Get the inside line on a Russian Grand Prix weekend full of drama and intrigue...
Turning Attack Into Defence
At Sochi in 2017, Valtteri won his first Grand Prix after a nip-and-tuck battle with Sebastian Vettel all weekend. Ferrari locked out the front row and Valtteri qualified third, despite being just nine-hundredths off Vettel's pole position time.
But the team knew that all was not lost. Calculations revealed that Sochi was one of just two circuits on the calendar where it can actually be an advantage to qualify on the second row.
How so? Well, the gap between grid slots is 8m but the left-hand side of the Sochi grid - on the racing line - provides much more grip. Turn 1 is actually a flat-out right-hand kink shortly after the start and there follows a long run into the tight, right-handed Turn 2. If the driver starting P3 is able to pick up a tow, calculations prove that the benefits outweigh the 16m disadvantage of starting further back.
Although nothing is certain with an F1 start, Valtteri was able to pull off a text-book getaway, pass Kimi Räikkönen's Ferrari, tuck into Vettel's slipstream, use the additional momentum to go by on the run into Turn 2, then sweep across and claim the inside line. As hard as Vettel pressed throughout the race, that start was the cornerstone of Valtteri's first ever F1 victory, by just 0.617s!
In 2018, Valtteri, always strong at Sochi, was able to take pole position as he and Lewis locked out the front row and it was Vettel starting P3 with those same possibilities. The boot was on the other foot this time!
The team turned its attention towards trying to prevent Vettel picking up that advantageous tow. Team work in Russia has to start the moment the lights change and Toto confirmed that start strategy had been discussed.
"We even talked about what would happen if one of them had a worse start than the other. But they managed to tow each other and then swarm out approaching Turn 2. It was a pleasure to watch. They also give each other plenty of room in Turn 1."
That Valtteri and Lewis got through T2 without either of them ceding a place to Vettel proved a key component of the team's third 1-2 of the season after Spain and Germany.
Toto Holds His Hands Up
With the lone pit stop of the Russian GP likely to be all-important, the team was faced with trying to protect its 1-2 from Vettel's Ferrari, running just behind Lewis.
In this situation it's usually an advantage to pit first and normal team protocol favours whichever driver is in front. Had the team's intention always been to prioritise Lewis' race, the engineers could have done so quite simply at this point by pitting him first, which would have kept him in front of Vettel and compromised Valtteri.
Instead, Valtteri was called first, after 12 laps on his starting HyperSoft tyres. Lewis, many expected, would be in next lap. But, in fact, only Vettel's Ferrari pitted on lap 13 and Lewis continued for another lap before stopping on lap 14 and emerging behind the Ferrari.
So, what went wrong? Toto put his hands up. "That was me... it was one lap too late with Lewis. We pitted Valtteri and then Lewis came on the radio and I had engaged James (Vowles) in a discussion about it for maybe one second too much. Lewis was then committed to doing another lap."
Lewis takes up the story: "I was close to Valtteri and then he pitted. I had a good lap once I got past. I'd held onto my tyres a little longer than Valtteri potentially. He said he'd had a bit of graining so that next lap was good and then they kept me out for another lap which was probably not the right decision as the tyres dropped off. Sebastian came in the lap before, undercut massively and I lost six tenths or so when I caught a backmarker."
What looked obvious with the benefit of hindsight was not so clear-cut at the time. Vettel's undercut was much more powerful than expected - around 1.8s versus an anticipated 0.9s. That put the Ferrari into second place. But not for long...
Hamilton On The Hunt
With Lewis losing out to Vettel at the pit stop, it was time for another spot of teamwork to get Car No.44 back into second place!
With the order Valtteri-Vettel-Lewis after 14 of the race's 53 laps and all three drivers having stopped, Valtteri explained why lap 14 took him 1m40.233s but he went almost a second faster (1m39.398s) on the next lap.
"In Sector 2 I slowed down so that Lewis got close to Sebastian and then I pushed hard again in Sector 3 so that Sebastian didn't get the DRS for the start-finish straight."
Lewis, attacking straight away on his fresh Soft compound Pirellis, was thus well-placed to slipstream Vettel down the straight and recover his second position.
"I had the grip from the tyres and I had to take the opportunity," Lewis explained. "I slipstreamed down to Turn 2 and then I pulled out. From my view Sebastian moved and then moved again and at the time, if I didn't brake, I would have been in the wall and we would have both crashed. So I felt it was a double move, which we often talk about and say we shouldn't do. But anyway, luckily I got away with it and I was quite forceful in the next corner..."
Channel 4 commentator Ben Edwards referred to the "angry body language of No.44 as Lewis took advantage of Vettel's compromised exit from Turn 2, shadowed the Ferrari through the flat-out Turn 3 and then dived down the inside at Turn 4 to re-take second place. It was a brilliant, totally committed move."
Race stewards served notice that they were investigating Vettel's manoeuvres into Turn 2 but ultimately took no further action. Lewis' attacking opportunism had reaped reward. But at the price of a blistered left rear Pirelli. Which was bad news for Valtteri...
Taking One For The Team
Once the three leading contenders (Valtteri, Lewis and Vettel) had made those pit stops and the exciting tussle into Turn 2 had restored the previous order, Max Verstappen's Red Bull, which started on the prime tyre and was yet to pit, led the race.
The Red Bull was competitive (possibly enough to be fighting at the front had they not opted for an engine change and attendant grid penalties) and was only being caught slowly. Once it was, though, team strategists became concerned that Lewis, with his blistered tyre, was under threat from Vettel again. Which is why, on lap 25, they gave the instruction for Valtteri to cede position to Lewis at Turn 13.
The blister appeared on Lewis' left rear tyre as a result of having to run so hard right after his stop. There was a real concern that the team were about to lose out. Lewis couldn't hold back positions, whereas Valtteri could. Ultimately, this is what led to the cars being inverted to provide some protection for Lewis. If Verstappen hadn't been there, that blister would still have been a concern - but with Verstappen there as well, there was no breathing space.
Valtteri, ever the team player and cognisant of the fact that it was Lewis and not he who was chasing the Drivers' championship, complied - however hard it must have been for the Finn to concede the best chance of his first 2018 win.
"When we switched them there were two possible outcomes," said Toto. "The best case was it stayed like it was and we finished second with Lewis and won with Valtteri. The worst case was that the blister wouldn't last until the end and Lewis would have been overtaken by Sebastian, which is why having Valtteri between them was the call we made. Rationally, it was the right call even if our sporting heart said no."
Better To Be A Baddie Than An Idiot!
The decision to switch the drivers caused much post-race controversy in the Sochi paddock. Lewis doesn't enjoy winning a race like that any more than Valtteri enjoys losing one - but both drivers knew it was in the interests of the team and the Championship. Toto admitted to an awful lot of soul-searching and pondering it for the last hour of the race but was adamant he'd made the right call.
The team, he said, had almost lost out by being fair-minded early in the race: "We could have pitted Lewis first and secured the win with him, but we pitted Valtteri, to keep him ahead of Vettel and we lost the position with Lewis. We were P3 and I felt like an idiot, to be honest. But then Lewis saved it by overtaking Sebastian."
Parallels were drawn with Austria 2002 when Ferrari had ordered Rubens Barrichello to move over for Michael Schumacher despite the race being only round six of the Championship after Schumacher had won four of the first five. Similarly, some questioned whether the call was necessary when Lewis would still have left with a 43-point championship advantage over Vettel even if Valtteri had won.
"It's a solid advantage," Toto admitted, "but we've seen Austria where we were 1-2 and neither car finished. So you go to Suzuka and have a disastrous weekend and Sebastian wins. Your gap then, rather than being 50 points, is 25 with four races to go. That becomes a completely different situation. Maybe we are playing too safe but I've seen freak results in motorsport like everyone else."
Toto, then an enthusiastic sportscar racer, had actually been in Austria in 2002 when Jean Todt had made that Ferrari call that was so controversial it led to a ban on team orders in F1.
Asked what he thought of it, Toto said: "Jean Todt is the most successful motorsport manager in history. No-one will ever achieve his records - he won Le Mans, Dakar, the World Rally Championship and he won 5 double Championships in F1 and six in a row. So, if I can follow in his slipstream I will do that! Yes, I think he made the right call back then but maybe without too much finesse in how they communicated it."
In summary, Toto added: "There are difficult moments like today and you need to make a call and stand by it. But, from a racing standpoint, I completely relate to it not feeling right for Valtteri because it doesn't feel good for me...
"Somebody needs to be the baddie sometimes and it was me today. You need to weigh up: do you want to be the baddie on Sunday evening for many right reasons, or do you want to be the idiot in Abu Dhabi at the end of the season? In the end, if three or five points are missing, then you are the biggest idiot on the planet for prioritising Valtteri's single race result in Sochi over the championship. I'd rather be the baddie today..."
Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport Reserve Driver George Russell is on the brink of matching new Ferrari signing Charles Leclerc in winning the F2 championship in his rookie season.
George finished fourth in the Sochi Saturday feature race and won Sunday's reverse-grid sprint race, setting the fastest lap en route to his sixth victory of 2018.
After season-long rival Lando Norris failed to score in Russia, reigning GP3 champion Russell will head to the Abu Dhabi season finale in November with a 37-point advantage over his only remaining title opponent Alexander Albon, who claimed his third feature race win of the season in Sochi.