There are those that say Formula 1 remains boring and predictable, but surely this season has left its critics running for cover.
Had one merely glanced at the final classifications for the Russian Grand Prix this past weekend, the casual observer might have noted it was business as usual and advantage once more to Lewis Hamilton, finishing ahead of title rival Max Verstappen at the Sochi Autodrom.
Once more leapfrogging the Dutchman into a chassis-thin two-point lead, the truth was, there was so much more to the story on the Black Sea.
On a thrilling Sunday afternoon of pure racing in Russia, an already unpredictable race weekend had seen Lando Norris, Carlos Sainz, and George Russell join Lewis Hamilton on the front two rows of the grid after qualifying, a scenario which was then added to with the further lingering threat of rain.
As Saturday’s rain poured down in Russia, so too the stats rolled.
With three Britons making up the first four spots on the grid, it was a first since Argentina in 1995, whilst you have to look back a further 20 years for the last time a front three had made P3 or better, with neither of the drivers in question having previously won a race.
It was also the first time since Brazil 2004 that the big three of McLaren, Mercedes and Williams have been on the first two rows.
So predictable? Not so much.
Hard-earnt landmark win for Hamilton
Having started the season with 95 F1 race wins, and as winner 11 times last term alone, the only slight surprise is that it has taken Lewis Hamilton until Round 15 of this year to achieve his landmark 100th victory.
But the Briton’s centennial win was perhaps one of his hardest earnt yet.
After only qualifying in fourth after Saturday’s deluge in Sochi, the milestone achievement will feel all the greater for the seven-time champion, who once more takes another slender lead in the World Drivers’ Championship race, now by just two points.
Leading the race with seven laps to go of the Russian GP, a pursuing Hamilton was appearing larger in the Bristolian’s rear-mirrors as Lap 53 grew closer, but looked unable to fully span the gap to his compatriot.
That was of course until the weather showed its face in timely fashion, as drips of rain fell to cause consternation in the paddock of whether to stick or twist with intermediates.
As the Sochi Autodrom began to grease up, Norris boldly opted to remain out on the track to play Russian roulette whilst the majority boxed to change up. It proved to be a crucial call.
Unfortunately for Norris shortly after, drips turned into a shower on one particular sector of the track and his McLaren floundered. Though Hamilton still had a 25-second gap to bridge, his Mercedes now had the better grip.
After sliding off the Sochi Autodrom track within a lap, Norris would barely have seen Hamilton take the lead, but his misery was not complete after being forced to finish the race on inters.
Having fallen down the order – within range of his first F1 win – it seemed implausible for Norris to have come home in P8. Sadly for the other Briton in question, this was nothing short of a sporting tragedy.
…as Red Bull gamble pays off
For Red Bull, the Russian GP was always going to be a case of damage limitation, but after Max Verstappen fought his way to a remarkable runners-up finish, boss Christian Horner will surely feel it a job well done in Sochi.
Handed a three-place penalty for his part in his latest altercation with Hamilton at Monza, Verstappen was forced to start at the back of the grid after changing his Honda power unit – a fourth for the constructor this term.
With Verstappen electing not to set a time with quali rendered meaningless, Sergio Perez’ further efforts of only P9 for the race proper, painted the picture of a difficult weekend for Red Bull, so a double points finish looks something of a miraculous haul all things considered.
For Verstappen, 20th to second is a scarcely believable result, and with Red Bull now confident there will be no more unplanned mechanical or power issues, it could be a clean run-in for Abu Dhabi in December.
That might yet prove pivotal for both team, and driver.
Istanbul could play same tune
This most memorable of F1 season rolls on, each time with a different race flavour .
From the wet of Russia and Belgium, to the return of a fallen giant in climbing the top step of the podium in Italy. All with a narrative that continues to tell the story of one of the closest title races the sport has seen for many a year.
Casting our minds back 12 months to the Istanbul skidpan, the same newly-laid track will perhaps not be so treacherous a year later, but with the increasingly unpredictable autumnal weather on show, there could yet be a repeat of the scenes above on the cards.
Bring it on.
The 2021 Turkish Grand Prix takes place at the Istanbul Park, Tuzla, over the weekend of 8-10 October.
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