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Experience Always Wins

Formula 1 racing often tells smaller stories within each individual race; the final stretches of the Russian Grand Prix proved in my eyes that experience always wins.

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Recently, I’ve been paying much more attention to Formula 1 racing than I ever have in the past. Admittedly, part of that reason is Netfilx’s documentary series on F1 called Drive to Survive, which I have thoroughly enjoyed. It has helped reinvigorate the sport for me. The other reasons have been some of the story lines in recent years, and of course, the great racing itself.

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Who didn’t hear about the horrific crash that Romain Grosjean miraculously escaped from during the first lap of the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix? Everyone saw that! How about the constant carousel of drivers going to rival teams? It’s part reality TV show sometimes. Then, there’s the ongoing battle for supremacy between Mercedes and Red Bull, and at the top of the heap of story lines, is Lewis Hamilton.

Obviously, Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton have been the longest chapter in those story lines due to their dominance of F1 for the better part of a decade now. The team, and Hamilton in particular, just keep winning races. Period.

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After the 2020 season, Hamilton had tied Michael Schumacher’s seven F1 World Championship titles and 91 career Grand Prix race wins. In fact, Hamilton has since surpassed Schumacher’s Grand Prix record and now stands alone with 100 victories after winning the Russian Grand Prix on September 26 in Sochi.

Which brings me to the point of my column this month that experience always wins. I tuned in for the second-half of the Russian Grand Prix, but the most exciting racing came in the final laps. McLaren’s Lando Norris was leading the field with Lewis Hamilton just a couple seconds behind. Watching the race, you just got the sense that, arguably the best F1 driver of all-time, Lewis Hamilton, was going to win this race somehow. But it wouldn’t be done on pure driving skill alone.

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In those final five laps, the good weather turned to rain, which all teams knew was coming before the end of the race. As such, many teams further back in the pack switched from slick tires to intermediates in anticipation. The fight at the front, however, was too fierce to pit so early.

Lando Norris could taste his very first F1 Grand Prix victory. He had run well all day and did all the right things to be in a position to win. He just had to hang on for five laps. You couldn’t help but root for him! These weren’t a simple, five finals laps, however. 

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Teams had to strategize how bad the rain would be and how the other teams in the top-five would react.

Essentially, every team pitted between seven and five laps remaining, except for Hamilton and Norris. Hamilton initially ignored his team’s directive to pit for different tires – but only for a lap or so – before his experience level, and that of his team, trumped any ego or adrenaline at play. Norris and McLaren let adrenaline win out over experience and opted to stick it out on slicks.

The decision was the wrong one and it backfired for Norris and McLaren, and proved why Mercedes and Hamilton don’t often lose.

Norris stayed on the track, slipping and sliding through turns as the rain came down – going slower and slower on the straights as other teams caught up quickly. Hamilton came flying out of the pits with just three laps remaining, but with what felt like an eternity to catch the struggling Norris.

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The dagger came when Norris spun off the track momentarily, ending his day with a 7th-place finish. Hamilton crossed the line in first place for his 100th win, increasing his record total further. Max Verstappen of Red Bull closed a large gap to claim second after employing a good bad-weather strategy, and Carlos Sainz of Ferrari rounded out the podium in third.

In the end, it was a dramatic, emotional and historic weekend at Sochi, and yet another reason I’ve been enjoying Formula 1 racing. EB

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