The Formula 1 motor racing season returns to Russia after a century and brings with it the Mercedes rivalry which is still the talk of the paddock.
Still reeling from the tragedy in Japan that left Jules Bianchi, the French driver for the Marussia Team, in critical, but thankfully stable condition, the Formula 1 circus spins on and this week lands in the eerily familiar setting of Sochi where the first Russian Grand Prix for over a century will be held this Sunday. The former Winter Olympic host city and its purpose build track, the Sochi Autodrom, have already seen the first practice session and as ever it is Mercedes out in the lead.
The Bianchi crash and inevitable media spotlight couldn’t have come at a worse time for a sport already dodging questions about MH17 and Crimea. As enclosed cockpits were mooted by some as a future addition to the already stringent safety regime the Marussia Team announced it would be running but one car this weekend out of respect for their fallen team mate. This stands in quite stark contrast to the lack of it between the boys at Mercedes.
Although calm and collected near the media, just as their sponsors would wish, the on-going grudge match between Rosberg and Hamilton simmers so manifestly that one can all but taste it. Going into the 53 lap race in Sochi Hamilton is ten points ahead in the Driver’s championship but with only four races left in the season Rosberg is right on his shoulder, perhaps only out foxed by the ghastly conditions and subsequent car handling in Japan, something he’ll want to make amends for in Sochi.
Only just completed this year the track may prove to be a slippery customer in the early sessions of the weekend with the 3.637 mile long, 19 cornered stretch of tarmac needing to be run in a little to allow proper performance. With turn one barely a curve at all when the lights go out it’ll be a hard charge by the field to get in good position for turn two, a 90-degree left hander that is bound to see a fair share of drama come Sunday.
Back After 100 Years Away
The last Russian Grand Prix was held in St. Petersberg in 1914, won by the German Willy Scholl (in a Benz), just a year after the first Russian Grand Prix was held in precisely the same place.
The First World War, Russian Civil War and indeed establishment of the Soviet Union then prevented further Grand Prix from being staged, although, it must be said, strenuous effort was made in the mid-eighties to have Russia included in the calendar.
Sochi Hosts Formula 1’s Return To Russia
• Back after 100 years away
• Mercedes rivalry still looms large over season
• Rosberg and Hamilton race till the season’s end
It wasn’t, however, until 2010 when Bernie Eccelstone, the godfather of Formula 1, signed an agreement in the presence of Russian President/Prime Minister (delete as applicable) Vladimir Putin that it seemed even possible. The construction of the track in and around the 2014 Olympic Village proved a little tricky with the Olympic authorities actually having the right to stop the circuit construction should it interfere with their games.
The construction didn’t, thankfully have any adverse effects on the games and the power given over to the Olympians was never exercised so now the organized chaos of Formula 1 has parked itself squarely on Sochi and it’s facilities. Not perhaps the abandoned Moscow Raceway they would have preferred, nor even the 2001 Pulkovo Project so heartily supported by Vlad, it’s still in Russia and that alone makes this weekend’s race something special.
Despite having driven the circuit many times in simulators the real-life experience is always something set apart and many of the drivers walk or run around a track prior to the race sessions to get a feel for the camber and scale of corners. A brand new track meeting an entrenched rivalry is a recipe for an exceptionally interesting race as teams put into practice what has been, up till now, only been a theory or computer projection.
Practice Puts Button In A Spin
Nico Rosberg showed how it was done in the first practice session on Friday setting a lap time of 1:42:311 just 0.065 seconds ahead of team mate and rival Lewis Hamilton. Rosberg, recovering from a slight off early on, seemed more comfortable than Hamilton. Despite that Hamilton stayed 0.131 seconds ahead of fellow Brit Jenson Button whose McLaren gave him a moment late on in the session, and nearly three and a half tenths of a second ahead of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari.
Roberto Merhi also took a spin in his Caterham but it was Kevin Magnussen the driver from Denmark whose McLaren hit a bird that perhaps got the shock of the session that basked in excellent weather conditions. Rosberg will be gambling news of the clear weather stand him in good stead this weekend and even if it doesn’t it will almost certainly bring out the crowds to see home-grown driver Daniil Kvyat in his Toro Rosso who will next year race for Red Bull.
With plenty of people who like to bet on sports in Russia the bookies have been all over this race as both the close rivalry at the top of the Driver’s Championship table and the novelty of the event, back after all these years give something for people to get their teeth into. Daniil Kvyat has also been attracting some attention. Of course it’s still the boys at Mercedes who are favorites but in a sport as unpredictable as Formula 1 there’s lots of opportunities for shrewd wagers.
Online gambling sites in Russia and around the world hum to the action on this book as a large chunk of people take Hamilton at 4/6 over Rosberg at 9/4. Vettel and Ricciardo are at 14/1 with Fernando Alsonso out at 33/1 despite not being too far off the Mercedes pace in practice. Obviously these odds will fly about a bit as the teams get used to the track and the track throws a few surprises at the drivers but come Sunday Russia will once again have a Grand Prix to its name, you can bet on it.