Before the bulk of the European season begins with the Spanish Grand Prix in a little over two wees’ time, the Formula 1 paddock is gearing up for one final flyaway in Russia this weekend.
The Russian Grand Prix has become a key part of the post-Winter Olympic legacy for the seaside resort of Sochi, which hosted the games back in 2014. The Sochi Autodrom winds throughout the Olympic Village, offering a happy medium between street and road course that makes it a challenge to drivers.
In all three of the world championship races that have been held in Russia, Mercedes has been untouchable. Lewis Hamilton and now-retired Nico Rosberg have led every single racing lap in the history of the Sochi Autodrom, making the Silver Arrows the cars to beat this weekend.
However, 2017 has been a year for surprises, with Ferrari enjoying a revival thanks to Sebastian Vettel. The German has won two of the first three races this season, the latest coming in Bahrain two weeks ago to give him the championship lead.
In the city that offered us so many international battles three years ago, another is set to play out on Sunday: but will it be a Briton, a German, or even a Finn that strikes gold in Sochi?
Here are the key talking points for the Russian Grand Prix.
2017 Russian Grand Prix – Talking Points
Vettel, Ferrari bask in best start since Schumacher
Sebastian Vettel’s move to Ferrari back in 2015 was always seen as a nod to his hero, Michael Schumacher, whose career trajectory took a similar turn in 1996. The links are only continuing this year, with Vettel’s start to the season being the best by any Ferrari driver since Schumacher back in 2004.
It’s been a surprising purple patch of form for Ferrari, which hasn’t looked as strong as it is now since – truthfully – 2008 when it went head-to-head with McLaren for the title. It bodes well for Vettel, who is in the final year of his Ferrari contract and desperate for a fifth world title that would justify his decision to move to Maranello two years ago.
Russia could be a more challenging race for Ferrari, given temperatures won’t be as high as they were in Australia or Bahrain, playing into Mercedes’ favor. But should Vettel overcome this and bag a third win, it would surely signal to a title bid that is still only being whispered about by the Prancing Horse for fear of tempting fate.
Hamilton, Bottas seek responses to Bahrain disappointment
Mercedes hasn’t spent much time on the back foot in recent years, but it arrives in Sochi looking for a response to a disappointing defeat in Bahrain. After locking out the front row in style, a number of small factors conspired to hand victory to Ferrari, leaving Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to settle for P2 and P3 respectively.
Hamilton’s track record in Sochi is impressive, having won the 2014 and 2015 races before fighting from an issue in qualifying that left him 10th on the grid to finish second. Bottas has also finished on the podium before (2014), and will want to run the leading duo close after a generator issue spurned his hopes of a maiden win in Bahrain last time out.
Bottas could be a dark horse for victory here. The Finn has been growing in confidence through his first three races in a Mercedes, with his charge to pole in Bahrain surprising even Hamilton. So don’t rule him out of a maiden victory in Russia to kick-start his season.
Kvyat returns home, one year after career-changing race
There is no better place for Daniil Kvyat to celebrate his 23rd birthday than his home race, even if returning to Sochi will bring back memories of a disastrous 2016 race that changed his career trajectory.
Then racing for Red Bull, Kvyat headed to Sochi with his tail up after scoring his second F1 podium at the last race in China. However, two crashes with Vettel on the first lap in Russia ruined his race and gave Red Bull the excuse it needed to promote Max Verstappen into a race seat, sending Kvyat back to Toro Rosso.
The incident had a profound effect on Kvyat, who spent the remainder of the season trying to regather himself, something he struggled to do until after the summer break. Red Bull backed him to respond and kept him at Toro Rosso in 2017 when it could have easily dropped him, and Kvyat has looked content so far this season.
The ghosts of Sochi may still linger for Kvyat, but this weekend, he will be the crowd favorite. How he charges this positive pressure will be of particular interest.
Has Haas found the answer to its brake issues?
Since joining the grid at the start of 2016, one of Haas’ biggest issues has been brakes. Repeated failures and problems hindered the American team’s form through the backend of last year, and with more issues arising in the early part of 2017, a change in supplier was actively pursued.
Having used Brembo for its racing commitments, Haas tested Carbon Industrie brakes in Bahrain and noted an improvement in performance, much to Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen’s pleasure. Although there will still be lots of work to do to map the brakes and fine-tune the settings, the switch for this weekend’s race in Russia could give the team a much-needed boost.
The Haas VF-17 car itself is strong. That much is clear. But if the brake issue is truly resolved, then we could see the team get a march on its midfield rivals.
One stop race on the cards
Tire degradation at the Sochi Autodrom has always been low, but with the extra-conservative tires that have been provided to F1 by Pireli this year, it is a near-certainty that this year’s Russian Grand Prix will be a one-stopper.
The cooler temperatures should play into Mercedes’ hands, but we saw in both Bahrain and Australia that Hamilton and Bottas found it difficult to stretch out their tires at points. These struggles cost Hamilton victory in Australia, and if Ferrari can get close once again this weekend, Vettel may have more confidence in the ultra-softs and be able to force another mistake.
Either way, don’t expect to see a strategic masterclass on Sunday in Sochi. It’ll be one stop and one stop only.
2017 Russian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures
Track: Sochi Autodrom
Lap Record: Nico Rosberg 1:39.094 (2016)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:35.417
2016 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:39.094
DRS Zones: T1 to T2; T10 to T13
2017 Russian Grand Prix – TV Times