian Grand Prix fell apart during the early stages of the race. In 2014 it was his eagerness to overhaul Lewis Hamilton which led to him locking both front tyres, compromising his strategy, while last year he was benched by a throttle problem. This year it was his rivals who, in keeping with the 2016 narrative, once again encountered troubles, clearing Rosberg’s path to another comfortable success.
Rosberg admitted that his Russian Grand Prix was likely to be “a little bit easier” than usual after the events of qualifying.
Rosberg and Hamilton had been typically close across the practice sessions but the Briton’s heart sank when he returned to the circuit for a final attempt in Q2. He lost power and the team quickly traced it to an MGU-H failure, a recurrence of the issue which denied him a qualifying lap in China. Hamilton was thus stranded in the garage and facing starting from 10th place at best.
It left Rosberg clear to set a benchmark, a time sufficient for pole, before pushing on his second lap; he went wide at Turn 13 but the error was irrelevant; Mercedes’ advantage around the Sochi Autodrom was such that he was assured of top spot. Only Sebastian Vettel came within a second of Rosberg’s lap, but he was already facing a drop of five places due to a gearbox change, with the original part believed to have been damaged at the first corner contretemps in China.
The most crucial stage of the day for Rosberg came at the start; the initial getaway was flawless to ensure his advantage through Turn 1 was unassailable on the run down to Turn 2. Valtteri Bottas was marginally slower away from the front row, enabling Kimi Räikkönen to stay with his compatriot, sweeping past at the first braking zone. It was clear up front, but further behind a sequence of mistakes led to chaos.
Daniil Kvyat, eager to impress at his home race, completely misjudged his braking at Turn 2 as he attempted to follow Vettel up the inside of Daniel Ricciardo. Kvyat’s trajectory took him into Vettel, who bounced into the side of Ricciardo, in turn clipping Sergio Pérez’s Force India, puncturing his right rear tyre.
Vettel’s acceleration out of Turn 2 was understandably compromised, but he quickly regrouped and eyed Hamilton, who had reacted to the melee by utilising the vast run-off. As Vettel did so, he was thumped from behind once more by Kvyat, pitching him into the barriers halfway around Turn 3. This prompted a furious reaction by Vettel, who was understandably livid with Kvyat’s brainless approach.
A secondary collision further back accounted for two other drivers, as Esteban Gutiérrez braked too late at Turn 2, creaming into Nico Hülkenberg, whose Force India was sent spinning into the path of Rio Haryanto. Hülkenberg’s car was terminally damaged, as was Haryanto’s Manor, with a substantial hole in the side pod.
The Safety Car was called as marshals cleared up the debris, both Red Bull drivers and Gutiérrez pitted for repairs, while Vettel stormed back to the pits for a word with erstwhile boss Christian Horner.
Rosberg nailed the restart to leap clear, his position cemented when Räikkönen slithered slightly sideways exiting the final corner, slowing his own momentum and enabling Bottas to return to second position into Turn 2.
As one Williams made progress, the other way overhauled as Hamilton, who moved up to fifth at the start, latched onto the back of Felipe Massa and demoted the Brazilian, as he continued his quest of Rosberg.
Hamilton quickly caught up with the Finnish scrap and when Räikkönen went deep into Turn 4 the Mercedes driver sensed his opportunity. Räikkönen moved across on Hamilton along the short quirt to Turn 5, but the Briton was sufficiently alongside and kept his foot planted, leaving only Bottas between himself and Rosberg.
Hamilton hounded Bottas but the straight line speed of the Williams FW38 meant the status quo was maintained, Hamilton drifting back to save tyres before another unsuccessful challenge, after which point the Grove team reacted first when the pit stop window loomed. Hamilton pushed and stopped soon after, emerging side-by-side with Bottas but having to give second best. The situation did not last long, for Hamilton swept past to complete a Mercedes 1-2.
Rosberg responded by making his compulsory stop and increased his lead to 12 seconds, which Hamilton set about closing. A sequence of rapid laps, aided by dealing with traffic more effectively, whittled Rosberg’s advantage down to seven seconds. Unfortunately for Hamilton, Mercedes warned him of a water pressure problem (ie, it was dropping) and he had to back off along the straights. Rosberg pumped in a series of quick times, while Hamilton coasted, and the lead was soon back up to 12 seconds, and increasing lap by lap, the eventual margin of victory 25 seconds. The 1-2 was a fine result for Mercedes, particularly in light of the efforts made to ensure Hamilton did not face a grid drop; Mercedes chartered a private jet to fly in a replacement fuel system for Hamilton’s car from its Brixworth factory on Saturday night.
The intra-Finland battle was eventually settled in Räikkönen’s favour, as he extended his first stint and re-joined the action in front of Bottas. The superior pace of the SF16-H enabled Räikkönen to put distance back to his Williams rival, who was nonetheless able to secure a lonely fourth place.
Massa was adrift of Bottas throughout the course of the weekend’s action and held fifth, significantly ahead of his rivals to make a precautionary second pit stop during the closing stages.
In sixth position was Fernando Alonso, as he enjoyed his best showing for McLaren since last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix.
Alonso trailed Jenson Button in qualifying but benefited from the first lap melee to move up the order and, crucially, was able to stay there, a sure sign of McLaren-Honda’s progress since last year’s Russian Grand Prix.
However, as encouraging as sixth was for Alonso, the position should have gone to Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen. The Dutch driver was fortunate to avoid a spinning Vettel on the opening lap but comfortably held sixth spot until he suffered an engine failure shortly after mid-distance.
Joining Alonso in the points for the first time this year was the man who preceded him at McLaren. Kevin Magnussen was also a beneficiary of the first lap chaos but unlike Renault team-mate Jolyon Palmer, he was able to stay in the top 10 courtesy of some electric pace and robust race craft, notably against Romain Grosjean and Ricciardo through the Turn 4/5/6 complex.
Grosjean was ill at ease with the handling of the Haas VF-16 once more but stayed cool and collected eighth place, bringing his and Haas’ tally to 22 points after a mere four races. The lack of acclaim for the result once more demonstrates how quickly Haas has raised the bar.
Grosjean spent a substantial portion of the race defending against Pérez, who recovered from the back of the field after his puncture; with a little more luck, fifth or sixth would have been there on a plate for the Mexican.
Button ensured both McLaren drivers finished in the points; he was stuck behind Carlos Sainz Jr. for much of the race but when the Spaniard slid wide in the final sector, Button pounced and made a move which guaranteed 10th place.
Sainz Jr. had another unfortunate race; his Toro Rosso STR11 picked up debris from Kvyat’s car which compromised performance, while he was later given an excessively harsh time penalty while battling Palmer. The sanction dropped him behind Ricciardo, who also had a fruitless day after the first lap contact, subsequent damage, and lack of pace on the Medium tyres.
Palmer drifted back to 13th while Sauber altered Marcus Ericsson’s strategy to a two-stopper in the wake of the Safety Car period but 14th was the limit.
Kvyat was rightly castigated for triggering the opening lap drama and he trailed home in 15th, ahead of Nasr – who suffered a slow puncture and subsequent penalty for track limits – the sanctioned Gutiérrez and Pascal Wehrlein. The Manor driver destroyed his tyres while battling the Saubers and at his second stop a sticky left rear cut him further adrift at the back.
Rosberg’s haul of 100 points means he has enjoyed the perfect start to the season; he has undoubtedly yet to face a true challenge, but this does not mean that his achievements should be undermined. However, a better reflection of his ability will come when Hamilton and Ferrari can fight on a level playing field. Should he still vanquish those rivals, then his stock will be immeasurably raised.