Following a hectic start to the 2017 campaign, the Formula 1 teams are busily unpacking in scenic Sochi ahead of the much-anticipated Russian Grand Prix.
The opening rounds have been a see-saw affair between Mercedes and Ferrari with both teams landing early punches. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel took victory in the opening race, Hamilton responded with a win in China and Vettel claimed the the last outing in Bahrain putting him on top of the championship table.
End of Mercedes domination?
Set between the picturesque Baltic Sea and Caucasus Mountains, the 5.848km/3.634mile Sochi Autodrom wraps around the 2014 Winter Olympics venue.
Sochi has traditionally had poor tarmac grip that gradually improves over the course of the race weekend. The low track severity combined with the more durable 2017 Pirelli tyres will probably make this a one-stop race for most of the field – putting less of the emphasis on taking the lead through “under cutting” with a pit stop and more of a focus on over-taking on the track.
And Sochi offers plenty of opportunities to attack other teams and overtake. There are two long straights with slight curves that are taken at full throttle favoring those carrying the more powerful Mercedes and Ferrari engines. But the bunch of 90 degree corners makes Sochi unique and presents ambitious drivers the chance to brake late and push for an overtaking move.
Watch out for some opening lap action at Turn 2 as the drivers enter a tight 90 degree right hander – the scene of Kyvatt’s crash with Vettel last year – before they navigate the long curved 180 degree left hander around the Olympic Square Medals Plaza.
While Sochi is a track that Mercedes has dominated since the first race was held in 2014, team boss at Mercedes, Toto Wolff, acknowledges that in a new era of competitive racing Ferrari are again a serious threat this weekend.
“It’s a total different kind of track this weekend in Sochi and, in this season with these new regulations, you can’t take anything for granted,” explains Wolff.
“The trophies of previous seasons don’t guarantee that we’ll be winning in Russia when you have a very fierce competitor like we do in Ferrari.”
Upgrades to help chasing pack
The teams didn’t have their usual Sunday night scramble to pack-up their equipment after the last round in Bahrain and instead stayed at Sakhir for one of the few in-season tests.
These tests allow the teams to try out any new mechanical upgrades and chassis developments on the track before being applied in a race and are most critical for the back-markers scrambling to keep up with Mercedes and Ferrari.
One team leaving the in-season test in a positive tone was McLaren. Their troubles on and off the track seem to be spiraling with just one finish out of a possible six and now an open rift between McLaren and their engine supplier Honda.
Much of McLaren’s problems have related to their MGU-H unit. Yusuke Hasegawa, Chief Engineer at Honda, says that they have “been working hard to implement some countermeasures to help combat our MGU-H issues” but such is their dire situation that McLaren team boss Eric Boullier described Vandoorne completing 81 laps during the testing as “a bit strange”.
Renault is also expected to bring some updates to Russia but unfortunately for Red Bull supporters they will have to wait longer so see some improved performances.
“We have two problems: Renault had some reliability issues, which have slowed them down in the development; and we didn’t deliver the chassis that we should have done,” says Helmut Marko, Red Bull motorsport consultant.
“But we are working day and night to pick up our shortcomings.”
“We are pretty optimistic that we will make a significant step forward in Barcelona where a big change of parts is coming.”
Upgrades aside, Sochi offers a dramatic backdrop for the next chapter in the Mercedes-Ferrari battle and an intriguing contest between a struggling Red Bull and the remaining pack.