Friday 19 January 2018

Ninth victory of the season puts Hamilton within whisker of title

Lewis Hamilton swaps headgear as he celebrates his victory in the Russian Grand Prix yesterday
Lewis Hamilton swaps headgear as he celebrates his victory in the Russian Grand Prix yesterday

Daniel Johnson

Lewis Hamilton's path to a third World Championship is clear now, with his coronation likely to come at the next race in Austin, Texas.

Not only did the Englishman move within a whisker of the drivers' crown after Nico Rosberg retired in the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi, his team clinched the constructors' title for the second year in a row.

After obliviously walking straight past Vladimir Putin in the podium ante-room last year, Hamilton was on best behaviour yesterday.

He greeted Bernie Ecclestone before sharing a warm embrace with the Russian president, donning a Cossack-style hat for the podium ceremony.

The boy from Stevenage was simply giddy to be in such company, not to mention being on the cusp of winning a third title, something which will elevate him into an extremely elite group of Formula One drivers.

"I never thought I would be rubbing shoulders with the most powerful people in the world," Hamilton said afterwards.

No one is rubbing shoulders with him on the track at the moment. He is in a league of his own, helped by good fortune along the way.

The permutations are complicated. Hamilton leads Sebastian Vettel, who took second here, by 66 points, and Rosberg by 73 points, but the long and short of it is that, if Hamilton wins the next race in Austin and Vettel does not finish second, then the Englishman will be champion again.

Hamilton was at his serene best here, but this was cruel on Rosberg. He took pole position brilliantly and was convinced that he would win, only for his throttle to jam, making the car undriveable.

The German retired on lap seven and was crestfallen. "F1 is pretty incredible sometimes, how tough it is," he said. "It was quite dangerous. Definitely not a nice way to end the day.

"The championship is more difficult of course but I am never going to win a championship like that when normal things break."

Toto Wolff, Rosberg's boss, said that his driver would now be getting into "2016 mode".

Hamilton had sympathy for his sparring partner, but when Mercedes' constructors triumph was confirmed after Kimi Raikkonen's penalty for taking out Valtteri Bottas on the final lap, the Briton whooped in the motorhome.

Because of the delay, both Wolff and Niki Lauda, the team's chairman, had left, but they will celebrate back at the factory in Brackley today.

Hamilton, 30, quickly sent a text to Ross Brawn, the former team principal who is unquestionably the original architect of his current dominance.

The statistics both Hamilton and Mercedes are accumulating this year are staggering. This was Hamilton's 42nd career victory, taking him to equal third on the all-time list with Vettel, and one beyond his great hero, Ayrton Senna. It was win number nine this year and 12 out of 15 for Mercedes.

Even though Hamilton was largely untroubled, this was a dizzying race for the spectators.

A crash caused by Nico Hulkenberg spinning at the start brought out the safety car - as did a spectacular shunt for Romain Grosjean on lap 12.

For two supposedly good friends off the track, Vettel and Raikkonen had a very unfriendly duel at the second restart. Vettel forced his Ferrari team-mate off the track, setting up a controlled second.

The only hazardous moment for the German came with a marshal, a month on from narrowly avoiding a maniacal spectator in Singapore.

Carlos Sainz, who started the race after his huge crash on Saturday, had an accident at the same corner, leaving part of his rear wing on the track.

The circuit official just about recovered it moments before Vettel swept past.

Raikkonen had more trouble with other drivers. One lap from the end he and his compatriot Bottas overtook Sergio Perez, who was in the final podium slot, but on the final time round Raikkonen attempted an optimistic lunge which T-boned the Williams into the barriers and out of the race.

Raikkonen received a 30-second penalty for his Finn-on-Finn folly, demoting him to eighth, while an ecstatic Perez took Force India's first podium place of the year.

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