The F1 is Black Sea-bound this weekend, as the drivers and constructors make their way to the winding roads of Sochi.
However, the F1 could be a little anticlimactic, with Ferrari’s title challenge having fallen away in recent weeks, with Lewis Hamilton having opened up a 40-point lead. With his last two victories coming against the odds in Italy and Singapore, the Brit has put himself in a commanding position, and Sebastian Vettel needs to dig deep if he’s to get back in the title race.
So will this race offer salvation for Vettel, or will Hamilton take another step towards a second consecutive title? Let’s take a look…
The Drivers to Watch
As you can probably gather, things are not going well for Ferrari at present. A defeat on their home turf at Monza was bad enough, but failing to press home their competitive advantage at Singapore dealt a seismic blow to Vettel’s title charge.
It appears that both Ferrari and their main driver are falling short at the worst possible time, just like they did during the Asian leg of the 2017 season. Arriving in Russia is unlikely to create a sense of optimism either, with Mercedes going unbeaten for the past four years here and Hamilton having recorded consecutive victories in 2014 and 2015.
While Hamilton will certainly start as the favourite here, the Russian Grand Prix may also offer a unique opportunity for his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to claim a relatively rare win. Make no mistake; the Finn has a superb record in Sochi, having claimed a fantastic win last year and shared the podium with Hamilton and Rosberg when driving for Williams in 2014.
He also finished fourth in 2016, having only been denied a podium finish by a reckless and clumsy lunge from Kimi Raikkonen, which took him out of action on the last lap.
Ferrari can at least console themselves with the fact that they had their best Russian Grand Prix showing last year, with Vettel having been edged out by Bottas by only 0.6 seconds.
So if the German can regroup following his recent disappointments and channel the spirit of Canada and Silverstone from earlier this year, he’s in with a chance of achieving a much needed win.
The Key F1 Statistics
We’ve talked about Mercedes’ recent dominance in Russia, and as a company Mercedes Benz actually have a 100% win record here.
The winning drivers in 1913 and 1914 both drove Benz cars, before the company evolved and became Mercedes Benz in 1926.
While this hints at a Mercedes win, the teams need to bear in mind that a one-stop strategy is probably the way to go in Russia. In simple terms, no single driver has ever finished in the top-four at the Russian Grand Prix after completing two or more pit stops, so breaking this trend really would take some doing.
From a driver’s perspective, there’s a pressing need to be watchful on Lap 1. In the history of Formula 1 racing in Sochi, 50% of all retirements have taken place during the opening lap, as we saw with the chaotic start in 2016.
Starting prominently on the grid is important here too, and if Bottas is to challenge his teammate for the win he’ll need to improve his record in qualifying. Since the summer break, the Finn has failed to come within 0.362 seconds of Hamilton during the third session of qualifying.
During the 2017 season, Bottas failed to get within 0.332 seconds of his teammate for six races, and he will need to reverse this trend if he’s to prevail this time around.
On a final note, it’s fair to say that Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull are probably not looking forward to the race. After all, Ricciardo has never finished in the top six at Sochi, and this represents the Aussie’s worst performance on any track across the globe.
What About the Circuit and the Tyres?
Sochi is the third Olympic venue to have hosted an F1 Grand Prix, following hot on the heels of Canada’s Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve and Spain’s Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
Despite being carved around four venues used for the 2014 Winter Olympics, the track at Sochi is actually the fourth longest on the calendar, only beaten by Spa, Baku and Silverstone.
Sochi is also a popular track among the drivers, thanks to its flat and open nature and the presence of several medium-speed corners. The circuit is littered with a couple of challenging turns, including the tricky Turn 13 which features a difficult braking point that can undermine even the best drivers.
Then there’s Turn 3, which is a 750-metre long, seemingly never ending left-hander that leads straight into a tight corner at Turn 4. This is balanced by a long straight, and in this respect Sochi provides one of the more forgiving F1 tracks.
As for the tyres, Pirelli have offered up the same soft, ultrasoft and hypersofts combination that was used for the Singapore Grand Prix last time out. This means that there remains a step between the compounds, offering a number of strategic permutations and possibilities to the leading constructors.
This makes sense, as the smooth surface of the Sochi track is ideal for the composition of the hypersofts tyres.
This tyre may struggle on the demanding turns, however, while the need to create a one-stop strategy could create some restrictions for both Ferrari and Mercedes.
We’re backing the winner to come from these two teams, although Vettel will have to see off both Bottas and Hamilton if he’s to secure a much needed win. With this in mind, and given the momentum that Mercedes have built recently, we like the odds of Hamilton recording a third consecutive win and extending his lead at the top.