Wednesday 8 October 2014

Sochi Preview: One to get through

You would forgive the F1 fraternity, and plenty of fans, if they felt that this impending Grand Prix weekend is rather one to be got through. Moreover one that they could do without. Not necessarily a reflection on the Grand Prix in question. Rather that as we know the harrowing conclusion of the Suzuka race just passed, with Jules Bianchi's accident and resultant injuries, reminded us in a harsh way that, as Mario Andretti worded it, motor racing is also this.

It seems equally harsh that there has been little opportunity for grass to grow under the sport's feet since; little opportunity to reflect, consider, pause in respect. As almost in a blink of an eye - and with the matter far from settled - all were ripped away for the lengthy journey to the next round taking place but days later. And indeed the racing goes on unabated, though we can take some succour from the knowledge that the racing going on presumably is exactly what Jules would have wanted us to do.

Bernie signs the deal, under the watchful eye of Vladimir Putin
"Russia Grand Prix sign" by -
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via
Wikimedia Commons -
And while it's easy to miss among it all, at the sport's geo level this particular race meeting is an important one. At last a Russian Grand Prix is upon us - for the first time in exactly 100 years. Rather an important frontier for the sport.

Moreover it has been established following no fewer than three decades of trying on the part of Bernard Charles Ecclestone.

For most of this time there has been regular talk of a Russian/Soviet race, as well as visits by Bernie and apparent resolutions, all of which before now turned out to be false dawns. Indeed, a Grand Prix in the Soviet Union, to be held on the streets of Moscow, appeared on a provisional F1 calendar as long ago as that for the 1983 season (after a visit to the country by the same Bernie in 1982), only to be scuppered by various bureaucratic machinations. As it was the first Grand Prix of the F1 era in the Eastern Bloc was in Hungary in 1986, which had proved to be more accommodating.

Momentum for and interest in a Russian/Soviet race seemed diluted for a while after that, despite the continuing occasional murmur. That was until the turn of the millennium. In the noughties more venues were touted and advanced to varying degrees before petering out, including in Moscow (again), St. Petersburg and Pulkovo Airport. All the while the prospects of a Russian Grand Prix we suspected were ranked somewhere alongside that of a Grand Prix in New York - another ubiquitous but apparently unattainable venue in Bernie's vision.

But latterly matters picked up. Indeed a Herman Tilke-designed 'Moscow Raceway' (though some 80km from Moscow) was completed and following its opening in 2012 hosted Formula Renault 3.5 among other things

And finally in late 2010 it was announced that a Russian Grand Prix was to happen. Not in Moscow though but rather in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which agreed a deal to host the event between 2014 and 2020 with the self-same Bernie. He got there in the end. And unlike with the latest New York (or rather New Jersey) attempt we've come around to the scheduled date, and you know what the thing is actually happening.

Sochi's initial claim to international fame was upon hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics. And the Grand Prix exists cheek-by-jowl. The track winds its way through the various gleaming sports buildings of the Olympic Park. This means that various facilities and infrastructure, such as those for the media, already were there. Smart.

The Olympic Park architecture will make up the background.
This is the Ice Skating Palace.
"Iceberg Skating Palace" by Atos -
photos/atosorigin/12171841244/. Licensed under Creative
Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia
This particularly christening has had a rather persistent chattering bad fairy though. Right from the start there were doubts. There were environmental and social controversies around the Olympic Park in its early days. Sochi as a town is small (some 350,000 inhabitants) and rather secluded - both Moscow and Istanbul are a three hour flight away. Some reckoned that since the Olympics left there's been rather a lot of the white elephant about the place. F1 isn't well-established in the country either. Russia's human rights record at large is far from perfect (though I can think of at least four other F1 hosts that we could deal with on that front before we get to Russia).

And earlier this year the bad fairy got louder, with tensions escalating within Ukraine involving the ethnic Russian population mainly in the east of the country, combined with claims of Russia's contribution to it as well as its annexation of Crimea. It got louder still with the shooting down of the MH17 passenger aircraft over the unsettled area. Sanctions were imposed on Russia in response - which also according to rumour strained the money available for the Grand Prix. As did the resultant increase in security required for the event. There was pressure - including reportedly that from high places - for the round to be boycotted.

But Bernie as we know is not for turning, and the boycott speculation came to nought as it always seems to. Champions League and European Championship qualifying football matches, among other things, have happened in Russia in recent weeks without anyone batting an eyelid. You'd almost think F1 was a soft target or something. Thus we're all here now. Perhaps we should make the best of it.

And in one rare stroke of good fortune for the event a very fast young Russian in Daniil Kvyat has impressed in his freshman F1 campaign this year (and in so doing he got a Sochi grandstand named after him). And with Red Bull confirming just last weekend that he's getting a rather sought-after promotion, his big break could hardly have been better timed. Additionally, for all of the doom-mongering about local interest the organisers insisted a few weeks ago that they expect tickets to sell out.

The track appears to have a lot of Montreal about it. Like the Île Notre-Dame Circuit it is a temporary one, around an Olympic facility, and like the Canadian track too (particular in its early days) its backdrop is all futuristic, other-worldly architecture.

Like Montreal also, it appears made up largely of straights separated by tight corners, with at least a couple of good overtaking opportunities. Others have noted similarities with Abu Dhabi, Valencia and Korea.

Sochi however also features a curious and incongruous lengthy turn three, supposedly based on Turkey's turn eight, though may not be as spectacular as it follows a tight turn. Whatever is the case it'll likely tax the right-front tyre. Pirelli has brought the soft and medium compounds, seeking to balance off this consideration with what probably with be a low grip surface and that ambient temperatures are likely to be rather cool.

The tracks winds through the Olympic Park.
"Future track Formula 1 in Sochi Olympic Park" by Sergei
Kazantsev - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
The track is rather a step into the unknown, and more so even than usual for a debut event given there is not much of a data basis to work with. Pat Symonds outlined in F1 Racing magazine that for this circuit it's not known how to optimise energy recovery, neither is it known whether the race will be fuel-limited. Apparently scanning of the track for simulation has been difficult to access, so they've based it on surveyors' drawings instead. Symonds noted that this Grand Prix weekend could in significant part be a battle of which team gets its heads around the new circuit the fastest.

But still no one is expecting any car other than the Mercedes to be on top as usual. And of course in Sochi we'll be witness to the latest episode of the all silver drivers' title battle. Things are getting critical - after this round there are but three remaining (though one - notoriously - offers double points). Lewis Hamilton has had all of the momentum since Spa and all that, and last weekend grew his lead to ten. Another win and his lead will be 17 at least. And then without unreliability or other unusual circumstances he'll just need another triumph in an intra-Merc battle for the war to be won.

Nico Rosberg therefore one feels rather needs to deliver. Adding to his challenge is that if the place is indeed like Montreal or Abu Dhabu then those tracks have been long considered Lewis country. But then again in Canada earlier this year it was Nico that qualified ahead, and led much of the way before Lewis was struck down by unreliability. He got an 18 point swing over him too.

More broadly the point-and-squirt nature should suit all Mercedes-powered machines. Williams with its slippery chassis is a good bet for best of the rest.

Of course, back in Montreal it was Red Bull that prevailed (though via a rather corkscrew path) and new tarmac, with bitumen rising to the surface presumably to make things rather low-grip, should suit the RB10's strong downforce levels.

But just like in Canada the Bulls, like everyone else, will almost certainly enter the weekend relying on Mercedes faltering.

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