Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Why, despite everything, I'm hopeful for the Russian Grand Prix

Confession time. I actually entered the Russian Grand Prix weekend in a hopeful state of mind for it. And ended it, despite everything, with reasonable optimism too. A position that for much of that time felt rather like one in a minority. But please, stay with me.

I ended the inaugural Russian Grand Prix with optimism
"GranPrixRussia2014 box" by kremlin.ru - www.kremlin.ru.
Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via
Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/
The event as far as plenty were concerned was ill-starred from an early stage. Sochi as a town is small (some 350,000 inhabitants) and remote; Moscow being a three hour flight - or if you prefer a 24 hour car journey - away. F1 isn't well-established in the country either. All of which carry implications for it attracting a crowd and achieving viability.

Then of course there are some of the happenings within the country that cannot be defended, and that its notorious President Vladimir Putin clearly was going to associate himself closely with the race (as indeed he did). We can add to it the more recent events of 2014 - the Ukraine situation and allegations of Russia's contribution to it - which for plenty exacerbated the point and meant that up until the 11th hour some were talking of the race not taking place at all.

Whether related to a combination of some or all of such matters or not I got the impression that a few were determined to hate the whole shebang last weekend. I encountered plenty of 'typical Tilke' comments in reference to the track, others that compared the place to Valencia which was not intended as a compliment. One established F1 journalist on the Friday went further and declared Sochi a 'Mokpo Mk II' (in reference to the egregious Korean venue of recent times) as well as a 'future white elephant' - on the grounds it seems that it's a long way from Moscow and the local town of Adler wasn't very exciting. There's nothing like giving a new circuit a chance. And that was nothing like giving a new circuit a chance.

My Twitter timeline on Saturday evening appeared filled with F1 journos complaining about the local restaurants, while one or two others were similarly scathing the next day about the dancing festivities on the pit straight prior to the race. Presumably sneering at the outputs of those who've expended considerable time and effort to put on a show for you makes some feel big.

As for the on-track matters a few, including some drivers as it transpired, upon viewing maps of the circuit layout feared the worst in advance too, in that it looked a lot like a dead loss. But just about all pilots were pleasantly surprised upon actually driving around the thing. Many of the turns, with their odd camber, were deceptively challenging. Lewis Hamilton noted further: 'There's a nice flow you can get on this track, I'm really enjoying it'.

Given all of this I was therefore more disappointed than usual that the race itself was rather tepid. Perhaps inevitably a few interpreted this as further evidence to denigrate the event; declare it as doomed to failure. But as outlined in my race report it shouldn't be seen necessarily as a condemnation of the track, rather that there were some peculiar circumstances last Sunday that were mitigating at least.

Pirelli's Paul Hembery was correct to wonder
what his company has to do
Photo: Octane Photography
Pirelli as it often is was rather conservative in its tyre compound selections for a first visit to a new track, and this was combined with that a new surface is usually like glass (I won't bore you with the science of that) which gives us near-zero degradation akin to the Bridgestone days. And therefore near-zero variation on pace as a result. And near-zero fun. As an example Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo circulated in tandem in the latter part of the race with 14 laps' difference in the mileage on their mediums. But you'd never have known it. Presumably on both counts things will be different in future.

As a digression too, it's rather ironic that Pirelli got criticism for providing a product that proved to be made of concrete, given for much of previous years the company has been fending off audible criticism precisely for not doing that. Paul Hembery was correct to muse on the irony of it all later. I'm sure though that a happy medium exists that will please everyone. Maybe.

Then there's the fact that the track's layout meant fuel was apparently more marginal than in nearly any other race, summed up by the words of Kevin Magnussen afterwards: 'It was almost like a chilled-out Sunday drive, in fact, because I was easing off the power 200 metres before the corners in an effort to save fuel. I was really surprised that no-one was able to catch me, in fact; I guess the guys behind me must have been experiencing the same problem.'

This wasn't helped by that the expected safety car didn't appear, which also would have had an added bonus of potentially spicing up the action more generally. Indeed the GP2 race of the previous day benefited from that very thing. More broadly one of the GP2 and one of the GP3 races were rather thrilling, and the feature of long straights with big stops should in theory make overtaking possible here. We shouldn't give up on the place in other words. And even Valencia provided a classic eventually.

The crowd for the debut Russian Grand Prix was a good one
"F1 Grand Prix Russia 2014 start lane" by Premier.gov.ru
press service - http://premier.gov.ru/photos/. Licenced
under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia
Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:F1_Grand
But I considered the debut Russian Grand Prix event a success. Visually I thought the venue was stunning, the backdrop all quirky, gleaming, modern architecture - a little reminiscent of Montreal's early days when the cars flashed between close-at-quarters weird and wonderful Expo buildings. The colours were richened and glinted the late summer, late afternoon, sun. Indeed the weather - another subject that the doomsayers referenced in advance - was excellent throughout. And the track circumnavigating the circular medals plaza, outlined by the elegant succession of national flags, was an excellent centrepiece. Scan back further and you see fine mountains in one direction and the waves of the Black Sea on the other. I was glad to see that Darren Heath agreed with me.

Fears of a sparse crowd weren't borne out either. I struggled to spot empty grandstand seats for the race (though the capacity was modest - around 55,000) and just about all present across the three days seemed enthusiastic. Of course we've seen plenty of times at new venues that early vast turnouts can dwindle rather quickly (see China, Turkey) but hopefully in this case with the rising star of Daniil Kvyat, presumably in a competitive ride in future years, and perhaps with Sergey Sirotkin to join him on the grid, results in fewer excuses for things not holding up. Add to this too that Bernie persevered with this race - for upwards of three decades - for a reason; that the country and therefore the 'market' is vast, that Russian investment already is present in Marussia, possibly soon in Sauber (though there seems a lot of prevarication in that deal) and the fulcrum of its own race presumably aids it growing further. No doubt it matters a lot to a few sponsors too. The race is important, and showed on its freshman appearance that it at least has a pulse.

I by no means always agree with Bernie, but in the sense that the Sochi event is one with a few factors making it worth persevering with, I will this time.

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