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Russia F1 Grand Prix preview: Will someone other than Mercedes lead a lap in Sochi?

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Russia F1 Grand Prix preview: Will someone other than Mercedes lead a lap in Sochi?
Apr 25, 2017, 4:01 PM

This weekend the F1 cars will race at the Sochi Autodrom, a circuit where Mercedes has the unique accolade of being the only team to have led a lap...

This weekend the F1 cars will race at the Sochi Autodrom, a circuit where Mercedes has the unique accolade of being the only team to have led a lap.

In the three previous 53-lap editions Lewis Hamilton has won twice and Nico Rosberg once, without any other team getting a chance to lead a single lap.

This year with Ferrari on form, having won two of the three races so far, the competition should be tighter, but this is more likely to be a track that suits Mercedes, with cooler track temperatures.

However Mercedes' other weakness so far this season has been its performance on the softest Pirelli tyre compounds, the Ultra Soft and the Super soft, both of which will feature in Sochi.

After the fascinating strategic battle in Bahrain, this race will be a bit of an anti-climax as it is going to be likely a standard one-stopper. The asphalt in Sochi is kind on the tyres and a one stop strategy should take the cars to the chequered flag.

Safety Car Sochi F1

The ultra-to-soft plan is pretty close in overall race time to the ultra-to-superSoft plan. The teams will need to check wear values as usual during practice but will also need to make a good measurement of the tyre warm-up particularly on the soft. This could be a game changer for the midfield cars; with less downforce, they may well struggle to get the soft tyre up to racing speeds quickly after a pit stop.

It could lead to some tight moments in the event of an undercut situation and much will depend on a team's confidence on how quickly it can switch on the soft.

Strategically the alternative strategy for cars starting outside the top ten of doing soft tyres for the first stint and then ultra softs for a 20 lap final stint ends up being almost as fast, but much will depend on being held up by traffic.

In terms of race starts, despite big changes to the clutch mapping regulations to hand control back to the drivers, not much has occurred of interest off the startling yet; Mercedes have lost just one position in three races thus far - Hamilton dropping behind Vettel's Ferrari in Bahrain under braking into Turn 1, having started on the dirty side of the grid.

This is a track with a reasonably high probability of a Safety Car; we have seen three in total during two of the races to date. It is not a particularly good overtaking track, despite two DRS zones. There were 26 overtakes in total at last year's race, half of them due to DRS. So this could be another one of the tracks where the new generation F1 cars may be expected to struggle to overtake.

Statistically it is Valtteri Bottas's strongest track; he has never qualified lower than 3rd here and has had a podium and a fourth in a Williams. He will be highly motivated to bounce back from his disappointing race performance in Bahrain after taking his first pole position on the Saturday, although it has since emerged that Lewis Hamilton had a problem with his DRS in qualifying at Sakhir.

Russian GP

The Russian GP in numbers

The fourth Russian Grand Prix at former Winter Olympic venue, Sochi, will be the sixth Russian race in history – St Petersburg hosted the remainder in 1913-1914. Sochi Autodrom unfurls on the streets around the Olympic park and is the fourth-longest track on the calendar at 5.85km, just shorter than Silverstone.

Mercedes has won all five of those races over 103 years, with Lewis Hamilton having taken victory in 2014-15 and retiree Nico Rosberg first in 2016. This year, the team is looking for its 400th podium finish in F1. If Hamilton takes pole this weekend it will be the 250th of all time for a British driver.

Last season, this race had the fewest pitstops of any in the calendar, with 26 over the whole field. Any driver who stops more than once here has never finished higher than fourth, Rosberg having pitted at the end of lap one in 2014 for Medium tyres, ending up second after 52 laps on them.

Incidents in Turn 1 have brought out the Safety Car for the last two years and Nico Hulkenberg has been taken out in both of those. Most notably, it was here where Daniil Kvyat and Sebastian Vettel came together twice in 2016 on the first lap.

Sebastian Vettel

Championship leader Vettel will be hoping for a reversal in fortunes from 2016, though the Ferrari driver has never started in the top-three in Russia – qualified second last year though a five-place grid penalty set him back.

But, this year is proving to be a huge turnaround as Vettel has never led the championship in the turbo-hybrid-engine era and in his four titles from 2010-2013, the German hasn't lost a championship once leading it. In contrast, team-mate Raikkonen is looking for his first podium in 15 Grands Prix.

Debutant Lance Stroll hasn't finished a race in 2017 and only 12 laps of the last two races have been completed by the young Canadian – fewer than McLaren's Stoffel Vandoorne. His counterpart Felipe Massa is on a 32-race spell without a podium, since Italy 2015.

The situation is far from dire for Williams here, however, as the team has finished in the top-four at every Sochi race so far and qualified in the top-three for the same. This year, Massa has a chance of out-qualifying his team-mate here for the first time.

Indy 500 starter Fernando Alonso hasn't finished a race yet this season but he has had two top-six finishes at Sochi and 100% finishing record here. Still, with his McLaren coming in 10mph slower than Hamilton's Mercedes in Bahrain last time it's not so promising now. Last year, Sergio Perez of Force India hit 207.5mph, the highest race speed recorded – Alonso clocked in at 203.8mph, which falls far short of the 225mph he could hit at Indianapolis next month.

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