SOCHI, Russia -- Lewis Hamilton took Mercedes' first win in Formula One since early August with victory at the Russian Grand Prix, but only after Ferrari's race imploded.
A Ferrari team orders controversy broke out in the opening laps as Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc squabbled over team radio, but it was a power failure on Vettel's car that ultimately swung the race in Mercedes' favour.
Hamilton took advantage of the Virtual Saftey Car period caused by Vettel's retirement to make a pit stop and emerge ahead of Leclerc, who had already pitted and led the race just before his teammate's failure. Ferrari then sacrificed another position to the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas when it tried to take advantage of a Safety Car and pitted Leclerc for a second time, gifting Mercedes a one-two victory and leaving its man third at the finish.
Max Verstappen finished fourth ahead of Red Bull teammate Alex Albon, who started from the pit lane and fought his way back to fifth. Carlos Sainz took sixth after running as high as fourth at the start of the race, ahead of Sergio Perez in seventh, Lando Norris in eighth, Kevin Magnussen in ninth and Nico Hulkenberg in tenth.
But the focus after the race was firmly on Ferrari. Although the timing of Vettel's retirement -- caused by a failure on the car's hybrid system -- inflicted a double blow on the team, internal tensions at Ferrari were laid bare when a pre-race agreement between the drivers turned sour after just five laps.
Leclerc started from pole position, but it seemed Ferrari had told its drivers not to fight each other on the opening lap as Vettel, who started third, took the lead on the inside of Turn 2 without any defence from Leclerc. Vettel undoubtedly made a good start, but also benefitted from an inevitable slipstream on the long run to the first braking point to ease past his teammate.
It soon became clear that Leclerc's lack of defence was preordained by Ferrari's management as he was told on lap three -- while the race was running under an early Safety Car for a collision between Romain Grosjean, Antonio Giovinazzi and Daniel Ricciardo -- that the team would look to swap the drivers back later in the race.
By lap five, Leclerc was told he would get the lead back on the next lap, but when the message was relayed to Vettel, he responded: "I would have got him [at the start] anyway. Let's break away [from Hamilton in third] for another two laps and let me know".
Ferrari had a problem on its hands. Leclerc was convinced he should be handed back the lead as per a pre-race agreement, while Vettel felt his lightning start was enough to give him the lead on merit. On lap seven, Vettel was told to let Leclerc by again, to which he responded: "Tell him to close up".
Leclerc was clearly furious, but did well to control his emotions on the team radio.
"You put me behind," he told his engineer. "I respected everything. We will speak later, but now is difficult to close the gap obviously."
Whatever Ferrari made of Vettel's disobedience, it couldn't deny he was fast. He pulled a 4.0s gap on his teammate by lap 17, while Leclerc had Hamilton just 2.9s behind him.
But the Ferrari pit wall would have the ultimate say over which way the race went, and on lap 22 Leclerc came into the pits for a fresh set of medium tyres that proved much faster than the aging soft tyres on Vettel's car. All Ferrari had to do was keep Vettel on track for long enough on his slower rubber and Leclerc would make up the difference on his fresh tyres and emerge ahead when Vettel finally pitted.
It wasn't the fastest way for Vettel to get to the chequered flag, but it would right the wrongs of the team orders farce playing out over the pit-to-car radio while keeping both Ferraris ahead of Hamilton in third. With Leclerc setting fastest lap after fastest lap, Ferrari saw the opportunity to shuffle its drivers on lap 26 and brought Vettel in. The stop went smoothly for Vettel, but such was Leclerc's pace in the intervening four laps that he retook the lead of the race. Order restored ... or so it seemed.
Meanwhile, Mercedes was keeping Hamilton out on track. Both Mercedes drivers started on the medium tyres and could go longer into the race than Ferrari as a result. It was something of a gamble because it wasn't the fastest strategy on paper, but it promised to pay out a jackpot if there was a Safety Car or Virtual Safety Car after Ferrari made its stops.
On lap 28, while Hamilton was leading the race on old mediums, Vettel reported a problem with his MGU-K -- the part of the hybrid system that recovers energy from the rear axle and uses it to provide a power boost. Ferrari initially told him to bring the car back to the pits, which would have avoided a VSC, but as Vettel approached Turn 15 he was told to stop on track. With it, Ferrari had lost one car from the race and presented a perfect opportunity for Hamilton to pit while the rest of the field circulated at a reduced pace.
That effectively gave Hamilton a cheaper pit stop in terms of time and he emerged ahead of Leclerc when he rejoined the track. As the marshals recovered Vettel's car from the side of the track, George Russell experienced a brake failure at another part of the circuit and went into the barriers, resulting in the deployment of a full Safety Car. Ferrari then decided to pit Leclerc from second place in order to put him on fresher soft tyres until the end of the race, but in doing so he lost a place to Bottas.
As the race restarted on lap 32 it looked like Leclerc would have the pace to pass Bottas, but ultimately the Mercedes driver kept him behind. The following 20 laps turned into procession as the lead drivers accepted there was little chance of making an overtaking move and turned their attention to fastest lap. Hamilton ultimately came out on top in that battle too and took the bonus point that come with it to give him a maximum 26 points.
The result edges Hamilton and Mercedes closer to their sixth titles, but it was still unexpected after Ferrari's dominance in recent races. The Italian team may have thrown away the race, but in terms of performance its star is on the rise and that was clear during the first part of the race.