Russian Grand Prix: Wake up F1, this is just weird

Kenny Campbell

Things that I will remember about the 2017 Russian Grand Prix:

Vladimir Putin telling the winning drivers that all the local hotels were sold out. It’s surely what all post-race chats should be like.

Valtteri Bottas, a veteran of 81 Formula 1 starts, calmly analysing his maiden victory over the pit radio thus: ‘**** me, it took quite a while.’

Eddie Jordan, bouncing around the podium like Tigger on voddie and Red Bull, exclaiming that this was ‘One of the most exciting races we’ve had’. Perhaps he was off drinking and playing Mario Kart while the rest of us endured the bulk of this ‘race’, with its exciting no overtakes and exciting no drama (opening and closing laps excepted).

That’s not to say there were no talking points. It’s just that Sochi regularly short-changes anyone who pays to watch the race live, either at the circuit or on the telly.

So, talking points…

Bottas plays a blinder, Hamilton has a horror

Ferrari may have started in the top two slots but Bottas (pictured) toasted them on the getaway.

He’d set his car up for race pace at the expense of qualifying times and, with the Mercedes so strong in clean air, looked unstoppable until the closing stages, when a clumsy lock-up cost him time and damaged his tyres, allowing Vettel the chance to close in for a nail-biting few laps at the end.

Even with DRS, Vettel’s Ferrari simply didn’t have the grunt to pass the Mercedes at this circuit.

To be fair to Ferrari, Sochi seems to be designed to kill off all overtaking. Apart from a flurry of action on lap 1, there was sod all overtaking and, until that Bottas error, not too much tension either.

Back in fourth place, Lewis Hamilton was having one of ‘those’ weekends. Outqualified and outdriven by his team-mate, he spent much of the race managing an overheating issue (as did several drivers). And that Mercedes really doesn’t like turbulent air, does it.

Remember last season, when Hamilton was the faster of the Merc drivers but kept having ‘those’ weekends?

Before this race, you could get 30 or 35-1 on Bottas for the championship. I’m betting those odds have now been shredded.

A jolly German in second place

Vettel (pictured) looked to be content with his runner-up slot.

Once Bottas flew past him at the start, he’d have known passing the Merc was a tall order.

He qualified well, raced well and came home well ahead of Hamilton – job done.

Vettel congratulated Bottas aplenty, didn’t make too much of his last-lap grumbles about struggling to pass backmarker Felipe Massa and generally looked like a man who was happy he’d done his best.

Of course, his Ferrari buddy Kimi Raikkonen was his usual long-faced self, and looked like he wanted to visit violence upon Eddie Jordan during the rambling podium interviews.

Kimi unwittingly gave us one of the highlights of the day when, on lap 33, he demanded to know how Bottas got in front of him during pitstops. His race engineer calmly replied: ‘He was leading the race, Kimi…’

McLaren find a whole new level. Of despair

Those bods at McLaren-Honda have upped their game. Safe in the knowledge that no one pays much attention when their cars fail to finish, they’ve added a sneaky new engine mode called ‘Fail to start’.

And so we had Fernando Alonso (pictured) growling around the formation lap with a hybrid charging problem, to add to all his other problems, and then parking up at the pit lane entrance to stroll back to the never-ending-party that is McLaren.

That prompted an additional formation lap – which undoubtedly stressed the remaining cars and may have caused some of the technical issues that subsequently cropped up – and gave him time to find a comfy seat to watch the rest of the race.

His team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne dragged the remaining McLaren to the finishing line, managing to stay in front of the Saubers but no one else.

Vandoorne must be wishing he was going to race at Indianapolis with Alonso.

Other long faces included Daniel Ricciardo, whose retirement from this race marked a new low in a season that has wiped that big smile away, while his team-mate Verstappen toured around anonymously for a workmanlike fifth-place finish.

And Jolyon Palmer’s pockmarked F1 career took another hit, literally, in a collision with Grosjean.

Forza Force India

Sixth and seventh for Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon (pictured) was a result that cemented Force India as the leading midfield team (assuming Red Bull get a lonely category of their own behind Merc and Ferrari).

Whether their car is better than the Williams is a moot point: they are grabbing their opportunities and banking those points early in the season, and that will translate into big prize money.

It’s genuinely hard to know how good the Williams cars are. Massa was denied sixth place by a slow puncture – so we know that car-driver combo is faster than those Force Indias – but it’s all but impossible to tell if Massa is getting everything out of the machine.

Team-mate Lance Stroll managed to finish in Sochi – a breakthrough for him – despite an embarrassing spin early on as the Safety Car was being deployed.

But would another driver get more out of that Williams and stick it into Red Bull territory?

Seeing Bottas – released to Mercedes by Williams, remember – take the chequered flag will have been a bittersweet moment for Williams fans.

Their team has a good chassis, the best customer engine, and yet… you get the feeling they could be challenging for third in the Constructors’ Championship, not floundering in fifth. If only they had an Alonso.

Post-race torture

I’m never sure if the agony of the bit after an F1 race should be put to rest because it is so bad, or given its own show for the same reason.

Sochi does the cringey post-race stuff particularly well but, even by its standards, this was a classic year.

Of course, we had the usual moments where F1’s true colours shine through – the miniskirts on the podium, the rich old blokes congratulating one another even though the race was, for much of the afternoon, utterly and disgracefully dull.

Entertainment my bahookie.

Putin turned up, as he does: lap 34, Vettel pits; lap 35, Vettel uses his fresh rubber to start hunting down Bottas; lap 36, Putin rocks up and chats to F1 boss and chief moustache Chase Carey.

I get the Putin thing, we all do. Money, politics, F1, it’s why Ecclestone is still hanging around – he’s comfy around these big beasts and has made a tidy sum by cultivating their interest in F1’s benefits.

But Putin’s appearance in the cool-down room, before the podium ceremony, oh my flipping goodness.

His translator – Putin was there to impress his domestic audience as much as anything, so he was speaking Russian – could have been making it up, for all I know. That might explain why Putin appeared to be updating Bottas, Vettel and Raikkonen on Sochi’s hotel occupancy rates.

‘We are having more and more fans of Formula 1. And I already told my boys that all the hotels are booked in Sochi.

‘The hotel bookings are increasing every year, unlike [at] other tracks that have been [holding] events longer.’

I don’t know, maybe this is how smalltalk works at every major sporting event. Prince Michael of Kent to Andy Murray: ‘We are having more and more fans of the tennis, old boy. And I already told my minions that all the Wimbledon Irn-Bru is drunk.’

Putin’s clunking cameo was, quite remarkably, overshadowed though.

Eddie Jordan’s podium appearance went on so long that he had to sit down – he actually had to sit down. I like Eddie’s enthusiasm but there’s a time and a place.

It started badly when he spotted Toto Wolff and asked if he was going to give Bottas an extended contract and proper money.

Proper money. Bottas has just won his first grand prix and Eddie’s message is: well done mate, but your pay’s rubbish.

What I found most uncomfortable, though, were the pictures of Russia’s three F1 amigos: Putin, with all that he stands for and doesn’t stand for; F1’s future, in the shape of Chase Carey, who had the good grace to look uncomfortable behind that moustache; and F1’s past, in the shuffling shape of Bernie Ecclestone, looking ever-more like the bemused ghost of Dudley Moore.

F1 is in a transitional phase, and there’s a ton of stuff to be optimistic about. It’s just a shame there wasn’t much of that stuff on display at Sochi.

Well, unless your name happens to be Valtteri.

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