Mercedes-Benz are Constructors’ Champions for the second year running and Lewis Hamilton has one hand and four fingers of the other on his second straight drivers’ crown after the Englishman claimed his 42nd career victory in Sochi on Sunday.
When Hamilton’s team-mate Nico Rosberg was forced into early retirement with a throttle problem, Sebastian Vettel took full advantage to finish second for Ferrari and take second place in the drivers’ standings ahead of Rosberg.
It seemed at first that Mercedes had not done quite enough to clinch the first of the two titles as Kimi Raikkonen was fifth in the other Ferrari, but the Finn was penalised 30 seconds for a last-gasp lunge on compatriot Valtteri Bottas’s Williams and demoted three places.
Bottas had just forced his way thrillingly past Sergio Perez in the Force India to claim what looked like a second successive Sochi podium until Raikkonen’s misdemeanour knocked him out of the race.
The corrected result leaves the Silver Arrows 182 points clear of Ferrari with only 172 available from the last four races of the season.
“Even though you’re in the front, it’s still a hard race to stay in the zone and not make mistakes,” said an exultant Hamilton after his ninth victory of the season. “I felt like it was a big challenge today. It’s a shame I didn’t get to race with Nico, which I was really excited about. I’ve got to enjoy what’s happening and cherish the moment.”
Hamilton now needs to finish nine points better than Vettel and two ahead of Rosberg at the next race in Austin in two weeks’ time to become World Champion for the third time.
“Racing can be very tough,” said a disconsolate Rosberg, who started from pole but was soon in trouble with his throttle pedal. “At one point I wasn’t able to steer any more as I had to lift my foot too much and touched the steering wheel with my knee. In the recent months I had some unlucky moments, which made it hard in the battle against Lewis. But I will come back and keep pushing.”
A jubilant Sergio Perez raced home to secure his fifth F1 podium and his first of 2015 for Force India, the perfect result ahead of the Mexican driver’s next two appearances in front of home fans in both Austin, a favourite destination for his compatriots, and the first Mexican Grand Prix of the 21st century.
“I have been enjoying my time with the team so much and this is a great reward for all the work we have put in together,” said the 26-year-old, who used his celebrated skills in tyre management to nurse the car home after pitting early under the Safety Car and making his Pirellis last for more than 40 laps.
Williams enjoyed minor consolation as Felipe Massa set another disappointing Russian qualifying session behind him and came through for fourth place, while home favourite Daniil Kvyat profited from Raikkonen’s penalty to finish fifth for Red Bull Renault.
Team-mate Daniel Ricciardo ran strongly in the early stages but was forced to park the car after 47 laps. “I came out of turn four and felt something was not right,” said the Australian, who was classified 15th and last.
Felipe Nasr was delighted to finish sixth, his best result since his Melbourne debut for Sauber. “These are the opportunities we cannot miss,” said the Brazilian rookie, “and I am glad we extracted the maximum today.”
Lotus enjoyed the proverbial mixed fortunes, Romain Grosjean triggering a Safety Car after violent contact with the barriers just before quarter-distance, while team-mate Pastor Maldonado had a rare good result in seventh place.
The last two points-scoring positions went to McLaren’s Jenson Button and Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen, two more examples of contrasting fortunes. Verstappen’s team-mate Carlos Sainz had performed a minor miracle to recover from a heavy practice accident and a precautionary stay in hospital and was on his way to a points finish when his car’s brakes failed.
Fernando Alonso, meanwhile, looked like giving McLaren only their second two-car points finish of the season in 10th but was demoted by the stewards for alleged corner-cutting.