Formula 1 returns to Europe this weekend as the sport makes its third visit to the semi-permanent Sochi Autodrom, constructed around the former home of the Winter Olympics. The first two races took place in the autumn but calendar changes mean that Russia has a new date on the roster, only six months after Lewis Hamilton made it two out of two at the circuit.
Hamilton has not quite enjoyed such fortune in 2016 and occupies second in the standings, 36 points adrift of Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, who has triumphed across the previous six Grands Prix, three either side of the winter break.
Located along the sprawling Black Sea resort of Sochi, Formula 1’s annual visit to Russia takes place around the venues which hosted the Winter Olympics at the start of 2014.
The circuit is a semi-permanent street track, meaning that the walls are perilously close at stages, though there is sufficient run-off at several corners in order for drivers to escape unharmed. The field wind their way around the Medals Plaza, the circuit’s iconic long-radius 180 degree left hander, and pass the Bolshoy Ice Dome and Adler Arena across the course of 5.848km, making it one of the longest on the calendar.
“You arrive into Turn 1 – it’s very big braking, quite a fairly long straight,” says Haas’ Romain Grosjean. “Then you go out from Turn 1 and arrive into Turn 3, which is a very fast, high-speed corner usually flat out. You arrive into Turn 4 – it’s a medium-speed corner, quite important to get brake balance with the proper settings as you come from turn three which has a lot of lateral load.”
The fast Turn 3 takes drivers between the Medals Plaza, surrounded by the flags of Olympic nations, and the imposing grandstands and the nature of the corner means marbles build up off-line; stray slightly wide and there is the risk of sliding helplessly into the barriers, as Grosjean found to his cost in 2015.
“The next corner is Turn 5 which is a 90-degree corner,” continues Grosjean. “It’s a fourth-gear corner, and you can use all the kerb available. Then you have an off-banking corner, so the track is going away from the apex to the exit of the corner, and this puts a bit of trickiness into the traction of the car. You have some medium-speed corners before the back straight, which is not really a back straight because it has a few corners which are part of the straight. The next corner is a hairpin. You arrive on the braking with a lot of lateral, and this requires a very different brake balance because it’s quite a big braking with a lot of cornering, which is a little bit like Bahrain.
"Then you exit the very slow-speed corner with a lot of lateral trying to prepare for the next corner, which is off-banking again, followed by a left-hander that is also off-banking. There’s a small straight before the last two corners, which are both 90 degrees. It’s a track that is pretty stop-and-go. It requires a very different setup to what we had in China.”
60% of the lap is spent at full throttle, above the usual average for a street circuit, while fuel consumption is one of the highest of the season.
Rosberg arrives in Russia guaranteed to hold onto the lead of the standings, irrespective of the outcome of Sunday’s Grand Prix. Hamilton has tasted victory on both of the sport’s visits to Russia, though last year Rosberg started from pole position and led the initial phase of the race prior to a throttle failure.
Only Mercedes has ever emerged on top in Russia – the manufacturer triumphed in the 1913 and 1914 Grands Prix around St. Petersburg, long before the creation of the Formula 1 World Championship!
Tyre supplier Pirelli has once again designated the Medium, Soft and Super Soft compounds, with the latter favoured due to the nature of the circuit, which doesn’t apply strenuous demands on the rubber aside from Turn 3.
Five-time Le Mans winner Emanuele Pirro will act as the drivers’ representative on the stewards panel.
GP2 frontrunner Sergey Sirotkin will return to the Formula 1 scene for the first time since the corresponding practice session in 2014 when he replaces Kevin Magnussen at Renault during Friday's opening 90 minutes of action.
Facts and stats
- Circuit length: 5.848 km
- Turns: 19
- Direction: clockwise
- Race laps: 53 laps
- First Grand Prix: 1913 (2014 under F1)
- Lap record: 1:40.071 (Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, 2015)
- Most wins (driver): Lewis Hamilton (2)
- Most wins (Constructor): Mercedes (4)
- 2015 Qualifying: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
- 2015 Race: 1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes), 2. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari), 3. Sergio Pérez (Force India)
Timetable (GMT +8):
Friday 29 April
- Practice One: 10:00 – 11:30
- Practice Two: 14:00 – 15:30
Saturday 30 April
- Practice Three: 12:00 – 13:00
- Qualifying: 15:00 (60 minutes)
Sunday 1 May
- Race: 15:00 (53 laps or two hours)