Zdravstvuyte, F1 comrades.

Another race, another controversy. You may think ‘silly season’ is all about driver contracts but, as the end of the 2018 campaign draws ever closer, there’s something even crazier going on. Yep, the Russian GP showed that team orders are alive and kicking – in the hands of the Mercedes management at least.

You could argue until the Siberian huskies come home that they didn’t need to go down this unpopular road, such is the cushion Lewis Hamilton has over Sebastian Vettel in the championship standings. But Valtteri got the call and dutifully moved aside to gift Hamilton the win, not to mention a whopping 50 point lead over Vettel. No-one is denying Bottas is the moral victor.

It was heartbreaking to see the crushing disappointment in his eyes after the race. But team orders are a thing in Formula 1. Always have been. Everyone hates them, but they are here to stay. Anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t know their samovars from their elbow!

But enough of that nonsense. Top Dog is all about accentuating the positive. And boy, did we see a drive worth celebrating. Which of our hard-working hounds socked it to them in Sochi? Let the Salisbury Cathedral bells ring for…

…MAX VERSTAPPEN 

For the second race in a row, Max has reminded us of his credentials as a natural born racer. The birthday boy was simply stunning in Russia. It was a joy to watch as he treated  fans to an overtaking masterclass. He had plenty of it to do. Annoying engine penalties (sigh) put Max in P19 after qualifying. Not the birthday present he was hoping for, but our Dutchman certainly doesn’t lack courage.

Putin on a blitz

Max launched off the starting grid like a sputnik into space. He picked off car after car as he hugged the outside of Turn 2, keeping it just the right amount of aggressive and showing off his razor sharp reflexes as everyone jockeyed for position. He gained six places on the opening lap, for crying out loud. The passing party continued with overtakes on Ericsson, Grosjean, Perez, Ocon, Magnussen and Leclerc. All ruthlessly dispatched by Lap 8. Awesome stuff, and all the more remarkable as he was on the harder tyre to most other drivers, not to mention heavy with fuel. Max has been known to be impulsive in the past, especially when he’s on the back foot, which can result in some scrappy moves. Not so in Sochi. Verstappen’s overtakes were carefully calculated and smoothly executed. Much as we love to see him chucking banzai moves in impossible places, Max didn’t take any unnecessary risks. He was happy to play the long game and see just how far he could progress up the order. Could he spring a birthday surprise and get on the podium?

Russian rev elation

He continued to take that long view as the race unfolded. No doubt he was having to manage his tyres (groan) so he could run deep into the race. But he had great pace as he settled into 5th place and stayed within 20 seconds of the leaders. After the two Mercedes and Vettel pitted, his pace was still surprisingly strong. Raikkonen was leading at this point, but Verstappen wasn’t letting him get away. Kimi came in on Lap 18 and Verstappen found himself in the lead. As Hulkenberg remarked on the radio ‘how the hell did that happen?’ How indeed! It was great to see Max up front. His season has been up and down to say the least and he hasn’t always kept his head in the down times. His lapses into childish or even arrogant behaviour as a means of defence against criticism appear to be behind him. He is 21 after all! Not so long ago, he was threatening to head butt journalists. Now he’s positively kicking butt as he reminds us what a thrilling racing talent he is.

Max was in the lead for almost half the race, quite a feat when you consider where he started. He dealt with traffic with ease and his pace remained impressive until he finally stopped on lap 43. I love listening to Max on team radio. Sure, his sweary rants are fun, but I’m more impressed when he exudes cool and calm. He sounded like he didn’t have a care in the world as he contemplated when to come in. “The tyres are a little bit cold but let’s keep going. They feel okay and Lewis cannot follow.” Actually, Lewis had a damn good try at getting past the Dutchman but Max was having none of it. It was a slightly scary moment but fortunately, everyone survived unscathed.

The closest we got to a smile on the otherwise frosty podium

Alas, things didn’t go so well for Verstappen on the softer tyre. I was willing him to use his new boots to give Kimi a run for his money during those final laps. But the pace just wasn’t there and Max had to settle for a 5th place finish. Imagine where he might have ended up if he started in his usual top six position? It was yet another fabulous drive on the back of Singapore and a real pleasure to watch. While the lads on the podium had faces frostier than a Siberian winter, our birthday boy was justifiably chipper at a job extremely well done. His engineer remarked at one point to ‘remember the ultimate objective.’ He probably meant manage the tyres (yawn), but I prefer to think of it as ‘one day you will be world champion.’ In the meantime, our favourite 21-year-old has the key to the kennel door and another Top Dog award too. Many happy returns!

And so we are down to the last five races. The championship is Hamilton’s to lose, but can Ferrari pull out all the stops in Suzuka to keep their title dreams alive? Remember to follow Badger GP for all the action in Japan. Can’t wait!