When you think of motorsport Russia isn’t the first place that comes to mind. In fact, it’s probably not even in your top five. However, this weekend the Formula 1 paddock puts Russia front and center as it heads to the Sochi Autodrom for the fourth round of the 2016 season.
The Sochi circuit hosted its first grand prix race in 2014 and is the first purpose-built Formula 1 site in Russia. The 5.8 kilometer track was built under the watchful eye of F1’s favoured designer Herman Tilke and has a capacity of 55 000. The most striking feature of the circuit is its integration to the Olympic Park that hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The circuit, second in length only to Spa and Silverstone, requires compromise in terms of car setup. The start and end of the lap demands good traction and braking performance while the middle sector requires a more technical approach to master the flow of the corners.
“It’s a very modern track with a few corners that look quite similar by they are never as easy as they might look, because you have to try and driver the car in the limit each time you turn,” says Russian driver Daniil Kvyat.
In the two races it’s put on the Sochi Autodrom has shown little tyre wear. So little in fact that in 2014 Nico Rosberg was able to complete a stint of 52 laps on one set of tyres. But the introduction of a third compound choice in 2016 means that we’re unlikely to see a repeat of what happened here two years ago.
The Red Bull and Haas F1 Team have opted for an aggressive tyre strategy by selecting ten sets of supersofts, two sets of softs, and one set of the medium compound tyre. It’s an expected choice for these two teams who have been able to make the supersoft tyre last longer than their closest rivals. The Red Bull drivers, Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat, may not have a straight forward shot at the podium but will be ready to pounce should either of the Merc or Ferrari drivers have an issue during the Russian GP on Sunday.
There is a marked difference between Mercedes and Ferrari’s Russian GP tyre choices too. While all four drivers have only one set of mediums on the shelf Hamilton and Rosberg have opted for eight sets of supersofts, and four sets of the yellow-walled soft tyres. In contrast, Raikkonen and Vettel have chosen six sets each of the soft and supersoft compound.
The thinking behind Ferrari’s tyre choice could be to do one less stop than Mercedes in the race by running the more durable soft tyre for a longer stint. As the supersoft is generally the quicker tyre to run on much will depend on how big a time deficit there is between it and the more durable soft tyre.
The run down to the first corner is a long one, which dramatically tightens into turn one. Ferrari will be extra vigilant after Sebastian Vettel got into the side of Kimi Raikkonen in China. In every round so far Ferrari has faced some issues whether through their own making or uncontrollable reliability problems. If the Italian team is to mount a serious challenge for the top step of the Russian GP podium, which it seems likely they can, the first order of business will be to have a clean race.
The last time we visited Russia, Mercedes were on the brink on clinching a constructor’s title and Lewis Hamilton had been outperforming teammate Nico Rosberg by a considerable margin. In 2016, the story so far reads much differently. Now it’s up to Lewis Hamilton to show what being a three time world champion really means.