If Nico Rosberg thought that all of his good luck had been used up in the first three races of the season, he was sorely mistaken.
The German driver arrived in Russia with a 36-point lead over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ championship thanks to his own flawless displays and the Briton’s tough start to the year.
Hamilton said in China that he wanted the “dark cloud” hanging over him to pass, but it showed few signs of doing so on Saturday in Sochi when a repeat of his power unit failure in China left him P10 on the grid.
With Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel also dropping to seventh on the grid, two of Rosberg’s biggest rivals are realistically out of the picture for the race win.
Standing on the brink of a 40+ point lead in the championship and a seventh straight victory, can Nico handle the pressure?
2016 Russian Grand Prix – What to watch for
Nico’s race to lose
With tire wear typically low at the Sochi Autodrom and overtaking coming at a premium around the tight layout, it seems impossible to think that Nico Rosberg won’t win the race.
Relying he makes a good start and can stay ahead of Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen around him, Rosberg should be able to storm to his seventh straight victory. Mercedes’ pace has been well clear of its rivals all weekend along too.
Rosberg’s biggest strength is being calm under pressure; simply getting the job done with little fuss. If he can just do it again on Sunday, his championship lead will be over 40 points – a big mountain to climb for Hamilton.
Who can beat Rosberg?
Realistically? Only Rosberg himself. Mercedes’ reliability has been a big talking point in recent weeks given Hamilton’s struggles, so it is likely that keeping Rosberg’s car running will be a worry for the German marque.
Hamilton is a fighter and will hope to battle his way into contention for the race win, but without a safety car, it is hard to see him being able to rival his teammate.
Otherwise, Raikkonen and Bottas will hope to get the jump at the start, yet with both Ferrari and Williams struggling to keep up with Mercedes so far this weekend, any advantage may be short lived.
This is Rosberg’s race to lose.
Damage limitation the focus for Hamilton… again…
“If he didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all” is a cliched, meaningless saying – yet it applies quite well to Lewis Hamilton at the moment. His start to the season has been miserable, with incident after incident stopping him from even thinking about a race win.
Hamilton has not gone wheel-to-wheel with Rosberg yet this season, but it makes no difference mathematically. He still trails by 36 points, and will likely trail by even more by the end of the day.
As a result, Hamilton will be focusing on damage limitation once again. The podium should be within reach considering the pace of the W07 Hybrid, but he’ll need a clean race to get there.
On-track battles key with lack of strategy variety
Tire wear around the Sochi Autodrom has always been low, and this year is no different. With Pirelli opting against bringing the ultra-soft tire to the race, we look set for a one-stopper yet again with the super-soft and soft compounds.
As a result, we are unlikely to get the kind of variety that we have seen in the opening three races with strategy. Track position will be key in the on-track battles, but with the midfield still so tightly knit, there will hopefully be no shortage of action in today’s race.
Haas hopes to bounce back
Haas’ F1 honeymoon came to an end in China two weeks ago when Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez endured miserable races, with the setup of the VF-16 car never quite gelling with the track.
Both struggled once again in qualifying in Sochi, ailing to P15 and P16 on the grid respectively. Strategy has been a big strength for the American team so far this year, but again, this is unlikely to be worth much in Sochi.
With a few surprises, perhaps Haas will bounce back. But it seems somewhat unlikely should we have a ‘normal’ race.
2016 Russian Grand Prix – Starting Grid
1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Valtteri Bottas Williams
3. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
4. Felipe Massa Williams
5. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
6. Sergio Perez Force India
7. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari*
8. Daniil Kvyat Red Bull
9. Max Verstasppen Toro Rosso
10. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
11. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
12. Jenson Button McLaren
13. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
14. Fernando Alonso McLaren
15. Romain Grosjean Haas
16. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
17. Kevin Magnussen Renault
18. Jolyon Palmer Renault
19. Felipe Nasr Sauber
20. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
21. Rio Haryanto Manor
22. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
* grid penalty
The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.