I walked out of my hotel – well, aparthotel – this morning into bright blue skies, the landscape lined by the Black Sea on one side and the snow-capped mountains behind Sochi on the other. This race doesn’t have the best of reputations but when the day starts like that, with a 20 minute peaceful walk into the circuit who can object? It shouldn’t be a surprise that the weather will warm up to low twenties over the weekend – we are, after all, on the same latitude as Monaco, with water in front and mountains behind.
It hasn’t even been a hassle getting here. A reasonably spacious Aeroflot flight to Moscow – until the lady into front very suddenly reclined her seat into my lap – followed by a fairly brief stopover in Moscow and a very averagely signed connection procedure and then a two hour flight down here to Sochi. There was a man waiting to take me to the aforementioned aparthotel, he even drove me to the supermarket to make sure it was still open, and then into my studio for the night.
OK, I was awoken by the local canine population at 06.00hrs this morning and they did calm down for about half an hour before starting up again. This could be a disadvantage, but walk out of my building – which boasts a very small swimming pool – and we have the lovely walk to the circuit. What could be easier?
One of the curious stats about this circuit is that it’s the third longest in the championship, behind Spa and Silverstone. It has 18 corners and two heavy braking zones at the end of the two so-called straights – both of which have a very slight curve in them. The run into turn two at the start is always of interest, braking hard from around 330kph. Get that wrong and there are new speed bumps on the outside of the run-off at turn two to contend with.
There is then the long long lefthander at turn three which used to be a balance on the throttle but is now flat out, according to the simulators, so that should be interesting. It was the scene of Romain Gosjean’s major shunt last year, while Carlos Sainz is another to have had a big accident here, this time at the end of the back straight.
It is a semi-street, semi-permanent circuit which means that the barriers can be all too close to the side of the track. It is the third Grand Prix circuit to have Olympic connections; it’s built around the 2014 Winter Olympic village. (The other two circuits are Barcelona with its Olympic association, and Montreal). But being the fourth Grand Prix to be held here, the track has settled down so that the intense tarmac doesn’t feel so new any more.
Interestingly, Pirelli have brought their softest trio of tyres: soft, supersoft and ultrasoft as in Australia but softer than last year, although this track is well known as a track for a one-stop strategy, somewhere between laps 16 to 21 last year. Degradation and wear is low, but evolution is high, meaning that drivers and engineers are working towards an unknown future rather than current conditions. Understanding tyres – and particularly when the temperatures might be as low as in Sochi – is more important than ever in 2017.
Not surprisingly, Mercedes have dominated here with the winning driver going on to clinch the World Championship: Hamilton in 2014 and 2015, Rosberg last year. Apart from the Mercedes drivers, there has been an interesting mix of podium finishers: Vettel in second when Rosberg retired from the lead in 2015, plus Valtteri Bottas, Sergio Perez and Kimi Raikkonen. The younger Finn has qualified third on each occasion.
It is, of course, the fourth of what we call the flyaways; these are races that are not in Europe. Spain comes up next when one would expect to see a considerable amount of car development, but the signs are that this has already started with a number of teams. Renault, Ferrari, McLaren and Force India are among those known to be bringing updates to Sochi. This, of course, follows testing at Bahrain when teams were certainly able to understand their cars and their tyres a little more but with much warmer tyre temperatures than likely to be seen at Sochi. Having said that, it is just after midday on Thursday and the track temperature is already up to 35.
Qualifying, safety cars (three in the three races so far) and difficulties in overtaking – in spite of two DRS zones – are all potential factors in this race. Weather is unlikely to be a factor; it looks settled for the weekend after the earlier precipitation which left the mountains so white.
One other little factor that is beginning to look threatening after just three races is that only seven drivers out of 20 have not used a second example of any of the power unit elements so far. So 13 have used at least one second element and in the case of Carlos Sainz and Stoffel Vandoorne, a third. Drivers only have four of each this year, so penalties are going to be felt very soon and teams cannot stockpile elements this year as they did last.
Finally, an interesting little story reaches my ears. This year we only have one support race here for the Mitjet 2L arctic cup. We had Formula 4 here last year but this regional championship is promoted by SMP Racing, which is part of Boris Rotenberg’s motor sport empire. Banker Rotenberg and his brother are on a US blacklist which means that Liberty Media legally cannot do business with them, which is why there is no sign of Formula 4 here this year; their championship will start later in a month or so here. But an extension of this legislation is that the Russian Grand Prix here is on shaky ground; there are apparently other names on this blacklist and where Bernie Ecclestone was able to do business, Liberty Media are not.
By Bob Constanduros