In one sense, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen arrive in Sochi for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix in exactly the same position they were before the Italian Grand Prix, where neither title challenger scored a single point. However, this doesn’t do justice to the ever-developing dynamic between the pair.
Verstappen’s collision with Hamilton, which eliminated both drivers from the race at Monza and saw the former handed a three-place grid penalty for the Russian Grand Prix, has further heightened the tension of this season’s drivers’ title duel. With only seven races left of the 2021 season, there won’t be many more opportunities for one of the two to take control of things.
A rainy day in Sochi 👀🌧 #RussianGP pic.twitter.com/0A8VJDG4uK
— Oracle Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) September 23, 2021
Just five points divides Hamilton and Verstappen in the standings. Neither driver is willing to concede anything, as demonstrated by the number of times they have collided over the course of the year. At times, Verstappen has overstepped the mark, but this has only made clear to Hamilton that his younger rival isn’t daunted by the challenge of taking on the seven-times world champion.
“It’s all about that you get to live to fight another day for the next corner,” Hamilton said when asked whether or not he anticipated further clashes with Verstappen before the end of the season. “Naturally through experience you find that it’s not all won in one corner. I’m hopeful we won’t have any more incidents through the year.”
Sochi is historically a track where Mercedes have had a lot of success in recent years and so Verstappen, who will need a good qualifying showing to minimise the damage of his three-place grid drop, might find himself up against it to get ahead of the Silver Arrows. This is also a track where Bottas has a strong record — it’s not just Hamilton Red Bull have to be worried about.
On top of this, Red Bull have made the decision to change Verstappen’s power unit which will put the Dutchman at the back of the grid from the start.This weekend could be about staying in the fight for the 23-year-old. All things considered, a podium finish might be the best Verstappen can hope for.
Taking everything into account, it was best to take the engine penalty here in Sochi. It will be a challenging race but so far I’m happy with today’s running and our work on the race set-up #KeepPushing 🇷🇺 #RussianGP pic.twitter.com/3ZUR4HePJW
— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) September 24, 2021
Hamilton’s biggest challenge could come from his teammate who has taken the chequered flag two times before at the Sochi Autodrome. He has also taken pole once and finished on the podium five times. The Finn has already signed a deal to move to Alfa Romeo for 2022, with George Russell taking the second seat at Mercedes, and this certainty over Bottas’ future appears to have settled him.
Indeed, Bottas has finished on the podium in each of the last two races and has shown signs of wanting to race Hamilton, something Mercedes previously would have had the authority to warn their driver against doing. How willingly will Bottas listen to team orders when he is on his way out of the Silver Arrows at the end of the year?
Sochi will always hold a special place in @ValtteriBottas' heart 🏆#RussianGP #F1 pic.twitter.com/UgAkIj8Bg9
— Formula 1 (@F1) September 23, 2021
McLaren arrive in Sochi having claimed their first race victory since 2012 at the Italian Grand Prix. Both Daniel Ricciardo, who won at Monza, and Lando Norris, who finished second, are in good form and will fancy their chances of leading McLaren to victory in their efforts to finish as the best of the midfield in 2021.
Realistically, Ferrari are the only team who can catch McLaren in the race to finish third in the constructors’ championship. Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz both performed well in their home race at Monza and will look to build on that with another strong showing at the Russian Grand Prix, although this could be a challenge at Sochi, a power-sensitive circuit. McLaren might have the edge.
Slightly further down the standings, the scrap between Alpine, AlphaTauri and Aston Martin is a tight one with just 11 points between the former two. Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon have achieved some good finishes in recent races while Pierre Gasly continues to punch above his weight in the same car rookie Yuki Tsunoda has struggled in this season. Aston Martin’s problem is they have recently struggled to finish races.
While the majority of the 20 seats for 2021 have already been secured, Antonio Giovinazzi still has to convince Alfa Romeo that he should partner Bottas for next season. According to reports, the team have been exploring alternative options, but Giovinazzi could still keep his seat if he continues his recent run of strong finishes. Sochi could be crucial in determining the Italian’s future.
Meanwhile, Russell will want to finish the 2021 season strongly before moving on to Mercedes next year. The 23-year-old is ambitious and will want to keep Williams away from the bottom two places in the constructors’ championship to underline the progress the team has made with the young Brit at the wheel.
However, the focus in Sochi this weekend will almost solely be on what unfolds at the front of the grid. The title duel between Hamilton and Verstappen has been the most dramatic and most closely contested in F1 for a number of years and there is still plenty of opportunity for more drama and friction between the two drivers.
It’s Sochi cold. 🥶✌️😆💙 pic.twitter.com/yV2E4XtNhK
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) September 23, 2021
The omens are certainly good for Mercedes this weekend. They have won every F1 race that has ever been hosted at the Sochi Autodrome with Hamilton taking the most victories of any driver (four). A fifth chequered flag on Sunday would see him regain control of the drivers’ championship after Verstappen edged ahead with victory on home soil at the start of the month.
While the number of collisions has added to the tension of the title race, fans would like to see Hamilton and Verstappen go wheel-to-wheel without one, or both, of them coming to harm. Hamilton’s recent remarks suggests that he too wants to race Verstappen rather than have the outcome of the title race decided by default. It’s possible Sochi could witness a landmark race in the 2021 season.