Lewis Hamilton stands on the brink of winning a third Formula 1 world championship after claiming his ninth victory of the 2015 season in the Russian Grand Prix on Sunday.
After seeing Mercedes teammate and championship rival Nico Rosberg retire early due to a problem with his throttle, Hamilton inherited the lead before controlling proceedings en route to a dominant win.
Rosberg’s retirement means that Hamilton will be crowned world champion at the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas if he wins the race and nearest rival Sebastian Vettel finishes outside of the top two.
Vettel battled through to finish second for Ferrari in Sochi, while a last-lap clash allowed Sergio Perez to end the day in third and score just the third-ever podium for Force India.
Off the line at the Sochi Autodrom, Rosberg made a fine start to retain his lead ahead of Hamilton in the drag race down to the second corner. Valtteri Bottas tried to keep with the Mercedes drivers, but dropped behind the fast-starting Kimi Raikkonen into fourth place as Vettel was left running P5.
Before the end of the first lap, the race was put behind a safety car following a clash between Nico Hulkenberg and Marcus Ericsson at turn two that put both out of the race on the spot. Max Verstappen and Romain Grosjean were forced to pit for repairs, but both were ultimately able to continue.
With the debris cleared, the race restarted on lap four as Rosberg bolted away from Hamilton. Bottas made a superb move on Raikkonen to reclaim third place, but the Finn was able to keep Vettel back in the sister Ferrari through the opening laps of the race.
At the front, Rosberg reported that he had an issue with his throttle pedal, prompting concern in the Mercedes garage. The issue failed to resolve itself, causing Rosberg to drop behind Hamilton, Bottas and the two Ferrari drivers before crawling into the pit lane at the end of lap seven and retiring from the Russian Grand Prix.
His retirement left Hamilton on his own at the front, enjoying a two-second buffer to Bottas behind. More importantly for the title race, it left Rosberg’s faint hopes of beating Hamilton all but over.
Having inherited the lead, Hamilton quickly set about creating a gap to Bottas in second place. However, his charge was stunted when a second safety car period was called after Grosjean crashed hard at turn three. Thankfully, the Lotus driver walked away unharmed, but his shunt did spark a flurry of pit stops for cars further down the field.
Upon the restart on lap 17, Hamilton pulled away from Bottas as Vettel pulled off an aggressive move on Raikkonen to take P3. Home favorite Daniil Kvyat closed up on the Ferrari duo, but could not find a way past amid their battle, leaving him to sit fifth ahead of the high-flying Felipe Nasr as the race approached half distance.
Bottas was the first of the leaders to pit on lap 27, hoping to relieve some of the pressure from Vettel in the battle for second place. Ferrari kept its driver out for three more laps, believing that traffic would hold Bottas up, and it proved to be an accurate forecast. Vettel emerged from the pit lane well clear of Bottas, now running in net second place.
Hamilton finally came in for his one and only pit stop at the end of lap 32, experiencing zero issues and coming back out still leading the race. Just behind, Raikkonen tried to follow Vettel through past Bottas, but was unable to get through immediately after his pit stop on lap 31. The two duked for position over the laps that followed, allowing the early stopping Daniel Ricciardo and Sergio Perez to pull away just ahead.
In the closing stages of the race, the decision to pit early began to hurt both Ricciardo and Perez. After spending 18 laps stuck behind Ricciardo, Bottas managed to push past for P4 with a burst of pace, and duly set his sights on Perez ahead.
Raikkonen followed Bottas’ lead five laps later by passing Ricciardo for P5 as the Red Bull driver encountered a problem on his car that forced him to park up and retire from the race with four laps remaining.
Up front though, no-one could match Hamilton’s relentless pace, allowing the Briton to ease to his ninth win of the 2015 season and move to within just one victory of a third Formula 1 world championship, which now looks set to be settled in Austin, Texas later this month.
Vettel followed Hamilton home in second place, while Perez lucked into third place following a last-lap clash between Raikkonen and Bottas. Perez had dropped behind both drivers, but contact between the two Finns on the last lap gave him third place and just the third ever podium finish in Force India’s history.
Felipe Massa also benefited from the clash, finishing fourth ahead of Raikkonen in P5, who will inevitably face some kind of post-race penalty. Daniil Kvyat ended his home race in sixth place ahead of Sauber’s Felipe Nasr and Lotus driver Pastor Maldonado.
McLaren’s difficult weekend ended on a high as both Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso scored points, finishing ninth and tenth respectively.
Carlos Sainz Jr’s comeback from his accident on Saturday came to a bitter end when he suffered a brake failure, costing him a likely points finish. Toro Rosso teammate Max Verstappen finished 11th ahead of Bottas, who was classified in P12 ahead of the two Manor drivers.