Lewis Hamilton took a commanding victory at the inaugural Russian Grand Prix to extend his Formula One championship lead to 17 points over Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg.
Having claimed the first ever pole position around the 3.6 mile Sochi circuit, Hamilton put in a measured drive to take his fourth win on the bounce and equal Nigel Mansell’s British record of 31 Grand Prix victories.
The event was overshadowed by the concern for Marussia driver Jules Bianchi, who remains in a critical condition after a crash at last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix.
Before the race, team members and every driver led a respectful tribute to the 25 year old Frenchman as Marussia opted to run only one car, leaving Bianchi’s fully prepared on stands in the garage.
Rosberg started on the front row alongside Hamilton and briefly sneaked ahead of his main title rival on the long sweeping run down to Turn 2, before a dramatic lock up under heavy breaking flat-spotted his tyres.
The mistake forced the German to pit at the end of the opening lap for a tyre change and fight his way back through the field.
Remarkably, Rosberg made his set of medium tyres last for 52 of the scheduled 53 laps as he recovered to finish second and limit the damage to his own title hopes.
This recorded the duo’s ninth one-two finish of 2014, sealing the constructors’ championship for Mercedes in the process.
Valtteri Bottas ran second for much of the race and shadowed Hamilton in the early stages, but had to settle for the final podium place after he had made his solitary pit stop and it had become clear that Rosberg could go the distance.
Rosberg had picked his way through the backmarkers and emerged third and right behind Bottas, after the leading cars had made their mandatory pit stops.
The German scythed down the inside of Bottas into Turn 2 to move into second, where he would hang on until the chequered flag, contrary to Williams initial belief that he would struggle.
Running 20 seconds behind Hamilton, Rosberg put in a couple of fastest laps to close the gap a little, before Hamilton responded with his own fastest lap to prove that he was in control, having looked the superior of the dominant Mercedes drivers throughout the weekend.
The British driver’s ninth win of the year means that Rosberg – with four, can no longer match his team-mate for victories in the final three races, despite the championship fight remaining wide open.
Mathematically Hamilton is unable to win the title until at least the penultimate round at the Brazilian Grand Prix, regardless of what happens next time out in the United States.
Following the race Hamilton dedicated his win to Bianchi: “It would be great to dedicate it to him and his family,” the 29 year-old said.
“It would make a very small difference to them, but every bit of positive energy hopefully will help. We all need to be sending positive vibes that way. I think the whole week there has been one person in mind and that’s Jules”.
Hamilton was also quick to hail his Mercedes team for producing such a competitive car which he labelled a “dream” to drive.
“An unbelievable job from this team, what this team has achieved is incredible, to all the guys back at the factory thank you so much. They have done an incredible job and I am proud to be a part of it.”
Fellow Englishman Jenson Button collected his best result since the British Grand Prix by finishing fourth, whilst McLaren team-mate Kevin Magnussen – who qualified sixth but started 11th due to a gearbox change – recovered excellently to claim fifth.
Fernando Alonso had a brilliant get away from seventh on the grid to lie fourth by the end of the first lap, but ultimately lacked the pace to fight the McLaren’s and suffered from a delay in his pit stop.
The Spaniard held off Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull to finish best of the non-Mercedes powered runners in sixth.
Current world champion Sebastian Vettel ran ahead of his slow-starting Red Bull team-mate in the early stages, but a strategy decision to go longer in the first stint cost him as Vettel was forced to settle for eighth.
Kimi Raikkonen ran a lonely race in ninth in the second Ferrari, whilst Sergio Perez claimed the final point in his Force India by rounding out the top 10.
The Mexican just held off Williams’ Felipe Massa, who started 18th after a fuel pressure problem hampered his qualifying session. Massa had attempted a two-stop strategy in the hope of salvaging lost ground, but fell short of any points.
Nico Hulkenberg took 12th, whilst Daniil Kvyat finished a disappointing 14th at his home race, following his superb fifth place in qualifying. The 20 year old slipped back on the opening lap as Toro Rosso struggled for race pace, with team-mate Jean-Eric Vergne also well outside of the points in 13th.
The F1 paddock takes a three week break before action resumes at the United States Grand Prix in Texas on November 2nd, where the title battle enters its final stages of a tantalising season.