- Russian Grand Prix
Subdued SochiLaurence Edmondson October 9, 2014
The thoughts of the paddock remain with Jules Bianchi as Formula One arrives in Russia for the first time. The excitement of travelling to a new territory has been firmly muted as everybody in the sport hopes for good news from Mie General Hospital in Yokkaichi. Yet Formula One - as it has always done in such circumstances - will continue to race this weekend, albeit under a dark could.
Although the race was overshadowed by Bianchi's accident, up until that point the Japanese Grand Prix had been a thrilling event. For the first time this year one of the title contenders successfully passed the other on track and made it stick. To overtake a car, never mind an identical one, around the outside of the first corner at Suzuka is impressive. To do it in the wet required huge bravery and skill.
From that point until the red flag Lewis Hamilton was quite clearly a cut above Nico Rosberg. Rosberg had beaten him fair and square in qualifying, but in wet conditions there was no doubt who deserved to come out on top. It gives Hamilton the upper-hand coming into this weekend in Russia, but if the 2014 title battle has taught us anything it is to expect the unexpected.
Out of form
After a promising weekend, Kimi Raikkonen again struggled in Suzuka. There were no major changes to the car between Singapore and Japan, yet the "good feeling" he had at the street circuit did not transfer to the sweeping bends at Suzuka. The wet weather made the race a bit of a lottery, in which Raikkonen did not have a lucky ticket. But regardless of the strategy, the Ferrari was not quick. Earlier in the weekend, Raikkonen talked of his desire to have more grip at the front of the car, although that might be tricky to deliver until a redesign for next year. It's an issue Alonso has been able to drive around and one his aggressive turn-in technique can combat - he had a similarly understeering car when he won his titles with Renault in 2005 and 2006. As for Raikkonen this weekend, the Sochi race track is a bit of an unknown but softer compound tyres than in Japan may help.
One to watch
Jenson Button's future is far from certain at the moment. The paddock rumour mill suggests he will be first out if Fernando Alonso is signed by the team next year, with Kevin Magnussen a cheaper option with more potential for the future. However, the man himself is confident he still stands a good chance of being at McLaren next year and right now all he can do is prove his worth in the car. On a new track, experience should count for a lot and with the improved form of the McLaren at recent races he may stand a chance of breaking into the top six.
Thoughts with Bianchi
The paddock remains in shock after the events of last Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix. Updates from the hospital have given some indication of the severity of the head injury Bianchi suffered, but there is no accurate prognosis at this time. The FIA and Bernie Ecclestone are set to launch inquiries into the accident and it is accepted by all that Formula One must learn lessons from the crash. One suggestion is that the safety car is deployed every time a recovery vehicle is sent out on track. Although Bianchi was a victim of an unfortunate sequence of events, such measures appear to be the best step to ruling out a repeat. On the day there were suggestions that the race should have been held earlier to avoid the risk of bad weather from Typhoon Phanfone, but with rain all morning the race would have been held in similar conditions no matter the starting time. The FIA has always made safety a priority and has pre-empted as well as reacted to serious accidents throughout the sport's history. It will continue to do so following Bianchi's accident with the subject of closed cockpits likely to be reopened.
F1 and politics
Formula One is no stranger to controversy and this weekend it is set for more. The first Russian Grand Prix comes at a time when Moscow is facing sanctions and condemnation from the west over the crisis in Ukraine. Bernie Ecclestone insists the race is not political, but Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to attend and the running of the event has been criticised by politicians in the UK since July this year. Yet F1 will most likely turn a blind eye to the problems outside the circuit gates and race on regardless. For many of the sponsors the Russian market is one of huge potential growth, with Mercedes, Infinitis and the odd Ferrari common sights on the streets of Moscow. Once again, F1 looks set to follow the money regardless of the politics behind it.
The driver market
Sebastian Vettel's announcement that he is leaving Red Bull at the end of the season, and Christian Horner's subsequent comments that he is heading for Ferrari, blew the driver market wide open. In one morning, Fernando Alonso went from being the key to the driver market to the piece that doesn't fit. McLaren remains the most logical destination for Alonso, but a deal is not yet done. He appears to be pushing for a single-year commitment in case the Honda power unit fails to deliver or a place opens up at Mercedes should Lewis Hamilton fail to agree terms on a contract extension. McLaren and Honda, however, will be keen to secure Alonso on a multi-year deal to give the team a driver to build its car around. Vettel faces some serious team building of his own at Ferrari, but with four titles banked during his time at Red Bull, he can afford a few years off the pace in return for the prestige of driving for the sport's biggest name.
Lewis Hamilton arrives in Sochi a 4/6 favourite to claim his ninth win of the 2014 campaign. There are odds of 20/1 for either Mercedes to hit trouble and retire on the first lap, while Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez are both 9/2 for a top six finish.
Facts and stats
- Initial simulations suggests the 56% of the lap at Sochi is spent at wide open throttle, which is well above the usual average for a street circuit.
- Of the current grid, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel have both won twice at a brand new circuit's inaugural race.
- Mercedes has scored eight one-two finishes this season, meaning it needs two more over the remaining four races to tie McLaren's 1988 record. A one-two in Russia would wrap up the constructors' championship for 2014.
It is expected to be sunny and warm in Sochi all weekend, with temperatures in the region of 23C. That should mean there aren't too many nasty surprises for the teams as they get used to new track on the medium and soft compound tyres this weekend. Chances of rain are registering at 0%.
After three victories in a row, Lewis Hamilton is in fine form. The circuit is an unknown, but street circuits have always been his forte and the slower sections of the track should play to his strengths. Consign everything else - including this blog - to the rubbish heap where it belongs.