F1 Preview: 2016 Russian Grand Prix

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The 2016 Formula 1 calendar sees its first real major change this weekend, with the Russian Grand Prix moving forward from its usual October date its first two years now to the last weekend in April and opening date of May.

The Sochi Autodrom has hardly produced classics in its first two years, but last year did pack enough late-race drama into the proceedings with the Valtteri Bottas-Kimi Raikkonen collision not doing Finland any favors near the site of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, and with Sergio Perez there to pick up the pieces for a popular podium finish for Sahara Force India.

That said, the old date had just one winner – Lewis Hamilton – and he’ll be hoping the new date carries the same result as he’s on the verge of losing even more ground to Mercedes AMG Petronas teammate Nico Rosberg if he can’t halt the German’s momentum.

It’s been since Austin in October last year, where any anthem other than the German anthem has played on the podium. Rosberg winning for Mercedes means it’s only been the German anthem for a run of six months, and six races – three in each of 2015 and 2016.

Will the Rosberg run of form roll on or will Hamilton stop the surge?

Read on for more in our full preview of this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix:

2016 Russian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Nico’s roll while having cautious optimism

Rosberg is saying all the right things at the moment. He’s not too high after winning the first three races; he’s keen to note it’s only these three races that matter and not the three previous ones of 2015 that have his net winning streak out to six races; he’s confirming Hamilton is still the man to beat and Ferrari hasn’t shown its full hand. All true.

Part of me thinks he’s playing the Jenson Button-in-2009 strategy here, when the Englishman drove en route to his first and thus far only World Championship. If he banks a bunch of early wins – Button won six of seven to open the 2009 campaign for Brawn – suddenly he’s got enough of a gap banked to where Hamilton will need to be perfect and hope for a bit of luck to overcome the points deficit.

The gap stands at 36 points now; that’s a full six Grands Prix Lewis would need to counter with to overtake him, if Nico were to finish second. It’s only April and May, but Rosberg has not just the statistical edge, but I think the mental edge right now.

Can Ferrari avoid beating Ferrari?

A DNF for Kimi Raikkonen in Melbourne. An engine failure before Sebastian Vettel even started in Bahrain. And then first-lap contact between the two of them in Shanghai after Vettel called Daniil Kvyat a “madman” barging through on the inside. Not like Vettel would know anything about being a talented, 21-year-old taking it to the establishment in a Red Bull… not at all…

Anyway, the belief through three races is that while Mercedes has had it somewhat easy at the front, they’ve been aided by Ferrari’s missteps in the opening three races. And while in each of the three Ferrari has shown a valiant fightback to a podium finish, in none of the three has Ferrari enjoyed a proper, trouble-free weekend to maximize points. A weekend devoid of the drama that’s punctuated its first three races must be the goal this weekend.

Red Bull’s promise carrying over

Kvyat’s Chinese Grand Prix podium was a huge boost for the team and more than that, his fearless, won’t back down aggression against Vettel was a welcome sight to see. The concern for Kvyat this weekend is that the pressure of expectations in his home Grand Prix in Sochi weighs on him, but he seems to have a good head on his shoulders and a good mindset heading into this weekend. He finished fifth here last year.

Teammate Daniel Ricciardo has been the model of consistency this season with three fourth-place finishes in as many races. He’ll debut Red Bull’s new Aero Screen concept in FP1 on Friday and it’ll be interesting to see whether his trademark smile emerges after the installation lap and run. He’s due for a podium, but is subject to the various pitfalls – if any – for Mercedes and Ferrari to open a spot up.

Who scores their first points first?

McLaren has one point on the board courtesy of reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne in Bahrain, but its two primary drivers – Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button – are yet to crack the top 10. The same is true for both Renault, Sauber and Manor drivers although each team has shown flashes this year.

Last year, Sochi threw up a batch of variety in the points. Only 13 of the 20 starters finished and nine of the ten teams scored points; the only one that didn’t was Manor, then called Manor Marussia. You could definitely see one if not two of these teams crack the points this go-around.

A Haas bounce back on the cards?

In truth, for Haas F1 Team, you probably wouldn’t have expected things to go as well as they did in Australia and Bahrain and as poorly as they did in China. Here’s hoping that in Russia this weekend there’s a more straightforward, mid-pack or higher run for Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez this weekend.

If they can get through Sochi cleanly they’ll be well-positioned for Spain, where the team will have its first past amount of data to look through from preseason testing.

2016 Russian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Corners: 18
Lap Record: Sebastian Vettel 1:40.071 (2015)
Tire Compounds: Medium, Soft, Super-Soft
2015 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2015 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:37.113
2015 Fastest Lap: Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) 1:40.071
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T1 to T2); T10 to T13

2016 Russian Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports Live Extra 3am ET 4/29
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 7am ET 4/29
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports Live Extra 5am ET 4/30
Qualifying: CNBC 8am ET 4/30 (NBCSN 6:30pm ET re-air 4/30)
Race: CNBC 7am ET 5/1 (NBCSN 4pm ET re-air 5/1)