Russia plays host to its first F1 race at Sochi’s Olympic park – but the paddock talk won’t be about racing in Russia…
When Russian-backed Ukrainian rebels shot down a Malaysian airliner, and the world teetered towards conflict, it looked touch and go whether we would have a debut Russian Grand Prix in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Since then the political temperature has cooled and at the last minute there were more concerns about Typhoon Phanfone preventing teams getting there than government intervention. Now in the wake of Jules Bianchi’s Suzuka accident, the move announced by Sebastian Vettel and the elevation of homegrown superstar Daniil Kvyat to a race-winning team, politics will be taking a back seat.
For Russian-owned team Marussia it will be a bittersweet weekend. Having looked forward to this race for so long – and worried that there might be some political intervention to stop it – to have Jules Bianchi crash out at Suzuka was the worst of the worst-case scenarios. In Monaco this year Marussia finally made it into the points thanks to Jules ninth-place finish, the first in F1 history for a Russian-entered team.
Sebastian Vettel has visited Sochi for Red Bull and hurled the team’s former driver, David Coulthard around in an Infiniti sports car. So he has first-hand knowledge of the circuit: “There are definitely similarities to other tracks, perhaps the best comparison is Singapore. But unlike Singapore, the layout is more fluid, so it will be much faster. Some sectors remind me a bit of South Korea or Abu Dhabi. Generally, I think it has a very successful mix of corners with different characters, some of them will be very difficult, and that’s ultimately what we want as drivers.”
Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery has had his technicians analyse the tarmac in Sochi and rates it as “low abrasion asphalt. He also thinks it’s like a much-faster version of Singapore: “From a tyre perspective it should be an interesting challenge; we’ve got a wide variety of corners that should test every aspect of performance. As has been the case at every grand prix this year, we’re aiming for between two and three pit stops per race and the nomination we have made reflects this. In terms of overall tyre energy demands.”
Pastor Maldonado has driven the Lotus simulator for Sochi. But believes the track surface will evolve very quickly: “Everything is new and especially in terms of the surface there is no way for us to know how the track will develop during the weekend. In the past we saw situations like in Austin where the track was super slippery at the beginning and then session after session we were making improvements of two or three seconds. It’s vital to stay on top of everything because parts of the set-up that were working well might hold you back when you go five or six seconds a lap quicker.” So it will be very important
We once had an F1 circuit in a Las Vegas casino car park, but this is the only F1 race track to circle an Olympic park. Daniil Kvyat may still only be 19 but he’s already had a Sochi grandstand named after him at the 55,000 capacity venue.
Vitaly Petrov became the first Russian driver to compete in F1 when he joined Renault for the 2010 season and also took the Fastest Lap at the Turkish GP that season. In 2011 he became the first Russian to stand on an F1 podium after a brilliant drive for Lotus to third place in Melbourne. As we all know, he’s been superseded by the formidable talent of Daniil Kvyat, but expect to see him in the paddock this weekend.
McLaren driver Kevin Magnussen thinks that although there is a lot more track width at Sochi than either Singapore or Monaco, it will still be tough to pass other cars: “It’s hard to see a key place for overtaking – there are no particularly big stops or opportunities where you can really place your car up the inside. Turn 11, which is the right-hander at the end of the back straight, might be a good possibility. Turn 13 could be an option, too. Team-mate Jenson Button is waiting to see: “As with all these new venues, they only really begin to unlock themselves once you get out on the track for the first time. I’ve lost none of my enthusiasm for going to new places, so I’ll be keen to get out there on Friday morning.” (Bit of a hint there, Ron)
The weather forecast for the three days will be a complete contrast to Suzuka with sunshine for Sochi on Friday, Saturday and Sunday – the temperatures will creep up from 22C on Friday to 24C on Sunday.
In future years the Russian GP may be twinned with the F1 race in Azerbaijan which will take place a short flight away in the capital Baku. Baku is on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea while Socji is on the western side of the Black Sea, with the country of Georgia ion between. On Wednesday, Baku unveiled its own street circuit for the inaugural 2016 race.