This weekend we travel from Japan, a country steeped in F1 history, to Russia, one of the newest venues on the calendar. Last time out in Japan was a largely dull affair, with the race victory going to Lewis Hamilton after an aggressive move at the second corner which effectively ruined Rosberg’s race. He had to back off to “avoid a collision” and dropped to fourth. After that it was plain sailing for the Briton, who extended his championship lead to 48 points with five races to go.
The Russian Grand Prix last year was also dictated by a second corner incident between the two Mercedes drivers, once again in Hamilton’s favour. Rosberg held the inside line into the first corner, but overcooked his braking into the second, locking both his front wheels and he sailed wide. He (controversially) retained his position but the flat-spots on the tyres meant he had to head straight for the pitlane, taking on the harder tyres for the rest of the race distance. He had to manage the tyres whilst being aggressive and pulled some excellent moves to recover to second position, once again showing the true dominance of the 2014 Mercedes car.
The Russian Grand Prix had been held twice, first in 1913 and in 1914 at a circuit in St. Petersburg, before the outbreak of the World War. They were both won by Benz drivers, with local man Georgy Suvorin taking victory in the inaugural race for his country. Grand Prix racing was abandoned in Russia with the establishment of the Soviet Union.
Bernie Ecclestone attempted to bring racing back to Russia in the early 1980s and even included the “Grand Prix of the Soviet Union” in the provisional 1983 calendar, but these efforts did not bear fruit as Cold War tensions were still high and the Russian economy was struggling to stay afloat. It was beaten to the title of the first race behind the Iron Curtain by the (then communist) Hungarian Grand Prix in 1986.
Efforts to restart negotiations to hold a race in Russia were reignited by President Vladimir Putin in 2001 with the start of construction of multiple tracks close to Moscow. None were successful in holding international motorracing until the Hermann Tilke designed Moscow Raceway, about 50 miles outside the capital which hosted Formula Renault, FIA GT1 and the Superbike World Championship in 2012.
It was the development of the Black Sea resort city of Sochi for the Winter Olympics that really caught the imagination and a deal struck between Ecclestone and Putin saw Russia’s inaugural Formula One Grand Prix held at the Sochi Autodrom in 2014 on the roads around the Olympic park.
The construction of the Sochi circuit was also entrusted to Hermann Tilke. The challenge of making an circuit that was integrated into the plans for the Olympic stadia has produced a rather constrained circuit, that somehow manages to combine high speed with technical twisting sections.
The huge grandstand opposite the pits towers over the cars as they fly down the start-finish straight into the gentle first corner, taken flat out with DRS open at over 180 miles per hour. The cars have topped 200mph before the heavy braking zone into the first real corner at turn 2 that tightens on the exit. The kerbs on the outside are inviting and can be abused to get good acceleration coming into the very wide and long left hand corner of turn 3 that loops a full 180 degrees around the Olympic medals plaza, Bolshoy Ice Dome and Shayba Ice Hockey Arena. This corner with it’s grippy surface is taken at an incredible 170mph and really punishes the right side tyres, before braking hard again.
Coming up next from turns 4 to 10 is a simple sequence of short blasts followed by 90 degree corners with liberties being taken at every possible kerb to maxmise acceleration. The exit of 10 is particularly important as it leads on to the back straight with the second DRS zone, but unfortunately overtaking is still difficult here as the “straight” is actually two long curves that make it easier to break up the tow. The braking zone at the end is also slightly curved, making a lunge into the tight right hander more difficult. The final part of the track is a tighter set of 90 degree corners to make up a rectangle around the back of the pit buildings that only serves to string the cars out again before reappearing on the start-finish straight.
BRAKING WITH BREMBO
Sochi is not one of the most challenging circuits for the braking system, even if the management of the friction material temperature is the key to managing the race with the guarantee of consistent performance and controlled wear. The most critical aspect, with regard to the braking system, is linked to the correct sizing of air intakes that ensure the optimum operating temperature for the brakes. Turn two is considered the most challenging for the braking system.
TYRES WITH PIRELLI – SOFT AND SUPERSOFT COMPOUNDS
The P Zero Yellow soft and P Zero Red supersoft tyres have been nominated for the Russian Grand Prix: a step softer than the inaugural race last year, when the medium and soft tyres were nominated. With no prior race data to go on in 2014, a deliberately conservative choice was made, but with real race information now available, a nomination more precisely suited to the exact characteristics of the track has been made. The new asphalt surface is smooth, and together with mild weather and mostly medium-speed corners, this leads to generally low tyre wear and degradation.
Paul Hembery, Pirelli motorsport director: “We’re very pleased to be coming back to Russia for the second Russian Grand Prix: a market that is crucial not only to ourselves but also every automotive manufacturer. There were a number of question marks that we faced coming to the Sochi circuit for the first time last year – as is inevitably the case with any new circuit – but we have since been able to collect extra data that means we have more information for 2015. As a result, we have gone a step softer with the tyre nomination this year to help us get back into the two to three pit stop window, which is what we desire for every race. However, both ourselves and all the teams are learning more about this circuit all the time, despite the advancement of simulation technology. The track has quite a wide variety of different corners, so it makes for a good all-round test for the tyres, with the drivers able to benefit from the extra speed of the supersoft this year.”
The biggest challenges for the tyres: Freshly laid asphalt often undergoes quite a radical change in its first year, particularly after going through a harsh winter season. However, track samples indicate that there has not been a major change in the characteristics of the Sochi asphalt from 2014 to 2015, with the surface remaining smooth and non-abrasive. With the circuit not being used extensively outside Formula One, a high degree of track evolution is expected, with a ‘green’ and slippery surface on Friday in particular. The most critical corner at Sochi is Turn 3 a long multi-apex left-hander that was inspired by the famous Turn 8 at Istanbul Park (which was also designed by Hermann Tilke). This stresses the front right
tyre in particular. In total there are 12 right and six left-hand corners, with a 650-metre straight between the first and second turns.
The 5.848-kilometre track will be the third longest of the year, behind Spa and Silverstone. Around 1.7 of those kilometres are run on public roads, and the race will run for 53 laps. Ambient temperatures of 15 to 20 degrees centigrade are expected, limiting the effects of thermal degradation.
Last year’s strategy and how the race was won: Lewis Hamilton won for Mercedes, starting on the soft tyre and switching to the medium on lap 30. The most remarkable strategy was used by his team mate Nico Rosberg, who switched from soft to medium on the opening lap after seriously flat-spotting his tyres. He emerged in 20th place but went on to finish second, completing more than 300 kilometres on one set of tyres and setting his personal best time on the penultimate lap.
Expected performance gap between the two compounds: 0.8 – 1.0 seconds per lap
Vladimir Putin stole the limelight in 2014, turning up half way through the race before taking a seat in a private section of the grandstand with Bernie to celebrate their triumph of bringing the race to Russia, before handing the victors trophy to Lewis Hamilton on the podium. At the end of the race Putin made his way to the cool down room to shake the victors hand but Hamilton accidentally ignored one of the most powerful men in the world. Lewis turned his back on Putin to take off his helmet and jump on the scales, then preferring talk to Bernie and the other drivers before realising who was stood rather awkwardly behind him.
Nico Rosberg was very fast here last year and was the form man. His mistake into the first corner gave Lewis an easy lights to flag win that took away the prospect of a scrap at the front, we will all be hoping for a better battle this time around.
Niki Lauda has warned that a repeat of his team’s Singapore disappointment is possible as the track surface is similar and the tyre allocation brought by Pirelli is more aggressive that last year, meaning that the tyres should play more of a role. Last year Rosberg was able to stay out on one set of tyres from lap two and finish second which should not be possible this time round.
The Mercedes powered teams will likely feature highly in proceedings this weekend as the circuit relies on traction and grunt to power rather than downforce with the relatively simple layout. Romain Grosjean will be especially pumped up after signing for debutants Haas F1 next year. He has a fondness for this location as his grandfather competed in the 1948 and 1952 winter olympic skiiing events.
If Max Verstappen can sort his qualifying gremlins and does not suffer another failure then we might be able to see a good performance from him, although he will be hampered a little by the reluctance of the Renault power unit to catapult him around the slalom course.
Nico Hulkenberg made good progress in Japan, after his first corner incident with Carlos Sainz and his team-mate, to climb from thirteenth to finish in a fantastic sixth position. The result will give him motivation, but he will be disappointed to learn that the revised calendar for next year has put the first ever Azerbaijan race in a direct clash with the Le Mans weekend in June, a move that will prevent him from defending his title.
SUPPORT RACES & ENTERTAINMENT
Formula One is joined by the GP2 and GP3 series again this weekend, but the Porsche Supercup takes a break before the final round at the Circuit of the Americas later this month.
The GP2 feature race at Monza was a hard fought contest between title rivals Alexander Rossi and Stoffel Vandoorne, with the now Manor driver taking the spoils as fresher rubber towards the end of the race gave him the edge in the fight, taking the lead into the first chicane.
The sprint race was also incredibly close at the front. Arthur Pic led most of the way but a dramatic last lap overtake from Mitch Evans saw him steal the victory. The pair were followed home by Vandoorne, who extended his championship lead as Rossi retired from the race after contact.
Both GP3 races at Monza were decided on the penultimate lap. In the first race Emil Bernstorff stormed his way through the field with some top class overtaking moves and finished off his charge by passing race long leader Esteban Ocon for the victory around the outside of the Roggia chicane. On Sunday, Jimmy Eriksson fought his way to the front and led brilliantly for most of the race until the penultimate lap when his car started to slow with a mechanical issue, gifting the victory to Marvin Kirchhöfer.
Sochi is a cultural hub, with a world class opera house, art museums and fascinating architecture. Natalie Imbruglia will be taking to the stage as the headline act of the Russian Grand Prix concerts on Saturday night. The stage itself is nestled in the center of the bowl created by turn three and will also see performances by popular local Russian bands. The Iceberg Skating Palace is putting on an adaptation of the Opera Carmen on ice over the weekend. There will also be a martial arts competition, stunt riders show and street theatre displays.
The race weekend is likely to be bathed in glorious sunshine as the region sees 200 days a year of sun, whilst it would also be possible to go skiing in the mountains around the venue as October is the start of the season. The Dendrary Botanical Gardens boast thirty acres of fabulous parkland to stroll through once you have seen all the colourful fish in the Discovery World Aquarium.