Mercedes has been a step or two ahead of Ferrari this weekend, making it a fight for pole between Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. In Q3 Bottas sprung a bit of a surprise by going 0.004 faster than his teammate after the first run. On the second run, it looked like Hamilton was going to nab pole but then he ran wide at Turn 7 and had to abandon his lap. Bottas improved his time even further to take his second pole of the year – he really is a bit good around Sochi, isn’t he?
The two Ferraris were way, way behind, Sebastian Vettel ahead of Kimi Raikkonen. With the run down to Turn 2 being so long, though, they could be well poised to slipstream their way past the Mercs. Kevin Magnussen took best of the rest in fifth, ahead of Esteban Ocon and Charles Leclerc.
Q2 was where the real action was, though. 10 drivers went out to set their first runs with both Red Bulls, Pierre Gasly, and both Renaults staying in the pits. Gasly and the Bull’s were never going to go out given that they’re starting from the back with penalties anyway, but the Renault’s opted to do the same. That meant no on-track drama in the session, and meant that the 10 drivers who set their laps at the start of the session effectively went through by default.
Why didn’t Renault bother to set laps? Well, penalties will elevate Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg to 11th and 12th on the grid with a free choice of tyres, whilst their rivals in the top 10 will have to start on old hypersofts. It’s a clever idea and exactly what we all want qualifying to be about – strategy, cunning, and drivers sitting in the pits. It’s moments like that that really remind you why you love the sport.
Q1 was a bit more normal, with both McLarens and both Williams dropping out along with Brendon Hartley. Sergey Sirotkin outqualified his teammate by eight tenths (although he did spin on his final run) and Fernando Alonso continued he streak of outqualifying Stoffel Vandoorne. It’s now been pretty much a year since the Belgian outpaced his teammate on a Saturday…
As for the race? I’ll hold off on saying that it’s poised to be exciting (it is Sochi, after all) but you can never discount something unexpected happening on the first lap at this track. If the tyres degrade as quickly as everybody is expecting then strategy could make things interesting, too. Can Bottas win his first race of the year or will team orders come into play? How far through the field can the Red Bulls get? Will the race be as good as Q2 was?