MX23RW : Monday, October 22 21:37:04

Putin on a show – 5 things we learned from the Russian Grand Prix

Race in Sochi – attended by the Russian leader – was dominated by the Mercedes team orders controversy.

Lewis Hamilton strengthened his grip on the Formula One world championship after controversially winning the Russian Grand Prix.

The Mercedes driver is 50 points clear of Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel with only five rounds remaining.

Here, Press Association Sport looks back at five things we learned from Sunday's race at the Sochi Autodrom.

1. Mercedes make the right decision

Lewis Hamilton's muted celebrations after the 70th victory of his career told you everything you needed to know. Hamilton is a racer and he was gifted the victory here.

It clearly didn't sit well with the British driver, nor his Mercedes team. The Silver Arrows have never used such a blatant team order than when they asked Valtteri Bottas to slow down on lap 25 and move aside for Hamilton.

It was a result which provoked criticism from some fans, yet Toto Wolff, team principal for Mercedes and whom the final decision rested with, made the right call.

Unlike the farce of Austria 16 years ago when Rubens Barrichello, under instruction from Ferrari, moved out of Michael Schumacher's way on the very last corner, Bottas is out of this championship fight. One hundred and 10 points behind Hamilton before Sunday's race, the Finn may have been naive to think he would be allowed to finish ahead of Hamilton.

At this stage of the year, Hamilton needs all the points he can get, and the extra seven he scored in Sochi may yet prove the difference. The order was an agonising one for Wolff to make, but he knew it was the right one. Perhaps where the Austrian went wrong was allowing Bottas to think he could finish ahead of his team-mate.

2. Did Vettel put up enough of a fight against Hamilton?

From Sochi comments on today's race. #RussianGP #ForzaFerrari

Posted by Scuderia Ferrari on Sunday, September 30, 2018

Mercedes' use of team orders was the focal point following Sunday's race which may have left Vettel breathing a sigh of relief.

The German managed to get ahead of Hamilton after leapfrogging his title rival during the only round of pit stops. His advantage, however, lasted less than five miles with Hamilton fighting his way back past the Ferrari.

Yes, Mercedes were quicker than Ferrari in Sochi, but was Vettel's sometimes questionable race craft exposed again?

First, he was the subject of a stewards' investigation after aggressively defending from Hamilton at the second turn. Hamilton was forced to slam on the anchors at close to 220 miles per hour, and then a poor exit from Vettel out of the ensuing left-hander enabled Hamilton to make the move stick at the fourth bend.

It is notoriously troublesome to overtake in Sochi, but Hamilton made it appear straightforward. Passing the Ferrari also enabled Mercedes to manufacture the Briton's victory, ensuring a 13-point championship swing in his direction. Should Vettel have put up a greater fight? One thing's likely, had Hamilton been defending, it probably wouldn't have been that easy.

3. Verstappen proves why he's Red Bull's main man

Max Verstappen performed impressively in Sochi
Max Verstappen performed impressively in Sochi (Sergei Grits/AP)

Max Verstappen had a 21st birthday to remember by producing an impressive fightback from 19th to fifth. The Dutchman started at the back after he incurred a series of engine penalties before a brilliant opening three laps, in which he made up 10 places, and then picked his way through the best of the rest to be behind only the Mercedes and Ferrari cars by lap seven.

Out of sync with the front-runners, Verstappen even led the race for a short spell, eventually taking the chequered flag in fifth. Daniel Ricciardo also started at the wrong end of the grid, and finished one spot behind his Red Bull team-mate, but his progress through the field was not as rapid, and not as spectacular. Verstappen's status as the main driver at Red Bull must surely have been one reason behind Ricciardo's decision to join Renault, but on Sunday's evidence it's not hard to see why Red Bull view Verstappen as their top dog.

4. Bernie's back in town

Ecclestone, right, with Russian President Vladimir Putin
Ecclestone, right, with Russian President Vladimir Putin (Mikhail Klimentyev/AP)

Despite being awarded the title of F1's chairman emeritus following Liberty Media's takeover of the sport, Bernie Ecclestone's presence at a grand prix weekend is one that the American owners would rather do without.

But Ecclestone was in the paddock in Russia this weekend, his first visit since the Austrian Grand Prix earlier this summer. The Sochi race is one that Ecclestone struck up with Vladimir Putin, and he sat alongside the Russian president in the VIP grandstand for the closing laps.

Ross Brawn, Liberty's representative, rather awkwardly sat on the other side of Putin. Ecclestone, who turns 88 this month, may now be on the outside of a sport he almost single-handily transformed into a multi-billion dollar global show, but his interest appears undiminished.

He surprisingly, and rather amusingly, joined journalists for Wolff's post-qualifying press conference on Saturday, listening on before chewing the fat with those gathered after the media briefing.

5. Norris loses F2's "Battle of the Brits"

English teenager Lando Norris will head for the McLaren race team next season without adding the Formula Two championship to his CV. The feeder series, which has been won by Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and most recently, Charles Leclerc, instead appears to be heading in the direction of another English youngster, George Russell.

Norris, 18, endured a miserable weekend in Sochi, while Russell won the sprint race on another impressive weekend. He leads Alexander Albon – his only title contender – by 37 points with just the season finale in Abu Dhabi to come.

Whether Russell, the Mercedes junior driver, joins Norris on the F1 grid next year remains to be seen. Williams is his only option, but the struggling British team are yet to finalise their plans for 2019.

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Lewis Hamilton at the British GP on July 7, 2018
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