Ten things we learned from F1's 2021 Russian Grand Prix

Formula 1’s non-stop action and drama in 2021 didn’t miss a beat in Sochi, as the title battle took another twist and the next generation continued to shine through the rain. We pick out the key talking points at the Russian Grand Prix, covering centurion Lewis Hamilton, a painful maiden victory miss for Lando Norris and why Max Verstappen and Red Bull left the Russian costal venue feeling like the ultimate winners

Ten things we learned from F1's 2021 Russian Grand Prix

Sochi served up a Formula 1 race to savour on Sunday as both rain and records fell, delivering a dramatic finish that will live long in the memory.

Lewis Hamilton became the first driver in F1 history to hit 100 grand prix wins, finally ending his wait to hit triple-digits.

But it was not a victory that came easily, requiring a fightback from a messy qualifying and a loss of position at the start, as well as some fortune with a late rain shower to seize victory.

It was a result that came at the cost of McLaren's Lando Norris, who looked poised to score his maiden grand prix victory before a decision to commit to slick tyres backfired.

Here are 10 things we learned from the 2021 Russian Grand Prix.

Lando Norris, McLaren, commiserates in Parc Ferme

Lando Norris, McLaren, commiserates in Parc Ferme

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

1. Norris drove a perfect race until the rain came

The end result may have been cruel for Norris, and while inexperience may have played a part in his call not to come in for intermediates, his race up to then had been perfect.

Norris joked on Saturday that Russia was probably the one track where you would not want to start from pole position, but his prediction rang true on the opening lap. He did well to keep second, and managed his tyres well to breeze past the struggling Carlos Sainz Jr before the Ferrari driver was forced to come in.

As more and more of the chasing drivers came in for hards, Norris just kept going. He sounded relaxed on the radio, showing few signs of concerns about his tyres. The buffer to Hamilton stood at almost 14 seconds at one stage, making him the strong favourite for victory.

Hamilton's pace advantage became clear once he was in clean air, allowing him to carve into the gap and close up on Norris. But when the gap fell to around two seconds, Norris was able to respond and help it stabilise. Hamilton himself said it would have been "tough" to pass Norris had the rain not come, having struggled behind Daniel Ricciardo earlier in the race.

It would have been a dominant, controlled maiden victory for Norris, the kind that few drivers are ever afforded. Alas, the weather gods had other ideas…

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

2. McLaren's defeat was down to more than bad luck

Charles Leclerc is a driver who can sympathise with Norris, knowing what it is like to see a first win slip from your grasp in the closing stages of the race. He thought Norris may be feeling "very guilty" after the race about his decision not to come in for intermediates, and the chances are he is right.

Norris and McLaren will both review the sequence of events that led them to opt against coming in. McLaren F1 chief Andreas Seidl said they could perhaps have been firmer in making the call, something Mercedes was to Lewis Hamilton after he ignored the message to pit on lap 48.

Norris was defiant in his radio messages, making clear that he wanted to stick with slick tyres - and it wasn't until it was far too late that he realised his error.

It is something that will come in time. The man with the most grand prix starts, Kimi Raikkonen, was one of the first to make the call to switch, with Alfa Romeo putting full faith in him to decide. That said, the likes of Sebastian Vettel and even Hamilton himself were sceptical about it being the right time to come in.

McLaren and Norris will both learn from the experience. But there does need to be accountability for them to do so, as this was not a defeat solely down to bad luck.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1st position, lifts the winners trophy

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1st position, lifts the winners trophy

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

3. Hamilton always had the pace to win...

Lewis Hamilton's 52-second margin of victory may have been the biggest since his famous Silverstone win in 2008, but it fails to tell the true story of the race.

The rain may have played in Hamilton's favour, but he always had the pace to win in Sochi. His initial launch was far from perfect, but the tow he got on the run to Turn 1 was good - in fact, too good, as he was boxed in and had to lift off on the inside as Norris moved across.

Mercedes played the long game and kept Hamilton out longer than those in the gaggle of cars around him, with his underlying pace shining through once Ricciardo had pitted. It meant the eight-second gap Norris enjoyed once both had stopped was always going to be whittled away.

It would have been a bitter blow for Hamilton not to win in Sochi, given Mercedes' impressive record at the track and against the context of the title battle. The qualifying mess made his day a lot more difficult than it really should have been - but the end result was all that mattered in the end.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

4. …but Verstappen's fightback was brilliant damage limitation

Red Bull was braced to take a hit in the championship fight in Russia after announcing on Friday that it would be fitting a new power unit in Max Verstappen's car, triggering a back-of-the-grid penalty.

So to come away with Verstappen only two points behind Hamilton in the drivers' championship is a remarkable achievement, and one that is really down to the Dutchman's stunning charge.

He fought through the pack well and made some great late moves into Turn 12 in particular, the most important being on Valtteri Bottas, who couldn't progress as quickly after his own grid penalty. At one stage, Verstappen was within four seconds of Hamilton ahead, only for Red Bull to bring him into the pits on lap 26 and slip behind traffic.

The call for intermediates on lap 48 paid off as those who left it longer - chiefly Norris, Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez - lost out, giving Verstappen a remarkable P2 at the chequered flag.

As damage limitation goes, Red Bull couldn't have asked for much more in Russia. The pressure will be on Mercedes to replicate the result should it be forced to take a similar penalty with Hamilton in the closing races.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1st position, speaks with Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes AMG, after the race

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1st position, speaks with Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes AMG, after the race

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

5. Mercedes faces a tough call on its power units

Hamilton may be back in the lead of the drivers' championship, but a big question mark hangs over the possible need to take another power unit in the remaining races this season.

Should Hamilton be required to do so, he would likely be resigned to a back-of-grid start similar to Verstappen's in Russia. Red Bull took advantage of its lack of pace compared to Mercedes and Verstappen's grid penalty from Monza to pull the trigger at Monza, meaning it should now be fine to get to the end of the year.

The picture is less clear for Hamilton and Mercedes, which has taken two new power units for Bottas in the last two races. Team boss Toto Wolff said it is not a definite call, and that there were "question marks" about the power units' performance after Bottas's second change for Sochi.

It will be a big call for Mercedes to make, particularly with the title fight so finely poised. Hamilton's buffer is not as big as many would have expected it to be leaving Sochi - making it a weekend for Red Bull and Verstappen to chalk down as a win.

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, George Russell, Williams FW43B, Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR21, Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, and the rest of the field at the start

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, George Russell, Williams FW43B, Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR21, Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, and the rest of the field at the start

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

6. Sainz is really hitting his stride with Ferrari

For all of the buzz and pressure that may come with racing for F1's most famous team, Carlos Sainz has taken everything in his stride through his first season with Ferrari.

Sainz has been honest and reflective, taking full responsibility for his mistakes, such as at Zandvoort and Monza, where he suffered two big practice crashes. But in Russia, he produced a performance to be proud of and delivered what he called his most complete weekend to date for the Scuderia.

Ferrari didn't have the pace to fight for the podium in Russia, yet Sainz got it in the hunt thanks to his excellent qualifying display and good start. Norris would always pass him eventually, with graining on the mediums forcing Sainz into an early stop.

He admitted the radio call early in his second stint saying he looked set for fifth place was a surprise, and not what you want to hear after being in the fight for the lead, but accepted others appeared to have a strategy advantage.

Fourth or fifth is likely to have been where Sainz would have finished before the rain, such was the pace of Perez and Alonso behind. But Ferrari got the call right and brought him in at the right time to give the Spaniard his third podium of the year. The 2021 season may be one of transition for Sainz, but as bedding in years go, this has been extremely impressive.

George Russell, Williams FW43B, arrives in Parc Ferme

George Russell, Williams FW43B, arrives in Parc Ferme

Photo by: FIA Pool

7. Russell again outstripped the Williams' performance

Falling from third on the grid to finish the race 10th may not seem like much to shout about, but George Russell again hauled his Williams far further up the order than it should have been.

His run to second at Spa gave prior warning of what Russell can do in damp conditions, making his qualifying heroics perhaps unsurprising. Verstappen wasn't buying into the hubbub surrounding his likely rival in 2022, saying the result shows the Williams "isn't as bad as people think".

It's an unfair assessment. Obviously the Williams isn't as disastrous as it was in 2019 or 2020, but it is still one of the three slowest cars on the grid. If Alfa Romeo or Haas found themselves getting in the fight at the front, we'd be talking it up - so why should we do differently with Williams and Russell?

Wolff's prediction that Russell could lead on the first lap failed to come off, and the pace deficit of the Williams in the dry was painfully clear as a train of cars formed behind in the opening stint. The early stop meant Russell would always be at risk late on, with the rain in fact salvaging him another point after he was one of the first drivers to make the switch to intermediates.

A single point may not be too significant in the grand scheme of his season, but it would have been hugely significant pre-Spa, and is still one point more than the Williams should be scoring. Russell deserves huge credit for making that happen.

Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, and Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, and Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

8. Alonso's first-lap trick showed his brilliant guile

The Fernando Alonso Comeback World Tour is now through its 15th date, and it continues to reach new heights.

After saying on Thursday that it required a "chaotic" race for him to score a podium for Alpine this year, Alonso very nearly did that in the dry after going on a late charge on mediums that put him well in the hunt for third place. He stayed out a fraction too long before coming in for intermediates, causing him to slip back to the sixth place he'd started from at the finish.

We were also treated to some of Alonso's old guile on the opening lap when he took the escape route at Turn 2. It was a move he had practiced on the formation lap, and one that didn't result in any action from the stewards. FIA race director Michael Masi said after the race there was nothing wrong with the move as Alonso hadn't lost any positions.

It was a clever move by Alonso, who felt so aggrieved by Ricciardo's wide move on the opening lap in Austria. Don't hate the player, hate the game!

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

9. Sochi provided a classic - with or without rain

It is a sign of a brilliant F1 season when we will look back on races in Spain, France and Russia as being highlights (or, frankly, at all memorable).

The Sochi Autodrom has hardly been a well-loved track for F1 since joining the calendar in 2014, and has just one more rodeo ahead of the Russian Grand Prix's move to St Petersburg in 2023.

We may remember the 2021 Russian Grand Prix for the late downpour that denied Norris and gave Hamilton his 100th win, but even without the rain, it was a brilliant race filled with lots of different strategies and overtakes through the field.

The shaken-up grid thanks to the rain in qualifying and the grid penalties certainly helped things, but it was fantastic to see so much action and so many overtakes - again, not things Sochi is known for.

It says more about the season we are having than the quality of the track itself, but it was still a fitting reminder that even the most maligned of tracks can have their great moments.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1st position, is interviewed in Parc Ferme

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1st position, is interviewed in Parc Ferme

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

10. Hamilton's landmark moment should be savoured

When Hamilton made his F1 debut in 2007, few would have predicted him to hit the kind of record-breaking levels he has, with the latest landmark moment coming in Russia on Sunday.

By scoring his 100th win, Hamilton became the first driver in F1 history to reach triple-figures for race wins. It was a victory that felt like a long time coming - he'd been stuck on 99 since Silverstone - but one that must truly be savoured. We are so fortunate to be witnessing an all-time great reaching such astonishing levels of success.

Hamilton said that hitting 100 wins was "magical", while Wolff called it a "mind-blowing" achievement. The sustained success he has enjoyed is not just rare in F1, but in any sport. What other athletes have spent close to 15 years at the peak of their field?

Will Hamilton's tally ever be beaten? Quite possibly. It depends on when he calls it quits, and what the future of F1 looks like. Time may favour the likes of Verstappen, Leclerc, Russell and Norris, but if F1 ends up being more competitive and spreads the wins more thinly, reaching a ton may be more difficult.

A fairly scary thought is that when Hamilton debuted, the 2007 season was 17 races long. 100 wins is just two shy of winning every single race on that calendar for six seasons in a row. It is close to 10% of races in the history of F1.

The GOAT debate may be subjective, but statistically, there is no debate: Hamilton trumps them all.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

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