There is a great sense of excitement from within the paddock about the new race, though it goes without saying that everyone’s thoughts also remain with Marussia’s Jules Bianchi, who remains in hospital in Japan following his serious crash at Suzuka last weekend, with no news yet as to whether Marussia will field a car in his stead in Russia.
Speaking about the new Sochi track, Bernie Ecclestone says: “A lot has changed since the last time I was here. I am seeing some fantastic results. This will be one of the most sensational Grand Prix races. No one has ever built a racing track like the one in Sochi. I just can’t wait.”
Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel is the only driver with experience of the track, having completed a few demonstration laps in a road car back in August. “It’s a big honour to be the first Formula One driver to test the track,” he said. “Having driven a couple of laps of this awesome circuit, I can already see that it will be interesting to drive a F1 car here. The infrastructure I’ve seen has really impressed me as well.”
Other drivers have been getting up to speed with the new circuit on their respective simulators, and most have been pleasantly surprised by what they encountered. “It didn’t look very sexy from the outside but it actually seems to be really good fun,” says Lotus’s Romain Grosjean.
“There’s a great mix of corners and some good high-speed areas too. What the simulator does is let you speed up this process and make initial decisions about car set-up and so on. What the simulator can’t do for a new circuit is give a precise idea of the grip levels you will find as it’s a surface we’ve never raced on before. With any new surface, we’d expect the grip levels to change over the course of the weekend, so that will be part of the challenge. We all face the same challenge, but there is an element of how good the driver and team are at quickly getting a handle on the track.”
Mercedes team mates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg will inevitably start as favourites, with the Briton looking for his fourth consecutive victory having opened his drivers’ championship advantage to 10-points over the German with victory in Japan. But for the home crowd, the focus will be on following the fortunes of newly-announced 2015 Red Bull racer Daniil Kvyat in his Toro Rosso. “I’m very excited to race in Russia when I will finally get to perform in front of my home crowd, so that makes it a very important weekend,” he says. “I’m sure feeling all that extra support will be a big boost when I’m on track. It’s definitely a historic moment and I hope everyone will enjoy the Grand Prix.”
The locals will also be able to cheer on a second Russian, as Sauber test driver Sergey Sirotkin will participate in the first free practice session on Friday morning. It will be the 19-year-old's debut outing on a Grand Prix weekend, though he tested the 2014 Sauber in Bahrain back in April.
Team principal Monisha Kaltenborn says: "In the World Series by Renault, Sergey had a difficult start to the season with many technical problems, but in the meantime he was able to recover and to win the race in Moscow. We decided that this is the right time to give Sergey this chance."
Sochi Autodrom is 5.848 kilometres long, runs clockwise and is a medium-speed circuit with a variety of different corners, including one left-hander that has been inspired by the long triple-apex Turn 8 at Istanbul Park, which takes an enormous amount of energy out of the front-right tyre. In total there are 12 right and six left-hand corners, with a 650-metre straight between the first and second turns, on which the cars are expected to hit a top speed of around 320 km/h. The average lap speed around the Hermann Tilke-designed circuit is expected to be in the region of 215 km/h.
Though there is little pre-event data, Pirelli have carried out advanced computer simulations in collaboration with the teams to prepare for the demands of the new venue and predict the likely strategies. As a result, they are bringing the white-marked medium and yellow-marked soft compound tyres, a combination last seen in Belgium.
“From a tyre perspective it should be an interesting challenge,” says Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery. “We’ve got a wide variety of corners that should test every aspect of performance. As has been the case at every grand prix this year, we’re aiming for between two and three pit stops per race and the nomination we have made reflects this.
“In terms of overall tyre energy demands, Russia is somewhere in the middle, and measurements also indicate low-abrasion asphalt. Regarding the weather, initial forecasts suggest that conditions will be temperate. Going to a new circuit is always exciting and it’s only when we get there that we will have a complete idea of what to expect, so the work done in free practice will be particularly important for everyone.”
The track features two DRS zones, the first of which is between Turns 1 and 2 with the detection point prior to Turn 1 and the second between turns 10 and 12 with the detection immediately before Turn 10.
The coastal city of Sochi is proud to boast around 200 days of sunshine a year and, true to form, it is forecast to be dry and sunny all weekend, with the ambient temperature expected to rise as high as 23 degrees Celsius on Sunday.
The race will run over 53 laps, or 309.745 kilometres (192.475 miles). It starts at 1500 hours local time, which is four hours ahead of GMT.