Race starts today at 2:10 pm in Sochi/7:10 pm in Malaysia

This weekend, the teams and drivers are at the Sochi Autodrom in Russia for Round 16 of the 2018 Formula One World Championship. This will be the fifth Russian GP, run every year since the first one began in 2014 and it’s been at the same venue. The circuit, near the site of the Olympic Park which was used for the 2014 Winter Olympics, was designed by Hermann Tilke, whose name is associated with many other modern F1 tracks around the world (including Sepang).

After racing at opposing ends of the speed spectrum in Monza and then Singapore, Sochi represents something of a return to the middle ground for the F1 drivers and engineers. The track width is 13 metres at its narrowest point and 15 metres at the start-finish line. It has 12 right and 6 left turns and combines both high-speed and technical sections.

Google Earth view of the Sochi Autodrom complex which incorporates the F1 circuit.

The key characteristic of the 5.85-km circuit is the proliferation of 90-degree, medium-speed corners. Despite several bumps appearing over the last couple of years, Sochi remains a smooth circuit and has relatively flat kerbs. This will encourage teams to run their cars very stiff, potentially raising rear ride-height to help with turn-in.

The straights in Sochi are relatively long, which raises questions regarding downforce levels. This is a crucial element and the engineers work hard figuring out a set-up which provides the higher downforce required for the middle and end sections but is not too high for the faster sections. More downforce makes the car more predictable and easier to position accurately in the corners – but at the cost of lower speed on the straights.

Sochi’s reputation as a circuit with extremely low degradation is underlined in the tyre choices available for this race. As was the case in Singapore, the teams can opt for the soft compound and then bridge to the ultrasoft and hypersoft. All drivers have strongly favoured the softest end of the range, choosing between seven and 10 sets of the ultrasoft. The yellow-banded soft tyre – the hardest compound on offer – has not been popular. Fernando Alonso is an outlier with three sets; everybody else has either one or two.

Valtteri Bottas, last year’s winner who will start from pole position today, expects the Ferraris to be strong. “The start will be decisive; we need to aim for a very good initial get-away. The straight into Turn 2 is so long that it’s easy to overtake if the guys behind you get a better start,” he said.

“Slip stream around this track will play a big role and could be decisive for the race. So we will try to have a good start to stay in front and then control the race from there. We should have the pace in the car, it’s all about getting off the line well and keeping the position,” added Toto Wolff, boss of the Mercedes-AMG team.

Back-to-back victories in Italy and Singapore have lifted Lewis Hamilton into a strong position to retain his Drivers’ title at the end of this season. The Mercedes-AMG driver starts the race today with a 40-point advantage over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel with 6 races remaining.

Things are tighter in the Constructors’ Championship battle, though, as the German team is ahead by only 37 points. Every indication suggests that F1’s two top teams are very closely matched for the race to the finish. The Mercedes-AMG has been dominant in victories at Sochi, albeit with three different drivers. Lewis Hamilton won the race in 2014 and 2015; Nico Rosberg took victory in 2016; and Valtteri Bottas won last year.

[Chips Yap]

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