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Russia - What to Watch for…

12 Oct 2014

From the potential of Williams' Valtteri Bottas to challenge Mercedes to the prospect of a career-best performance from home favourite Daniil Kvyat, and from the likelihood of lots of overtaking to the possibility of safety cars ruining strategy, we break down the key themes to watch for in the 2014 Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix…

Bottas to put Mercedes under pressure

While Valtteri Bottas was critical of his own driving after the mistakes that cost him a potential front-row start in Sochi, his pace in qualifying demonstrated very clearly that Williams can take the fight to Mercedes in Sunday's race.

With team mate Felipe Massa mired toward the back end of the grid, Bottas will shoulder the full responsibility for attacking - and the Finn's P3 start could turn out to be a blessing in disguise given that it also places him on the clean side of the grid.

There's further reason for optimism too: Bottas's long-run pace looked extremely competitive on Friday afternoon, while the FW36 is known to be fuel efficient - an important factor at this stop-start circuit. And at the start, the long run down to Turn 2 - the first proper corner of the race - should give him every chance of gaining at least one position on the opening lap.

"It's never easy," Bottas said of his hopes of fighting with the Mercedes. "They are really quick and you never know how much more pace they have than what they showed in the long runs on Friday. So we will see tomorrow. As a team we did a really good job this weekend - it's feeling good and I think the car should be a bit better in the long runs than it was in the qualifying."

Mercedes bidding to wrap up first constructors' title

The battle for the drivers' title may still be wide open, but the constructors' championship could well be sealed on Russian soil on Sunday. Runaway leaders Mercedes entered the weekend 190 points clear of closest rivals Red Bull, and with only four races to go, that means the Silver Arrows will be guaranteed their maiden constructors' crown if either Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg wins in Sochi.

Of course, Mercedes might not even need to finish that high, depending on where Red Bull finish. In contrast to Hamilton and Rosberg, Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel have found the going tough in Russia, qualifying back in seventh and 11th respectively, which suggests the reigning champions might just surrender their title with a whimper rather than a roar.

Kvyat set to star in Sochi

Every driver wants to perform well on home soil, and so far things couldn't have gone much better for Toro Rosso's Daniil Kvyat. Despite the pressure and expectation that comes with being the only Russian on the grid in the country's inaugural Grand Prix, the 19-year-old rookie drove superbly in qualifying to claim fifth on the grid - the highest starting slot for a Russian driver in F1 history.

The question is what can Kvyat do in the race when he's likely to be battling with Mercedes-powered rivals?

"I'll be doing my absolute best to go forwards," said the home favourite. "Who knows what could happen? It would be good to go a little further ahead."

Kvyat is likely to be swamped by the media on the grid, but if he can stay cool, get away well and make it through the first couple of corners intact he's shown he has the speed and tenacity to score big points. Don't bet against him bettering his career-best finish of ninth.

A one-stopper will be the strategy of choice…

As with any new circuit, the teams and drivers were not quite sure what to expect in terms of grip levels and tyre performance when they arrived in Sochi. However, what's become clear after two days of running is that degradation levels are extremely low, largely because of the Russian track's incredibly smooth surface. Given that, and the fact that the pit lane speed limit was reduced to 60km/h on Saturday, thereby making the pit loss a lengthy 24 seconds, means you can expect a lot of one-stop strategies in the race.

Tyre suppliers Pirelli say that the ideal one-stop route is to start on the soft tyre (which all of the top ten qualifiers must do anyway), change to medium rubber on or around lap 34 and then run to the end. However, the opposite strategy could be just as quick: starting on the mediums and then changing to the softs around lap 18.

Another strategy point worth noting is that this race is expected to be very demanding in terms of fuel consumption, so drivers will have to carefully manage their pace so as not to run out of juice before the chequered flag.

…but the safety car could well compromise that

As we've seen throughout practice, the nature of Sochi's layout - with its numerous concrete barriers - makes it very difficult for the marshals to safely remove stationary cars from the circuit, and that means there's a high probability we'll see one or more safety-car periods during the race.

That could play havoc with strategy - just ask McLaren reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne who comfortably led Saturday's opening GP2 race until a safety car came out just after he passed the pit entrance. All of Vandoorne's rivals pitted and in the end the Belgian had to pit under disadvantageous green flag conditions, eventually coming home sixth. Whoever is leading the Grand Prix on Sunday will be desperate to avoid such a scenario.

A plethora of off-track moments - and the possible track-limits penalties

Whether it's down to the slick nature of the newly-laid surface or simply drivers pushing too hard, we've seen plenty of cars straying off track over the weekend, and whilst no one has been penalised for exceeding track limits yet, it could be a different story in the race, especially if a driver uses one of the numerous asphalt run-off areas to hold position or gain ground.

One of the key areas where the drivers can expect to be scrutinised is the start where, in theory, it could be quicker to run wide at the tight Turn 2 and re-join the track after the second part of the corner, just before Turn 3. Williams test driver Felipe Nasr did just that at the start of Saturday's GP2 race and earned himself a drive-through penalty, so expect race control to be similarly vigilant in the Grand Prix.

Overtaking will be hard - but not impossible

Street circuits are not renowned for being conducive to overtaking, but then the semi-permanent Sochi Autodrom isn't your typical street track. For a start the Russian venue is wide, ranging between 12 and 15 metres, and that will encourage passing, as will the two lengthy DRS zones.

Throw in the fact that you've got numerous drivers out of their true position on the grid because of either problems in qualifying (Felipe Massa) or grid penalties (McLaren's Kevin Magnussen, Force India's Nico Hulkenberg) and you have all the ingredients for a race full of overtaking.

Bianchi to remain at the forefront of everyone's minds

It's been seven days since Jules Bianchi's serious accident in Japan and though the Formula One fraternity has moved on to Russia, the thoughts of everyone in the paddock remain very much with the injured Frenchman.

Marussia have already taken the bold step of entering just a single car in this race out of respect for Bianchi, whilst Max Chilton's sole MR03 is adorned with ‘#JB17 stickers’. Meanwhile all of the drivers are wearing '#ForzaJules' and 'Tous avec Jules' stickers on their helmets as they continue to show solidarity with their much-missed colleague.

As the track overlay said in qualifying, ‘Jules, we are all supporting you’.

A massive, enthusiastic crowd

On Thursday, the race organisers announced that they'd practically sold out Russia's inaugural Grand Prix - and that was before Daniil Kvyat's qualifying heroics pushed local interest through the roof. Therefore you can expect the stands to be heaving all around Sochi's impressive Olympic Park on Sunday, with most fans no doubt cheering on the Toro Rosso rookie…