Time for one of the most recent additions to the F1 scene – the Russian Grand Prix, held at Sochi. The venue is wrapped around the site of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, and 2014 is also when the first F1 Grand Prix was held here. It looks like the 2022 race will be the last to be held at Sochi, ahead of a race further north, near St Petersburg. Some might say good riddance to a track that hasn’t produced especially exciting races.
Since its inception Mercedes are the only constructor to have won at Sochi. Lewis Hamilton won the opening event, and his teammate Nico Rosberg was second, despite pitting for hard tyres at the end of the first lap and not stopping again. In 2016 Red Bull driver Daniil Kvyat (of Russia no less) incurred the wrath of former Red Bull favourite Sebastian Vettel by hitting Vettel’s Ferrari twice on the opening lap, putting the German out at turn 3. This incident ended Kvyat’s Red Bull career and he was demoted to Toro Rosso for the next race. A certain Max Verstappen went the other way. Whatever came of him?! Red Bull denied switch was a result of the accident, but given Kvyat’s clumsy start to the season, the timing has always felt suspicious…
Anyway, what of the race?! Well, firstly, Sochi proved to be one of the easiest tracks to drive at. There is nothing especially challenging and therefore nothing especially exciting. There is no grand section of track like the Becketts and Maggots complex at Silverstone, or Spa’s intimidating Eau Rouge. Many of the corners are sharp angles, and not particularly difficult for an F1 car to manage. I found myself topping the timesheets in practice, but only after I’d experimented with running the car on high fuel loads, to better understand the handling. In fact, I did several laps with a near-full fuel load, and on hard tyres, to master the circuit in the least ideal conditions, given the weather.
Come qualifying and I was able to top Q1, come through Q2 on mediums and then park myself on pole in Q3. At the start I did my usual job of drifting backwards but recovered into turn 2 to hold second place, behind Bottas. Behind me I had Verstappen, Sergio Perez in the other Red Bull, and then Hamilton, who really didn’t need to be stuck behind the Red Bulls. The difference for me was that I was on mediums whilst the others were on softs. Despite this, whilst Bottas pulled away I stayed with him, and loitered between 1.5 and 2 seconds behind, occasionally getting into DRS range but not on the main pit straight, where it might have counted for more (I was too far back into turn 14 to try anything but a foolish dive).
The status quo remained in place until Bottas stopped, and my crew called me in a lap later, but despite a purple sector on my in lap Bottas remained in the lead after my stop, by around 2 seconds. We were now both on mediums, and now I had the pace advantage. I gradually reeled Bottas in, got DRS along the pit straight, and when he seemed to brake slightly early into turn 2, I pounced on the inside, and from there slowly but surely eked out a gap. I wondered if he planned to go to the end on his mediums – certainly doable – and if he did, he’d regain the lead, for I had to stop for the soft compound at one point. The question in those circumstances would be whether I would have enough laps left to close the gap. I had managed to build a lead of some 7-8 seconds, when Bottas abandoned his mediums for a fresh set. At least now I could stop and not lose the lead, and I duly did so.
On soft tyres I managed to set a few fastest laps in a row, ensuring plenty of distance between myself and Bottas, and then something happened that tipped the title battle on its side – Bottas retired. Watching the replay, his engine blew up. This promoted Hamilton to 2nd, and whilst I went on to win very comfortably, Hamilton’s silver reduced his deficit to a ‘mere’ 35 points. Going into Belgium Bottas had held a 76-point lead, and over the last four races that had been more than halved. With several challenging races remaining, had Hamilton found the momentum he needed?