From the luminous night of Singapore, Formula One travels to the Black Sea and the city of Sochi for the 15th round of the season. It is still one of the newest additions to the F1 Championship but the sport had been trying to break into Russia for three decades before the country eventually made its maiden bow in 2014 while the event has origins even further back….
History of the Russian Grand Prix
Despite only coming on to the F1 calendar in 2014, the Russian Grand Prix has origins over a century before that. In fact, Russia was still under the autocratic rule of Tsar Nicholas II when the first ever Russian Grand Prix took place in 1913. The race took place on a circuit in the streets of St. Petersburg. The event only ran twice due to the start of the First World War and after the Russian Revolution saw the Romanov dynasty eventually replaced by the Soviet Union, the race did not start up again afterwards unlike other racing events of that age.
Formula One’s ambitions to race in Russia surfaced in the early 1980’s. The up and coming F1 Supremo Bernie Ecclestone desired to have a race behind the Iron Curtain and a proposed circuit was planned in the city of Moscow. The event which had the title ‘Grand Prix of the Soviet Union’ had a provisional place in the calendar for the 1983 season. However, the heightened Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the USA involving the murder of a US Congressman when the Soviet’s shot down a Korean passenger plane and the false alarm nuclear incident meant the race did not take place. The first race behind the Iron Curtain would instead go to Hungary in 1986.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there had been little mention of a Grand Prix in Russia for 10 years when the then incoming president, Vladimir Putin expressed his personal support for a project which would have done just that. The project in 2001 and a further one in 2003 failed to deliver a viable F1 circuit. The next attempt came in September 2008 when work began I a circuit 77km from Moscow in a village called Fedyakovo. Hermann Tilke designed the circuit which became known as the Moscow Raceway though it never held a Grand Prix. Unlike the previous projects though this one was completed with the circuit opened in 2012 and has since held events in the Renault 2.0 and 3.5 series, GT1 championship and World Superbikes.
The big catalyst for F1 to break into Russia though was Vitaly Petrov. He joined Renault for a race seat in 2010 becoming the first Russian driver to compete in F1. This was the added impetus Ecclestone needed to push for the event and a deal was announced in October of that year. Tilke was brought in again to design the circuit and what he produced is the Sochi Autodrome; a 5.7 km circuit which incorporates parts of the Olympic park used to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The circuit Tilke delivered certainly raised eyebrows. The first turn is not really a turn and the first braking point of the race is going into turn two. That is also where the impact of Petrov is noted on the circuit as the T2 grandstand is named in his honour. That leads onto the defining characteristic of the circuit, a 750-metre constant left radius turn while the other main challenge is turn 13 where the cars approach with the aid of DRS before braking hard to make the right-hander. Despite only racing there for four years, the circuit has seen some big moments:
• 2017: Valtteri Bottas delivered his first Grand Prix victory in only his fourth race for Mercedes but his 81st start in F1.
• 2016: Russian driver Daniil Kvyat earned the nickname the torpedo after he hit Sebastian Vettel twice In the space of 10 seconds at the long left-hander turn three. The contact proved costly as he was demoted from Red Bull with Max Verstappen going the other way after which his career was never the same.
• 2015: The rivalry between Finnish drivers Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen came to the fore in Sochi. On the final lap, Raikkonen attempted a late lunge down the inside of Bottas at turn 4, spinning him out of the race.
Russian Grand Prix in Facts, Numbers and Stats
First race: 2014
Number of Circuits: 1
Circuit name: Sochi Autodrom
Circuit length: 5.834km
Number of turns: 18
Number of laps: 53
Race Distance: 309.475km
Times winner went on to win the World Championship: 3/4
Fastest Race Lap: Kimi Raikkonen 1:36.884 (2017)
First Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton 1:38.513
2017 Pole Position: Sebastian Vettel 1:33.194
First winner: Lewis Hamilton
2017 winner: Valtteri Bottas
Most wins by a driver: Lewis Hamilton 2
Most wins by a constructor: Mercedes 4
Most pole positions by a driver: Nico Rosberg 2
Most pole positions by a constructor: Mercedes 3
Most podiums by a driver: Lewis Hamilton 3
Most podiums by a constructor: Mercedes 6
Most laps led by a driver: Lewis Hamilton 100
Most laps led by a Constructor: Mercedes 204
Russian Grand Prix winners
Drivers: Lewis Hamilton 2,
Nico Rosberg 1, Valtteri Bottas 1
Constructors: Mercedes 4
Russian Grand Prix Pole Positions:
Drivers: Nico Rosberg 2,
Lewis Hamilton 1, Sebastian Verrel 1
Constructors: Mercedes 3,
Russian Grand Prix Podiums:
Drivers: Lewis Hamilton 3,
Nico Rosberg 2, Valtteri Bottas 2, Sebastian Vettel 2, Kimi Raikkonen 2,
Sergio Perez 1
Constructors: Mercedes 6,
Williams 1, Force India 1
Laps led at the Russian Grand Prix
Drivers: Lewis Hamilton 100,
Nico Rosberg 59,
Valtteri Bottas 45,
Sebastian Vettel 8
Constructors: Mercedes 204,
Russia and F1
Number of Russian drivers in F1 history: 3, Vitaly Petrov 2010-12, Daniil Kvyat 2014-17, Sergey Sirotkin 2018
Russians on the current grid: 1, Sergey Sirotkin
Grand Prix starts by Russian drivers: 145
Most Grand Prix by a Russian driver: Daniil Kvyat 72
Grand Prix wins: 0
Daniil Kvyat 2, Vitaly Petrov 1
First Podium: 2011 Australian Grand Prix
Last Podium: 2016 Chinese Grand Prix
Pole Positions: 0
Best race Finish: 2nd, Kvyat 2015 Hungarian Grand Prix
Best Championship finish: 7th Daniil Kvyat 2015
Russian Constructors in F1 history: 3
Midland 2006, Virgin 2010-11, Marussia 2012-15
Current Constructors in F1: 0
Grand Prix starts: 130
Most Grand Prix starts: 74 Marussia
Best race result: 9th Jules Bianchi 2015 Monaco Grand Prix
Best Championship result: 9th 2014
What happened last year in Russia?
Last season, the Russian Grand Prix had a much earlier slot on the calendar with it being the fourth race of the season. It was a big weekend in many ways for the two drivers hailing from Finland. Sebastian Vettel pipped his teammate to pole position as Ferrari secured their first front row lockout since the 2008 French Grand Prix. In the race though, they were both trumped by a stunning start from Valtteri Bottas from third who passed both going into turn 2. Bottas kept his cool to fend off the Ferrari’s to secure his maiden Grand Prix victory!
What happened last time out?
Last time out, Singapore threw up a significant outcome in the destiny of the F1 Championships. At a circuit thought to be Mercedes bogey track, Lewis Hamilton delivered an ‘epic’ pole position lap to beat Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen in Qualifying. The race had an explosive start with the Force India drivers colliding on the opening lap brought out the Safety Car to maintain its 100% record of appearing in Singapore. From there, the reigning champion produced a composed drive in the race as he held off Verstappen when he came into lap traffic to win rather comfortably. His nearest title challenger, Vettel finished 3rd despite passing Verstappen on the opening lap after Ferrari’s strategy call did not work out. There was little overtaking between the top 6 but behind them, Fernando Alonso, Carlos Sainz, Charles Leclerc and Nico Hulkenberg rounded off the top 10 with the latter the only top 10 starters behind the top 6 to start on the hyper soft and finish in the points.
A full review can be found here. However, there is one further point from Singapore I want to discuss…
Was Verstappen right not to attack Hamilton? And, just how bad was Grosjean?
Post-race, there was an interesting comment from Red Bull driver Max Verstappen. The Dutch driver told the media he felt it was unfair to attack Hamilton, ‘When I got close to Lewis due to backmarkers I never really thought the pass would be possible. It’s hard to overtake here so I didn’t want to take the risk. It was also slightly unfair how he had been held up by drivers not getting out of the way’.
Verstappen’s chance to attack Hamilton came as the race leader struggled to navigate through lapped traffic. Despite being shown blue flags, the Haas of Grosjean took his time in allowing the Mercedes man through. Grosjean was involved with his own battle for position with Sirotkin and it seemed that was his sole concern on track. That had contributed to Hamilton’s lead shrinking from five seconds to next to nothing within two laps and therefore giving Verstappen an opportunity to battle for the lead. The next question needing answering is just how bad were the actions of the Haas driver?
For that, we need to look at the F1 regulations or the FIA’s general regulations concerning flags. During the race, a blue flag, ‘should normally be shown to a car about to be lapped and, when shown, the driver concerned must allow the following car to pass at the earliest opportunity’. That is what the FIA tell the stewards when using them. While it may not be possible to do so immediately given where on the circuit a driver may be, Formula One rules are that after passing three blue flags and not letting the drier through risks a penalty.
A penalty is what Grosjean received. However, he received more than that in the criticism by Race Director Charlie Whiting. In a scathing attack, Whiting labelled it the worst example he has ever seen. His full comments are below.
‘I think Romain forgot the golden rule of blue flags and that’s if, you are in a battle, you’ve got to forget about your own battle and move over. I’ve drilled that into them many, many times and he completely forgot about it. The light panels were flashing with his race number on and Lewis was much, much faster. It was one of the worst cases of ignoring blue flags that I’ve seen for a long time.’
Grosjean’s post-race comments also made for some interesting reading. He felt, ‘I did the best I could but, in the end, I had no chance of being in the top 10. I’m sorry if I blocked anyone, it was not my intention. I believe I did my best. I was fighting with Sergey (Sirotkin), who was doing a little bit of go-kart racing out there. I couldn’t really slow down. Pierre (Gasly) was on my gearbox and Sergey was on my front wing. I passed him, then as soon as I passed him, I let Lewis (Hamilton) by’.
Grosjean was penalised with a time five second time penalty from the stewards in addition to three points on his Super Licence. That puts him in a precarious position. Grosjean now has nine points on his licence. If a driver accumulates 12 points over a 12 month period then they are automatically suspended for one race. The Frenchman’s first infringement in the past 12 months came at…and he consequently needs to get to…to avoid such a ban.
Now Grosjean was definitely in the wrong, there is no denying that it is time to return to the initial question. Was Verstappen right or wrong in not attacking Hamilton?
From the pure racing perspective, it does take something away from the spectacle knowing Verstappen did not really try to get past Hamilton. The tension felt watching it live would not have been the same if that had been known. As a racer, Verstappen really will have wanted to take the lead and fight for it. However, it must be said there is a level of maturity to his comments. With Singapore being a tight and twisty circuit and with several cars within the same part of it, it maybe did represent too big of a risk to take. In addition, Red Bull did not think they had the pace to match the Mercedes which was exemplified by comments made by Christian Horner. However, if Verstappen was going to win that race then that was his chance.
Developments coming to Russia.
Since Singapore, there have been several developments in the world of F1. With the drivers market heating up in recent weeks and race seats filling up; another one was filled in the lead up to the Russian Grand Prix. However, that is not the only development…
• Prost surprised at Ricciardo decision to join Renault: While in Singapore, Renault’s decision to sign Daniel Ricciardo after a deal in place for Esteban Ocon in place was criticised by Toto Wolff accusing them of ‘not having the balls’, the other side of the table has been told. Four-time World Champion Alain Prost is now a special advisor to the Renault team spoke on the deal and his surprise Ricciardo signed. Prost was asked by Tom Clarkson if Ricciardo is the final piece of the puzzle at Renault. His response was, ‘When we talked to Daniel, it was a very frank discussion. He knows everything, he has seen everything—and nows he cannot be a world champion next year. We are going to be better for sure, but it’s going to take time. We were a bit surprised when he said ‘yes I want to come’. He’s going to allow us to push the team to become even better and better all the time. It’s a little bit more pressure on the team because of him. But at the end, it’s positive pressure’.
• Haas hearing date confirmed: After Romain Grosjean was disqualified from the Italian Grand Prix due to the floor of the car not complying with the regulations having come home in 6th. Haas announced their intention to appeal the decision immediately and the date has now been set. The appeal hearing will take place at the FIA Court of Appeal in Paris on November 1st meaning it will not have the final impact on the standings in the Championships with the final race in Abu Dhabi later that month. Team Principal Gunther Steiner remains unsure of the outcome saying, ‘it’s 50/50, it could go both ways. I would never say I am confident of winning it because you never know what is happening’.
Driver Market: Sauber line-up confirmed
Following the announcement before Singapore that Charles Leclerc and Kimi Raikkonen were effectively swapping seats for 2019, Sauber still had a seat unconfirmed. Well, that was until Tuesday. Sauber announced that reserve driver Antonio Giovanazzi will partner Raikkonen in 2019 as the team go with a completely new driver line up. That means that Marcus Ericsson will not racing for the team in 2019 as instead takes on a third driver as well as an ambassador role for the team.
Sauber confirmed the news on Twitter, ‘CONFIRMED: 2019 Driver Line-up Locked in @Anto_Giovanazzi will be an Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 team Driver from 2019. Antonio will line up alongside #kimi7 for us next season. Who’s excited to see these two together?’ Speaking on his promotion, Giovanazzi said, ‘This is a dream come true, and it is a great pleasure to have the chance to race for this team. As an Italian, it is a huge honour for me to represent a brand as iconic and successful as Alfa Romeo in our sport. I would like to thank the Scuderia Ferrari and the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team for giving me this great opportunity. I am very motivated and cannot wait to start working towards achieving great results together‘. Sauber Team principal Frederic Vasseur added, ‘We first signed Kimi Raikkonen, an extremely experienced driver who will contribute to the development of our car and will accelerate the progress of our team as a whole. Together with Alfa Romeo, we are delighted to welcome Antonio Giovinazzi, who will take the place of Charles Leclerc. We have already had the opportunity to work with him in the past and he has proven to have great potential. We are very determined and motivated. Our target is to continue progressing and fighting together for positions that count’.
Sauber, do indeed know what they are getting with Giovanzzi. The Italian raced for the team for the opening two rounds of last season as he filled in the injured Pascal Werhlein. He had a mixed bag of results in those two races. He outshone Ericsson and finished 12th on his debut but struggled in China where he made near identical mistakes resulting in near identical crashes in both qualifying and the race. Sauber have had him as their reserve driver ever since and he has driven the 2018 car this year at the in-season test in Hungary. However, his race craft or rather relative lack of it may be a concern as he has not raced competitively on a full-time basis since 2016.
Like the announcement at Ferrari, there is a hint of irony for the departing driver. After failing to score points in both 2016 and 2017, Marcus Ericsson was retained by Sauber at the expense of two drivers who did score points in Felipe Nasr and Werhlein. At the time, I questioned why the Swede was being retained by Sauber having been so badly outperformed and it was almost bordering on the edge of labelling him a pay driver due to his links to the Longbow Finance group which invested in the team in 2016. I did not feel he belonged in F1 but his performances this year have been much improved it must be said with him scoring points in….races, sitting…in the Championship with…points. However, by the same token, he has also been out-performed by Charles Leclerc.
According to the report from Sky Sports, Giovanazzi officially replaces Leclerc with Ferrari believed to have an option to nominate a driver as part of Alfa Romeo’s sponsorship of the team. If true, then the politics of F1 has been involved again in developing the 2019 grid and Ferrari did not actually nominate Raikkonen to go there. That was totally his choice which in a way makes me respect Raikkonen more for wanting to remain in F1. Giovanazzi has been part of the Ferrari Young Driver programme since…and will become the first full-time Italian to race in F1 since Vitantonio Liuzzi and Jarno Trulli in 2011.
As it stands, there are now only eight seats remaining on the grid for 2019 with Force India, Toro Rosso, Williams and Haas yet to confirm a single driver.
Championships coming into Russia.
Coming into Russia, reigning champion Lewis Hamilton leads his nearest rival Sebastian Vettel by 40 points; 281 points to 241. It is the largest points advantage he has held since last year when he won the title and it could prove to be a big weekend in the destiny of the championship. Behind them in the standings is their respective Finnish teammates as Kimi Raikkonen sitting 3rd with 174 points to Bottas on 171. Max Verstappen now enjoys a 22 point advantage over Ricciardo in the standings in 5th. Nico Hulkenberg is best of the rest in the standings in 7th while Fernando Alonso is now in the top 10 with 50 points. That top 10 is rounded off by Kevin Magnussen and Sergio Perez with Esteban Ocon 11th and one point adrift off his teammate. After finishing 9th, Charles Leclerc is now on 15 points in 15th while the bottom of the standings is unchanged with Russian Sergey Sirotkin bottom with 1 point.
In the Constructors Championship, Mercedes have a 37 point advantage over Ferrari as they look to make it a fifth successive championship success. The Silver Arrows have 452 points to the Scuderia’s 415. Red Bull are a comfortably 3rd on 274 points while Renault has built a bit of a gap in the battle for 4th. They have 91 points and lead Haas by 18 points. McLaren now has 58 points in 6th while Sauber now have 21 points in 9th. They are now nine points behind Toro Rosso and having scored points in two of the past three races, could they surpass the Red Bull junior team? Williams remain bottom of the standings with 7 points.
Things to look out for in Russia
There are a few things to look out for in Sochi this weekend and that is not limited to the action on the circuit.
• Mercedes have a 100% win record in Russia, will that continue or will Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel be able to bounce back?
• Valtteri Bottas has been consistent in Russia and could easily have had podiums in each of the previous four races there. He was on ole last year so could he come into play to upset the party for Ferrari and help Hamilton?
• Red Bull are expected to take engine penalties in Russia so just how bad could it be for the Milton Keynes outfit?
• Despite the prospect of grid penalties, could Daniel Ricciardo better his best result at Sochi (6th).
• With this being the Rusian Grand Prix, if Sergey Sirotkin is to be retained by Williams for another season then this would be the opportune time to announce it with it being the Russian drivers home race.
• After their two drivers came together on the opening lap in Singapore, will Force India use team orders to control Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon?
• Celebrations will be coming from Pirelli who will celebrate their 200th pole position in F1 this weekend. They will become the second tyre manufacturer to reach that landmark after Goodyear who achieved that feat at the 1988 French Grand Prix,
• Staying with Pirelli, they have brought the same tyre compounds to Sochi that were used in Singapore. That means it’s the hypersoft, ultrasoft and soft compound tyres. Will we see such an impact on the lower reaches of the top 10 in the race as we saw in Singapore?
• Who will have the upper hand in the midfield battle? Renault? Haas, Force India or Toro Rosso?