In the interview pen after the Russian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton and Lando Norris held their own personal post mortem into how, in a chaotic final few laps, a maiden Formula 1 victory for Norris had turned into a record-extending 100th for Hamilton.
“You didn’t want to come in?” Hamilton asked Norris, of the McLaren driver’s decision not to pit for treaded intermediate tyres as they battled for the lead, just as a late-race rain shower turned slowly into a deluge. “Me neither. I was like, ‘He’s right there!'”
“Until then,” Norris said, “it was dry enough for slicks. What I got told was the rain was going to stay like that. Apparently what you got told was different.”
“Yeah,” Hamilton said. “My team was great today. But I ignored the first call.”
In those few words, the two drivers pretty much summed up how the race turned on its head.
Because McLaren did not over-rule their driver and call him in for tyres, Norris lost a victory that for so long had seemed his for the taking after a superb performance all weekend.
And because Mercedes did, Hamilton left Russia on Sunday night back in the most tenuous of championship leads over rival Max Verstappen of Red Bull, who also read the conditions right.
How the race was won and lost
It was an agonising outcome for Norris and McLaren after the 21-year-old took a brilliant maiden pole position in the wet on Saturday and then driving an accomplished race.
He lost the lead at the start to Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, but was back ahead within 13 laps and then controlled the race expertly from the front while Hamilton, always likely to be his main rival, was held back in traffic.
It took quite a while before Hamilton was finally up into a firm second place behind Norris. But with 23 laps to go, it was game on.
Hamilton was eight seconds behind Norris in clear air and in a much faster car. The question was not whether the Mercedes would catch the McLaren, but whether Hamilton would be able to pass it when he did.
After another 10 laps, Hamilton was within two seconds of Norris, but further progress was proving difficult. Had it stayed dry, the combination of the turbulent air behind the McLaren and the orange car’s prodigious straight-line speed would likely have secured Norris the success.
But then the rain started to come down. Very lightly at first and only over a couple of corners. But the more the laps ticked by, the more the rain came, and into the final stages there were some big calls to make.
With six laps to go, Mercedes called in Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas for treaded intermediate tyres. That call was marginal – it was not clear at that point which way the weather was going to go. But with Bottas out of the points at that stage after a lacklustre race, they had nothing to lose.
Within 30 seconds, though, Mercedes had enough information to make the decision on Hamilton a no-brainer. They could see on the weather radar available to all teams, that heavier rain was definitely coming and they called for Hamilton to pit on the lap after Bottas.
Hamilton refused, while Verstappen, then stuck in seventh place, did come in.
On the next lap, Mercedes called Hamilton again. This time he followed orders and the call won him the race.
Hamilton pitted with four laps to go and initially he thought it was a mistake. “I only had three laps to catch up 24 seconds,” he said. “So it was like ‘no way’.”
At the end of the next lap, he was still 15 seconds behind Norris. But so bad by now was the rain, and so unsuited to the conditions were Norris’ slick tyres, that Hamilton was through and gone just five corners later.
Norris finally pitted with two laps to go. A win had become a seventh place.
McLaren will analyse their errors
“I’m not that happy,” Norris said. “I could have won the race and I didn’t. I made the decisions I made and they were obviously wrong at the end of the day.
“What we, for some reason, didn’t see was how much more rain was going to come. I didn’t get told that, I didn’t know about that and I made my decision on the information I got told, which was the drizzle was going to remain drizzle and not pouring with rain. It was all going so well, so it makes it all feel worse.”
McLaren realised they had messed up and somehow failed to read the weather forecasts the way their rivals did.
Team boss Andreas Seidl said: “Lando, with the information he had from us, felt good staying out there on slicks and in the end we didn’t over-rule him as team, and that’s something we need to look into to see what we could have done better, because in hindsight it was the wrong decision.
“If we would have been crystal clear from the team side and convinced it was 100% the right decision to stop, we would have stopped. We need to analyse whether there was any information available that should have led us to make a clear call.”
It was hard to take for both team and driver, but there is no getting away from that fact the last two races have been good for McLaren.
Daniel Ricciardo led Norris in a one-two in Monza, and Norris was within six laps of securing a second consecutive victory in Sochi. The progress is plain to see.
“It is these moments where you learn most,” Seidl added. “Things like today happen, big disappointments, especially when you are so close to something really big, but he has enough experience, and the team as well, to come back out of this even stronger.”
Concern for Hamilton despite his landmark
Almost a side issue in the excitement was the realisation Hamilton had achieved yet another monumental landmark in his career. The 100th victory has been a long time coming since he took his 99th at Silverstone back in July. So long, Hamilton said, that he had begun to wonder if it ever would.
Now it has, he added: “It’s a magical moment. I could only ever have dreamed of still being here and having this opportunity to win these races and get to drive against such phenomenal talent this late in my career.”
That last remark was a reference to Norris, but also, among others, to Verstappen, who ended the day the with what had appeared for a long time a very unlikely second place.
The Red Bull driver started from the back. By lap 20, he had Hamilton within two seconds of him, such had been his impressive progress. Then he dropped back again with heavy tyre wear caused by all the traffic he was having to clear, and was even passed by Fernando Alonso’s Alpine.
For a long time it looked as if Verstappen was going to have to make do with seventh place. But the rain gave him an opportunity and he, and Red Bull, grasped it with both hands.
Going into the race, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said if Verstappen could make it back to fifth place “we would take that”. That would have meant a loss of 15 points to Hamilton. As it was, Verstappen lost only seven, and although the Mercedes driver regained the championship lead, his rival is just two points behind.
“The race itself was not very easy because it was very difficult to pass again and once you got stuck it was very easy to damage your tyres,” Verstappen said. “Luckily, with the rain it helped us to make that last jump.
“With the [grid] penalty we had, to only lose one spot basically is definitely not too bad. When I woke up this morning, I definitely didn’t expect this result.”
While this was a good outcome for Red Bull, Mercedes left Russia with concerns.
They had hoped to capitalise heavily on the last two races in Monza and Sochi, two tracks that historically have been very strong for them. In the end, though, Hamilton has achieved only a five-point swing in the championship.
Will they regret not maximising their opportunities at these races?
“Look,” Hamilton said, “it’s not only the two races. There’s been plenty of races where we’ve not maximised, as a team, collectively, both drivers and everyone.
“But we’re still in the fight and we can continue to improve. There are definitely things that we will try and do better moving forwards but we just won’t give up, we’ll just keep trying, keep pushing, remain hopeful.”
The title race could hardly be any closer and, if anything, the run-in looks tougher for Hamilton than Verstappen.
While Red Bull got their engine-related grid penalty out of the way in Russia, Hamilton is likely to have one himself somewhere down the line. Mercedes won’t say that for sure, but the chances of them making it to the end of the season with just the two used engines Hamilton has available are minimal.
Not only that, but of the remaining seven races, they expect to have pretty much no chance of beating Red Bull at one – Mexico – and the others are too close to call.
How, the two contenders were asked, did they rate their chances of winning the title?
“Undoubtedly it’s going to be tough,” Hamilton added. “For two thirds of the season so far they’ve had the edge.
“However, it’s obviously been difficult, with all sorts of things, curve balls sent to both of us and our teams.
“There’s still everything to play for in these next races. I think they’ve got a good set of circuits coming up and I anticipate it will just continue to be really close between us. Just got to be hopeful of some good races.”
And Verstappen? “50-50,” he said, matter-of-fact as ever. “Yes or no.”