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)

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500