By Nicola Kenton

  • Lewis Hamilton claimed his 70th career victory at the Russian Grand Prix
  • There was controversy as Mercedes implemented team orders to allow Hamilton instead of Valtteri Bottas to win the Russian Grand Prix
  • Heading into the Japanese Grand Prix, the Brit has a 50 point lead in the drivers’ championship with five races remaining
SUZUKA, JAPAN – Lewis Hamilton claimed victory on the streets of Sochi but Sebastian Vettel must finish ahead of the Brit in Japan to keep his championship hopes alive.

 

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Team orders help Mercedes strengthen championship positions

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The most controversial moment of the Russian Grand Prix was, arguably, when Mercedes asked Valtteri Bottas to let team-mate Lewis Hamilton past, so that the Brit could win the race. Team orders have been around in Formula One for years and there have been incidents where team-mates have disagreed such as the ‘Multi 21’ fiasco between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber when they were at Red Bull. Mercedes implemented the order so that Hamilton would further increase his lead in championship but this meant Bottas missed out on his victory this season.

As a result of Russia, Hamilton is now 117 points ahead of his team-mate with 125 points available from the five remaining races. Mercedes also increased their lead in the constructors’ championship with Ferrari now 53 points behind them. It is unlikely that Mercedes will need to implement team orders again this season but, if possible, they would hope to give Bottas the victory he deserves.

Speaking after the race, Hamilton told BBC Sport: “The team did an amazing job this weekend and everybody deserves the one-two we have. Ultimately it just wasn’t the result I wanted. But it was the result the team wanted. The heads of the team are really nervous for these last races. If something happens – engine failure, a tyre blow-out, whatever it may be – and we lose the world championship by one or three points, they will look back and say: ‘We are a team and we didn’t work as a team’.”

 

Vettel’s monumental task

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Five races remaining and a 50 point deficit in the championship. Vettel has a lot of work to do on the track if he wants to win his fifth World title. In Russia, Vettel managed to get ahead of Hamilton after the pit-stops thanks to Ferrari’s strategy. However, it didn’t last long with Hamilton passing the German on the track just a few laps later.

Ferrari have tried in recent races to change their strategy, to try and enable Vettel to get ahead of the Brit but it has failed to work. On tracks where overtaking has been difficult or Hamilton has managed to control the race, Ferrari have struggled to make any impact. With five races remaining, there will not be many more engine upgrades so Vettel with have to rely on coupling luck with his talent to try and reduce the point deficit.

Vettel and Hamilton have each won the Japanese Grand Prix four times but in the past four years, Mercedes have claimed all four victories. It will take something special from the four-time World Champion to turn this deficit around and the change in momentum has to start in Suzuka.

 

Mixed emotions for Leclerc

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Sauber’s Charles Leclerc, who had never driven in Sochi before, performed extremely well to come away with a seventh place finish. The Monegasque driver managed to put his car into seventh during qualifying but more importantly, during the race when the Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were charging through the field, he managed to maintain that position until the end of the race.

Leclerc’s main competition on the grid was Kevin Magnussen (Haas) and Esteban Ocon (Force India). During the race, the Sauber driver and Magnussen had a fierce battle with Leclerc holding on around the outside of turn three while under severe pressure from the Dane. This elevated the Monegasque driver to fifth in the race and when the Red Bulls came past, Leclerc claimed his seventh points finish of the season.

It was confirmed a few weeks ago that Leclerc will drive alongside Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari next year. However, this weekend may be emotional for the future Ferrari driver. It has been four years since Jules Bianchi crashed at the Japanese Grand Prix and died nine months later as a result of his injuries. Bianchi was Leclerc’s Godfather and the Sauber driver admitted that the track walk was difficult.

Leclerc told BBC Sport: “I never came to Japan before. The track walk was quite emotional. But on the other hand I really need to focus on this weekend to try to do the best job possible anyway. It’s obviously a very difficult weekend. Jules has helped me massively to arrive here, more than only on the racing side. He was a bit like part of the family.”

We’re into the final stretch of the season but can Vettel make any indents on Hamilton’s lead? The Japanese Grand Prix race proper starts on Sunday 7th October at 06.10 BST.

 

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