Lewis Hamilton can equal Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 Grand Prix wins in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix to cement his status as one of Formula One’s all-time greats.
The six-time champion, who has hoovered up six of the nine races in his matchless Mercedes this year, starts from pole position after posting the fastest time in a troubled and incident-hit qualifying session on Saturday.
Aside from his genius as a driver one of Hamilton’s hallmarks is his ability to remain centred and calm in the face of chaos and drama.
He showed that brilliantly when rising above the mayhem at the crash-littered Tuscan Grand Prix a fortnight ago, and again in qualifying on Saturday.
Just when a red-flagged crash and a void lap time looked set to keep him out of the top 10 shoot-out he kept his focus to emerge with a stunning pole.
But he starts the race on ‘soft’ tyres and faces the longest run to the first corner of any track on the calendar – a challenge that he said makes it very difficult for him to stay on top on the opening lap.
Hamilton has Red Bull’s young tyro Dutchman Max Verstappen alongside him on the front row of the grid and his ‘black arrows’ team-mate Valtteri Bottas behind him in third place.
The two of them will be expected to attack and slipstream Hamilton on the rush to the first corner, a tactic that brought Bottas his maiden win for Mercedes in 2017.
– Distractions –
In a mood of high expectation at the Olympic Park circuit, with a track temperature of more than 40 degrees, the race will also see the first significant crowd at a major sports event in the Covid-19 era, the organisers having sold 30,000 tickets.
Hamilton has won four times before at the Sochi Autodrom where Mercedes have won all six previous races since 2014.
But his record-equalling bid faced distractions and problems on Sunday morning shortly before the start.
Hamilton made a practice start outside a designated area in the pit lane exit and this was reported to the stewards in the minutes before the drivers joined for their anti-racism gesture in which Hamilton ‘took a knee’.
The Briton’s minor error of judgement followed an earlier move by the sport’s ruling body the International Motoring Federation (FIA) to revise their rules and bar him from wearing a t-shirt carrying a message on the podium.
Hamilton wore a black t-shirt carrying the message ‘Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor’ at the Tuscan Grand Prix two weeks earlier. On the back, his shirt had a photograph of Taylor, killed by police in Louisville in March, with ‘Say Her Name’.
The Briton and his Mercedes crew prepared as usual in the pre-race period, but there was considerable speculation about the stewards’ possible sanctions against Hamilton for his practice start.
Hamilton took a knee as usual, wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, together with the majority of the drivers and appeared to remain unperturbed by the incident.
Earlier this week, he said he expected the FIA to act on the issue of drivers’ attire during official ceremonies.
Hamilton, F1’s first black champion, has led the sport’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement and has pledged to increase F1’s diversity.
Asked about the record on Thursday he said: “I don’t know what it means to me… Of course, there’s so much else going on in the world, but, of course, it’s an honor.”