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Paddock Postcard from Russia

12 Oct 2014

The enthusiasm for this weekend’s inaugural Russian Grand Prix was obvious from the outset as more than 20,000 fans turned up on the opening Thursday, a day before the track action even began at the all-new Sochi Autodrom.

They queued eagerly for driver autographs and the pit-lane walk, which offered the opportunity to step right up to the teams’ garages and witness first hand the mechanics and engineers working on the world’s most advanced racing cars. Thousands more were able to step onto the new track ahead of its maiden F1 sessions.

“I have a feeling of great positive energy and happiness!” said one fan, Igor from Minsk. “We’ve been waiting for Formula One to come to Russia for a long time. I came here from Belarus and I am excited to see everything with my own eyes. Everything looks just awesome!”

Another guest, Anna, added: “Everything is fantastic! I’ve been watching Formula One for four years and I support Jenson Button and - what a miracle - today I got his autograph! I am overjoyed.”

Lenny Kravitz headlined the weekend’s musical entertainment, while the most eagerly anticipated visitor in the paddock was undoubtedly President Vladimir Putin, and with Formula One racing enjoying a hugely successful debut in Russia the event bristled with activity and famous faces.

King Hamad of Bahrain paid a visit, as did former world champion Alain Prost, Jean Alesi, driver steward Danny Sullivan, Russia's first F1 driver Vitaly Petrov and actor Steven Segal. Niki Lauda and Eddie Jordan are regulars, but didn’t arrive until Friday after attending the funeral of former driver Andrea de Cesaris in Rome on Thursday.

The injured Jules Bianchi naturally remained very much in everyone's minds after his serious crash in Japan last weekend. Marussia chose not to run anyone in his place in Sochi, while Bianchi's fellow drivers displayed messages of support on their cars and helmets.

On-track, Saturday saw Great Britain’s Jolyon Palmer emulate his father and ex-F1 driver Jonathan; the latter won the European Formula Two Championship in 1983 and the former clinched the GP2 title with a stylish victory for DAMS despite massive pressure in the closing stages from Russian Time’s Mitch Evans.

Palmer was aided immeasurably, however, when ART’s polesitter and early race leader Stoffel Vandoorne just missed the pit-lane entry as the safety car was deployed when Stefano Coletti's Racing Engineering car had rolled to a halt on the eighth lap.

By that stage Vandoorne had recovered the lead after a slow start had enabled ART’s Takuya Izawa to snatch the initiative as fellow front-row man Arthur Pic was also slow getting going. Palmer fought up from fourth and was chasing hard after Vandoorne when Coletti stopped, and immediately pitted. He came out behind Vandoorne, Evans’s team mate Artem Markelov and his own team mate Stephane Richelmi, all of whom had not stopped and were thus doomed to fall back. As Markelov and Richelmi held Palmer up, Evans closed in, but Palmer fended the New Zealander off to the end and won as the three men ahead eventually made their belated tyre stops.

Racing Engineering’s Raffaele Marciello finished third ahead of Campos’s Pic, as Vandoorne took fifth place from Arden’s Andre Negrao, Trident’s Sergio Canamasas and Carlin’s Julian Leal. Leal was given a post-race penalty for causing a collision, however, so MP Motorsport’s Marco Sorensen secured pole for Sunday’s sprint race.

Carlin's Felipe Nasr, Palmer’s closest title rival, had a miserable race after an early clash and having to take a second drive-through penalty, for exceeding track limits, after his first one was made under the safety car. He finished a deeply disappointed 18th.

Palmer's narrow victory gave him 256 points to Nasr's 190, making him the first British GP2 champion since Lewis Hamilton in 2006. "It's incredible,” he said. “To look at the list of champions, who are fantastic drivers, and join them, which nobody can take away from me, is an incredible feeling."

Sunday's sprint race then boasted a new winner, as MP Motorsport's Marco Sorensen led throughout to triumph for the first time in GP2. Vandoorne made amends for his ill fortune in the feature race by claiming second, while Nasr charged from 17th on the grid to finish third. Evans had occupied the position in the closing stages, but lost out to Nasr at the restart following a late safety-car period.

And for the victor of their first F1 race, Sochi organisers have commissioned a special design for the winner’s trophy, featuring the snow-covered mountaintops which surround the race venue. The Imeretinskaya lowlands and stunning beauty of the Black Sea are also visible on the base of the trophy, which took a month to produce using silver, brass, a carbon fabric and polycarbonate.