Lewis Hamilton has stretched his championship lead over Sebastian Vettel to 50 points after beating teammate Valtteri Bottas to the checkered flag at the Russian Grand Prix.
Bottas started on pole and led the opening stint of the race, but Mercedes instructed the Finn to move aside for the championship-contending Briton at half-distance to ensure Hamilton could inflict maximum damage against his German rival.
Hamilton is now two clear race wins ahead of Vettel with just five grands prix remaining and can finish second for the rest of the season to the Ferrari driver without losing his points lead.
“Championship-wise as a team we’re trying to win both championships, and I think today it was a real team effort,” Hamilton said, acknowledging his teammate’s sacrifice. “It’s actually quite a difficult day because Valtteri did a fantastic job all weekend. He was a real gentleman to let me by.
“The team’s done such an exceptional job — usually we’d be elated, but it’s difficult for Valtteri.”
Bottas, on the other hand, was left downcast by the team orders that had deprived him of what could have been his first win of the season.
The Finn had asked forlornly if he would be allowed to resume the lead once the pair were comfortably clear of Vettel in the final laps of the race, but his request was refused in exchange for a discussion after the checkered flag.
“Difficult day for you and difficult day for us, but we’ll discuss it afterwards,” team principal Toto Wolff told him on the warm-down lap. “When we come together, we’ll explain.”
Out of the car, Bottas said he understood his role in helping Hamilton to the championship.
“Difficult day obviously, but a good result for us as a team,” he said. “We got maximum points, but personally, as everyone saw, it was quite a difficult race.
“Lewis is fighting for the championship and we’re fighting for the constructors [title]. It is what it is.”
Both Mercedes drivers were largely untouchable for third-place Vettel, whose championship hopes continue evaporating by the race.
“It was tricky,” Vettel admitted. “I tried my best to put pressure on Valtteri, but I couldn’t close enough.”
It wasn’t for a lack of trying that Vettel finished with a minor podium place, starting the race with a punchy posture that took him side-by-side with Hamilton into the first turn.
Hamilton, however, was then able to pick up his teammate’s slipstream, pulling him back past the Ferrari and securely into second place, the top four maintaining their qualifying order.
Behind the leading Mercedes and Ferrari cars Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen was the man on the move, launching himself from a penalized 19th on the grid to 13 by the end of the first lap.
The Dutchman, who turned 21 today, made ferocious progress in the opening stanza of the race, taking just eight laps to climb his way through the midfield and into fifth place behind the frontrunners.
The battle for the lead remained close between the silver and red cars, with each daring the other to be the first to pit.
Bottas bit the bullet from the lead, stopping on Lap 12, switching off his used ultrasoft tires and onto a new set of the durable soft compound, and Vettel followed suit on the following lap to undercut Hamilton, his championship rival.
Both the German and the Briton put the hammer down, but the former was blitzing his out-lap just as the latter encountered lapped traffic, and as a result Hamilton emerged side-by-side with Vettel on pit exit and was forced to concede the position.
“How did that happen?” Hamilton asked his pit wall testily, but he needn’t have worried, as Vettel’s advantage didn’t last long.
The German suffered a small lock-up at Turn 13 that opened the door to Hamilton, and the two sparred at Turn 2 of the following lap. The Ferrari driver robustly defended his position, but Lewis was undeterred, getting the job done at Turn 4 and immediately building a gap to guard against the DRS.
Raikkonen, who had inherited the lead, pitted on Lap 18 to drop back to fourth place, and the top four resumed qualifying order — except for Verstappen, who was now leading because he was yet to pit — but on Lap 25 blistering had become clear on Hamilton’s left-rear tire as the Briton shadowed Bottas in second.
Mercedes leapt into action with what many suspected was an inevitable team order, commanding Bottas to surrender his place to his teammate. The Finn complained but relented without delay, gifting his teammate the effective race lead.
The leaders settled into a rhythm until Verstappen made his sole pit stop for fresh ultrasoft tires on Lap 43, emerging ahead of sixth-place teammate Daniel Ricciardo and 14 seconds behind fourth-place Kimi Raikkonen.
The Red Bull Racing driver hoped to end his race with an all-out final stint to challenge the Finn, but the Ferrari was sufficiently quick on its old soft-compound rubber to cover the Dutchman without fuss.
Charles Leclerc finished best of the rest for Sauber after jumping Esteban Ocon and making a gutsy pass around the outside of Kevin Magnussen at the long Turn 3 on the second lap, keeping the Dane behind him in seventh to the end of the race.
Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez finished ninth and 10th to take home the final three points of the race for Force India.