After a packed triple header and a free weekend, it’s time for a new Grand Prix, this weekend in Russia. In Sochi, the championship battle erupts again between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, but what will be left of that battle on the track? With at least one grid penalty for Verstappen, all signals seem to be green for his competitor. With this preview of F1 Maximum you are optimally prepared for the race weekend to come.
We race this weekend at the Sochi Autodrom, a Hermann Tilke designed track on the Black Sea. The circuit is not yet seven years old, because the track was already built in 2014 and immediately put into use. The circuit is 5.8 kilometers long and therefore a bit on the long side, if you take the average into account. Officially, the Sochi Autodrom is part of the Olympic Park in Sochi, which means the track is surrounded by ice rinks, curling rinks and hundreds of hotels.
Sochi is an Olympic billiard cloth
Among Formula 1 fans and drivers, the Sochi Autodrom is commonly known as ‘billiard cloth’. This is because the circuit is almost Dutch flat. The total height difference is only 1.9 meters and that makes the circuit the flattest circuit of the Formula 1 calendar. This makes the track in Sochi a counterpart to Spa-Francorchamps, where the total height difference is 102 meters. The asphalt is also known for being literally slippery, allowing drivers who need little grip to excel in Russia.
The first sector of the circuit starts with a long straight, which is actually extended through a gentle first corner to turn 2. This aspect is very interesting for the start, as it makes a first starting position for the race less attractive. Due to the long straight and the possibilities for a slipstream, it often happens that the number two or three is the first to brake for turn 2. Then follows a long swing at high speed, a bend that is reminiscent of the well-known corner 8 of the Formula 1 circuit in Istanbul, Turkey.
Curvy and Tech sectors
The second sector is very technical, with angular bends, many braking zones but also an important exit towards the straight to sector 3. As can be seen on the track map, these are mostly fast bends, often in fourth or fifth gear. will be taken. With the strong mechanical grip of the RB16B, it would therefore come as no surprise if this is the part where Red Bull Racing will gain the most time against arch-rival Mercedes.
The third sector is again angular, with an almost rectangular final corner combination. Again, all the corners with the current Formula 1 cars are quite fast, which means that no corner will normally be taken in second gear this weekend. In that respect, overtaking in slow braking zones does not apply and a good exit towards the start-finish is vital to overtake on the straight towards turn 2.
Little grip, and rain makes that much worse
As for the setup of the Formula 1 cars, the teams will mainly focus on balance and grip on the track, partly because the track in Eastern Russia is often slippery. The drivers will therefore insist on stability in the braking zones and corners, in order to be able to fully lean around the car in the fast corners. If you hold back on Sochi, you lose time and so the car has to be predictable to drive with the knife between your teeth in every corner.
There is also the question of what the weather will do, or in a sense, how the teams will deal with the predicted rain. Rain is forecast for practice, qualifying and the race and that could mean that all scripts can be thrown into the trash. For qualifying, the chance of rain is even 95 percent, making Saturday a very special day. There is also a 70 percent chance of rain during the race, so the teams also have to take into account the grip of the car on a wet track when determining the set-up.
Will Verstappen start at the back in Sochi?
The big question is how the relations in the championship will develop at the Russian Grand Prix. Currently, Verstappen is narrowly leading the World Cup with 226.5 points, five points more than competitor Hamilton. However, it looks like Hamilton is enjoying quite a few advantages this weekend. For example, Verstappen will already be put three places back on the starting grid due to his crash with Hamilton in Italy.
Then there is the question of what Red Bull will do with the Honda engine in the back of the RB16B. Red Bull will have to deploy a fourth engine sometime during this remainder of the season, because the Dutchman’s current third engine will not be able to last until November. A fourth engine means a hefty grid penalty, so it is important to plan a penalty ‘smartly’. The choice to do that next weekend in Russia is an obvious one, because Mercedes is usually the team to beat in Sochi and taking a grid penalty by Verstappen could therefore cause the least pain in relative terms.
Verstappen in 2020: With a little luck on P2
Despite Mercedes’ great series (the team always won in Sochi, ed.), Verstappen did well at the Olympic Park last season. In qualifying, he split the two Mercedes cars, allowing him to start the race from P2. Due to a bad start, the Red Bull driver fell back to P4, but could eventually be made P2 as Hamilton was given a double time penalty after performing an illegal test start prior to the race. So the Dutchman needed a bit of luck to be able to ‘split’ the two Mercedes cars, something that will probably also be the case this year.