Monday 25 April 2016

Sochi Preview: F1's ugly duckling

There's always one, isn't there? That one F1 round people find particularly hard to love. For a while it was Valencia. Then it was the Mokpo venue in Korea. Now dear reader I give you Sochi in Russia.

The Russian Grand Prix in Sochi divides opinion
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And it has this ugly duckling status for a number of reasons it seems. The race was in many eyes tainted at source, even though Bernie Ecclestone's attempts to get this round onto the F1 calendar stretched back literally decades. A Grand Prix in the Soviet Union to be held on the streets of Moscow appeared on the provisional F1 calendar as long ago as 1983 indeed.

But even by the time that the race finally was penned in to debut in 2014, at that year's Winter Olympics venue of Sochi, plenty thought nevertheless we could wait a little longer. Its very existence was controversial from several months out with unrest in Ukraine and Russia's alleged contribution to it dominating many headlines. Some thought too resultant sanctions would mean the race's money would run out.

A year on too for the second F1 visit as well as Ukraine matters being far from resolved there also was the uneasy background noise of Russia's activity in Syria, including that some of the missiles fired therein weren't landing all that far from the Sochi venue. In both there were concerns more generally about Russia's human rights record and particularly its legislation prohibiting any 'positive mention of homosexuality' in the presence of minors. That Russian President Vladimir Putin has associated himself closely with both F1 visits hardly helped de-couple it all from the event in the minds of onlookers.

Happen the races did though, as they were always going to given we know it takes a lot for Bernie or the FIA to halt these things. Perhaps tanks rolling in through the circuit gate...

Yet the event's unpopularity wasn't all about politics. Plenty of 'typical Tilke' comments have been made about the Sochi track, as have unflattering comparisons with the previous pariah Valencia. Kate Walker moreover during the first visit immediately declared Sochi a "Mokpo Mk II" as well as a "future white elephant", on the grounds variously that it's a long way from Moscow (a three hour flight or if you prefer a 24 hour car journey away) and the local town of Adler wasn't very exciting. And her sentiments were far from atypical, as during the venue's freshman weekend Twitter feeds were filled with F1's fourth estate making similar comments, mainly via sneering at the local eateries.

The debut Sochi race was a dull one
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The debut race too was soporific, Adam Cooper explaining that "there was a perfect storm of bulletproof tyres, no safety cars and extreme fuel saving, which together turned the inaugural Russian GP into one of the dullest races of 2014". This was despite two examples in the layout of the trademark Tilke long straight ended by a tight turn, intended to provide overtaking opportunities.

The 2015 race was better, aided by safety car appearances not only heading off the fuel saving but one being tantalisingly timed so to split the field apart on strategy, meaning the varying approaches came together at the the end to give us a madcap finish. But there were still grumbles, not least a number of large accidents throughout the weekend and some, erm, courageous examples of marshalling. While in what surely is a Sochi special a Friday practice session was wiped out by a heavy diesel spillage. From a track-cleaning vehicle...

For the sport's folks it all still seems more uneasy truce with Sochi than warm embrace, with Martin Brundle adding last year that "I can't pretend it's a venue I relish going to". Yet the race lives on into year three and the worst predictions about the Russian round - such as tiny crowds - have yet to come to pass. This year too with local hero Daniil Kvyat with perfect timing having bagged a podium in China, this one might even have something like a charmed existence.

Not everything about the first two rounds here will change this time though, as of all of the races on the calendar this is one among those in which strategy is least likely to vary.  It's all a matter of bitumen, with an incredibly smooth surface big on the stuff making even Pirelli's gumball super-soft rather long-lasting. Tyre degradation rates at Sochi are minimal, last year it was estimated at a hundredth of second per lap for the soft and two hundredths for the super-soft. This has meant races here are rather like those from the Bridgestone days, with one-stop strategies a no-brainer (that the pit stop loss time is one of the biggest of the year further pushes strategists that way). Reflecting all of this, everyone's piled high on the super-softs in their tyre selection this time and only the Manors have requested an extra set of mediums.

Daniil Kvyat will get plenty of support at home
Участник:GennadyL [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Also like the Bridgestone era drivers in Sochi races are able to push tyres to the maximum throughout, and have appreciated this characteristic, with Lewis Hamilton noting last year that "I much prefer this way of racing". But the flip side as noted is little strategy variation or frolics associated with tyres degrading.

But drivers still might not be able to push throughout as the layout, one of heavy braking and accelerating, means in contrast to its effect on the tyres it's one of the most taxing on the fuel limit. This as intimated particularly manifested itself in the 2014 race where there was no safety car to help out and for most therefore the race was an economy run, summed up by the words of Kevin Magnussen afterwards.

"It was almost like a chilled-out Sunday drive" he said, "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." The length of some of the support races had to be reduced for this very reason too.

The track characteristics will likely have an impact on qualifying too, with getting heat into the front tyres for your flying lap tricky while still ensuring the rears don't overheat. Last year some went for more than one warm up lap before their flier, while others went for more than one flier in a single run with an ers-charging lap in between. It's ironic that the late and maligned elimination qualifying format probably would have stood its best chance of working here.

Both Sochi races so far have been won by Lewis Hamilton
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In both Sochi visits Lewis Hamilton has won, and at a canter. And in both he was aided by something impeding his Mercedes stable mate Nico Rosberg. In the first visit Nico tried to outbrake Lewis into the opening turn, and got it very wrong - the plumes of smoke coming from his front wheels being rather the visual image of the late championship swing against him that campaign. While last year it was not Nico's fault, him taking pole by a distance (with Lewis actually having an off-track moment trying to beat him) and then leading the race only to be forced out early with a throttle problem.

More broadly even though this is round four of the campaign it still feels, as an acquaintance pointed out to me, rather like we remain in pre-season. None of the races so far have been a straight measure of who's hot and who's not, either in Nico versus Lewis or indeed in Mercedes versus its presumptive challenger Ferrari.

A few things seem in Merc's favour this time too. One is that with race strategy options limited and pace within the race unlikely to vary much qualifying becomes even more important than usual, and here Merc tends to have its biggest advantage over Ferrari. You can add to this that tyre warm up will likely be something to contend with in qualifying, and the Ferrari generally doesn't 'switch on' the tyres as quickly as the Mercedes. Plus come the race with degradation low Ferrari's ace card of better tyre longevity may not be in its hand this time. Intriguingly too Ferrari's chosen fewer sets of super-softs than all others aside from Manor.

But this is not the whole story. Reports suggest that the Scuderia will spend some tokens to bring an engine upgrade to Sochi. Plus there were hints in China that a red car might have been on the pole without driver errors, or at least very close to it. While as Rosberg and others keep pointing out, we haven't begun to see what Ferrari can really do this season.

Williams has tended to go well at this venue
By Eventful Sochi -
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As for the rest, Red Bull has looked a clear best of them so far, Daniel Ricciardo is in fine form (plus drove very well here last year) while as mentioned Kvyat has a home gig on the back of his podium run in China.

Of the others Williams has tended to go well here in the past, indeed Valtteri Bottas might have got the pole in 2014, and after a slightly underwhelming first few rounds the Grove team could do with a better time of it in this one. Same goes for Force India for whom Sergio Perez bagged third place here last time. Its chief operating officer Otmar Szafnauer has insisted its own tepid results in 2016 have been a reflection of poor luck more than anything else.

And in this game even notorious F1 ugly ducklings can turn into very fine swans indeed. Heck, even Valencia gave us a classic eventually. Don't write off Sochi yet.

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