Lewis Hamilton wins Russian GP as Putin crashes Jules Bianchi tributes
British driver wins ninth race of the season but politics overshadows tributes to Bianchi
Lewis Hamilton won the inaugural Russian Grand Prix in Sochi, but despite matching Nigel Mansell's record of 31 Grand Prix wins and becoming only the fourth driver to win nine races in a season, it was not the Mercedes driver who was the centre of attention on Sunday, as two other men – Vladimir Putin and stricken Marussia driver Jules Bianchi – dominated proceedings.
For the teams and drivers the fate of Bianchi was utmost in their minds, and messages of support for the Frenchman, who remains on life support in a Japanese hospital were everywhere. But for the organisers the race appeared to be a tribute to President Putin.
The event "veered between political rally and, for the drivers and teams, an emotional maelstrom", says Kevin Eason of The Times. "The 21 drivers wanted to devote a silent minute to Bianchi before the race, yet a simple act of remembrance was overshadowed by nationalistic fervour and an unprecedented instruction from Ecclestone to line up in silence to respect the singing of the Russian national anthem."
The Daily Telegraph described Ecclestone's demand for "total silence" during the anthem as an "unprecedented edict". That Putin was granted an honour not afforded to the likes of Prince William, Prince Albert of Monaco and King Juan Carlos of Spain has raised eyebrows in some quarters.
"The manner in which proceedings were conducted, at the behest of President Putin to afford him maximum prestige, made a mockery of the idea that F1 does not mix politics and sport," says Daniel Johnson of the Telegraph. "Putin even presented the trophy on Sunday afternoon."
Hamilton appeared mildly surprised to encounter Putin on the podium but quickly recovered his poise. He deserves a job as a diplomat, says Kevin Eason of the Times, although he may be damning the driver with faint praise. "Hamilton gushed for Britain in a eulogy that will have made hair curl in the sensitive regions of the world where Putin's Russia is regarded as a threat and not a sporting wonderland," he sniffs.
As far as the race was concerned, it was plain sailing for Hamilton after a mistake from Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg on the first lap. The German, starting from second, briefly got in front of Hamilton before locking his tyres and being forced into the pits for new rubber. Although Rosberg battled back to finish second, a result that secured the constructor's championship for Mercedes, Hamilton now has a 17-point lead with three races to go.
All in all there was not a lot for Putin or anyone else get excited about, notes The Guardian. "Russian presidents are very good at impassivity... but most of the spectators had also mastered a look of stony indifference by the end of one of the most tedious races of recent seasons."
But after the events of last week there was also "relief", says the paper, that the event ended safely. And following his audience with Putin, Hamilton dedicated his win to Bianchi and sent what could be construed as a subtle message to Ecclestone and the Russian president.
"On the grid was emotional for everyone... For us drivers, we weren't thinking about the national anthem, we were thinking about Jules," he said.