Lewis Hamilton believes Ferrari had called the better strategy in Sochi, but the Virtual Safety Car helped him win the Russian Grand Prix.

Ferrari qualified on the soft compound tire while Mercedes went for mediums on Saturday in order to have a different strategy after watching Ferrari control last weekend’s Singapore GP from the front. Charles Leclerc started from pole position and Sebastian Vettel third at Sochi, but at the start, Vettel led his teammate out of Turn 2 and Hamilton said the pace Ferrari showed on soft tires in the early laps confirmed Mercedes was going to struggle to win the race.

“To win the race? I don’t think I was particularly confident but we knew that we were obviously on the different tire to put ourselves on a slightly different strategy in that respect,” Hamilton said. “I hoped that would give us an opportunity to dice and fight with them at some stage, but before the race we sat down and said our estimations. Will the soft tire last or not? Either we will be correct or they will be correct.

“I think, ultimately, they were right because the soft tire was much stronger than we anticipated. Obviously there was that difference between the compounds, so keeping up with the softs with their consistency and speed was hard — I wasn’t expecting that.

“There was that slight tail-off toward the end where I was able to start to close the gap; but it wasn’t massive chunks that I was taking out of them. Then we were able to extend for something like 15 laps, hoping that when we came back out on the softs, we had a chance to fight with one of them on different tires.

“But obviously the Safety Car and all those things came into it,” Hamilton observed.

With Leclerc pitting under the Safety Car and dropping to third place, Hamilton also had praise for his teammate Valtteri Bottas after Mercedes secured a 1-2 finish.

After the stops and Safety Car, Hamilton pulled clear, leaving teammate Bottas to fend of Leclerc. Image by Mauger/LAT

“Valtteri did an exceptional job. It is not easy keeping the Ferraris behind and Charles has been driving so well. Ultimately it is an incredible day for the team considering the challenges that we’ve had. We knew that we had to pull more out of this car this weekend, that there was more potential (in it). But we didn’t know where it was so we pulled ourselves a little bit closer to the Ferraris this weekend and it was just enough to get ahead of them.”

Ferrari ended up facing a team orders row during the race as Vettel took the lead courtesy of an agreement with Leclerc about how to approach the start. Hamilton admits he lost out on the run to Turn 2 in part due to the way the pair worked together.

“When we did the laps to the grid, I didn’t have a lot of grip. I don’t know about Valtteri, but I was a bit worried. We definitely lost a little bit in the initial phase but then I wasn’t able to get into the tow because (Charles) stayed on the left and gave Seb the tow. I tried to sneak in behind Seb but there was a McLaren there so I had no tow down to Turn 1 and I nearly lost another place.

“After that I tried to keep up with them, trying to do qualifying laps every lap just trying to keep up with them as they were so fast. That was a challenge but one I am really proud of.

“I’m really proud of everyone and I hope that everyone back at the factory is able to relax for a second (but) then come back and work hard tomorrow because we still have many races to go and a lot of challenges ahead of us.”

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