A blistering start by Sebastian Vettel seemed to pave the way for a great day for Ferrari. But Vettel controversially ignored team orders and was then forced to retire, opening the door for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes.
When Sebastian Vettel pulled off a dream start, darting past Lewis Hamilton and then taking his teammate on the inside of turn one, it promised to be the perfect day for Vettel and Ferrari.
The four-time champion barely had the chance to revel in his stunning start before the instruction came down the Ferrari team radio for the German to move aside for the man he had just brilliantly overtaken. From Ferrari's perspective, Leclerc had more championship points on the board and he is the man they wanted to ensure was leading the field. Vettel was having none of it.
Ferrari had arrived in Sochi after a hat trick of wins, but the Italian team shot themselves in the foot with a strategy that involved Leclerc allowing Vettel, starting in third, to slipstream Leclerc off the start and take the lead into turn two.
The deal was for the German to hand back the place once Ferrari had settled into a one-two formation but Vettel began recording in a series of fastest laps to Leclerc's consternation.
"Sebastian will let you by next lap," the 21-year-old was told over the radio on lap four. But Vettel refused to ease off and suggested Leclerc would need to close a gap of 1.3 seconds to make that possible.
Leclerc was already seething after being undone in Singapore by a strategy that worked in Vettel's favor, with the team radio again crackling with anger as the youngster vented his feelings.
"You put me behind. I respected everything," he said as it became clear Vettel, winner in Singapore after 13 months off the top of the podium, was clearly faster and had no intention of easing off. "I respected. I gave him the slipstream," he added later.
Words from the top
In a highly unusual turn of events, Ferrari's sporting director, Laurent Mekies, got involved, instructing Vettel that he would move aside later in the race. However, that scenario never materialized as Vettel, who pitted at the end of lap 26, soon after Leclerc, suffered engine failure almost immediately.
It was a mysterious and deeply disappointing way for Vettel to retire, his first since Germany 2018, and the resulting virtual safety car effectively gave Hamilton a free pit stop, which he took advantage of and emerged at the front of the pack. Leclerc was suddenly down in third behind Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas, and Ferrari's day in Sochi had quickly unraveled, at least partially of their own making.
"I don't know exactly what happened," said Vettel, when asked about a pre-race agreement he had with teammate Charles Leclerc. "I think we had an agreement. I spoke with Charles especially before the race. It was quite clear. Maybe I missed something?"
"I'm sure we'll talk about it," he added with a smile. "It's bitter for us today because we wanted to have a one-two and it's not the result we wanted. I don't want to share the details of our agreement and I don't want to put the team in a bad light.
"We talked about a strategy to get past Lewis and I had a good start. I was in third and Charles was first - we raced and I think that's what we did until the pit stop when obviously I lost the lead and then the car broke down."
The remainder of the race was a routine one for Hamilton. With the security of his Mercedes teammate behind him, the Briton cruised to his ninth victory of the season, and made a significant stride towards winning the world title for a sixth time.
"It's just incredible to have this result today, considering how quick Ferrari were off the start. Just keeping up with them was an incredibly hard task," said Hamilton, whose last victory before Sunday was in Hungary in August.
He added: "I try not to think too much about the championship. One race at a time and one step at a time, one foot in front of the other. We don't want to stumble."
As it happened:
LEWIS HAMILTON WINS THE RUSSIAN GP! Bottas comes in second to complete a Mercedes one-two and Leclerc is third.
Lap 51/53 Leclerc is still 1.6 seconds behind Bottas, who will hang on for second now.
Lap 49/53 Hamilton now 4.8 seconds clear at the front, and victory is surely his now.
Lap 47/53 "Give me everything you have" says Leclerc, who is just outside DRS range to Bottas.
Lap 45/53 Red Bull to Verstappen: "We're losing an abnormal amount of time at Turn 13, anything we can help you out with?"
Lap 43/53 Ten laps to go and Hamilton sets another fastest lap. A controversial race is drawing to an uneventful finish.
Lap 41/53 Mercedes asks Hamilton to change strategy as Bottas is "under a lot of pressure". The gap between them is four seconds. Whatever that means.
Lap 39/53 Big lap from Hamilton, who is now three seconds clear of Bottas.
Lap 37/53 Hamilton sets a new fastest lap. Victory is getting closer for him.
Lap 36/53 The safety car moves aside and Leclerc is immediately faster than Bottas, but he's not close enough to attack him. Meanwhile, Hamilton eases into a 1.4 second lead.
Lap 34/53 The safety car is still out...
Lap 33/53 Leclerc is back on the softs and can attack both Mercedes for the last 20 laps. Hamilton is surely heading for victory though.
Lap 32/53 Leclerc is back in the pits and Ferrari's afternoon is becoming a disaster.
Lap 31/53 "Bring back f***** V12s," was Vettel's message down the team radio.
Lap 29/53 During that drama, Ricciardo was forced to retire.
Lap 27/53 Very sad for Vettel and one can't help but think there is more to this than a straight power failure. The virtual safety car gives Mercedes the advantage and Hamilton is the new race leader.
VETTEL IS OUT! The German comes out of the pit lane just behind Leclerc and then almost immediately suffers a technical problem. Vettel is out and the inquest begins... that was very strange.
Lap 26/53 Vettel pits at the end of the lap and...
Lap 25/53 Leclerc sets the fastest lap of the race on his first lap out of the pits. The mediums are working for him. That will surely force Vettel into the pits...
Lap 22/53 Hamilton tells the Mercedes team radio that his "head is down and tyres are good"
Lap 21/53 Leclerc pits — 2.5 seconds — leaving Vettel with a 6.2 second lead over Hamilton.
Lap 19/53 Despite the good work by Verstappen, he won't get a podium today. The front three are in a league of their own right now.
Lap 17/53 Great driving by Verstappen, who moves into fifth after a nice pass on Sainz. Verstappen started back in ninth, great driving by him.
Lap 14/53 "I completely understand, the thing is I respected the plan at the start, I gave him the slipstream, no problems," says Leclerc, who is now 2.7 seconds behidn Vettel. The plot thickens...
Lap 13/53 Real drama in the Ferrari team. The instruction to Vettel to allow Leclerc through apparently came from Laurent Mekies, Ferrari's sporting director, rather than the Ferrari engineer.
Lap 12/53 A new fastest lap by Vettel, who is 3.5 seconds out in front. Hamilton is another 3.3 seconds behind Leclerc.
Lap 10/53 Just as Vettel sets a new fastest lap to leave Leclerc two seconds off the pace, Ferrari says "We're looking to Plan C". That seems to mean the swap will happen later, given that Plans A and B are no longer in play.
Lap 7/53 Ferrari is definitely planning a swap. Leclerc is told "Sebastian will let you by next lap".
Lap 5/53 Interesting message from Ferrari to Leclerc: "We are looking into the swap further into the race." Hmm.
Lap 3/53 The safety car has made way...
Lap 1/53 Grosjean and Ricciardo have come together and that means the safety car is out.
GO GO GO! Vettel has a blistering start, going from third to first! He leaves Hamilton for dead and then takes Leclerc on the inside. What a stunning start by the German!
13:05 Only one constructor has ever won in Sochi: Mercedes. Can Ferrari end that monopoly of victories? We have an intriguing race ahead of us...
13:00 Hello and welcome to live coverage of the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi! Lights out is in ten minutes or so...