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What to Watch for - Russia

11 Oct 2015

From Mercedes' chance to seal the constructors' crown to Daniil Kvyat's hopes of home glory; and from unknown race pace to unpredictable strategies, we outline the key themes to look out for in Sunday’s Grand Prix in Sochi…

Race pace a complete unknown

It was Kimi Raikkonen who perhaps best summed up how teams and drivers are approaching this year's Grand Prix in Sochi. "It will be a bit unknown for everybody," the Finn said after qualifying fifth. "Obviously, we don't have enough data from the long runs, so it's hard to know what is going to happen. Hopefully we will be able to take the fight…"

As Raikkonen and nearly all of his rivals acknowledged, there simply hasn't been enough running this weekend for teams to have an accurate picture of where they stand compared to their rivals - and perhaps as importantly, how they are likely to fare over race distances.

That might not necessarily mean a total shake up in the formbook - Mercedes, for example, look very strong over single laps and longer simulations, even if team boss Wolff admitted they need to work on rear tyre degradation. What it does mean, however, is that teams and drivers will have to be thinking on their feet throughout the 53-lap race. Driver feedback will not be the only crucial aspect - the ability to capitalise on any potential opportunities could make or break each man's afternoon. As Lotus's Pastor Maldonado put it, "there are rather more unknowns than usual so we'll all be very alert to how the race unfolds."

Mercedes poised to seal constructors' crown

While Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton will have their sights set firmly on each other as the lights go out in Sochi, there is an additional target for the Silver Arrows this weekend: constructors' glory. And while nothing is certain in Formula One racing, the team certainly already have one hand wrapped around the silverware.

In essence, Mercedes need to outscore Ferrari by just three points to secure their second consecutive crown. With four races still to run, it would be a fitting tribute to just how dominant the cars from Brackley have been again this season. Can Ferrari halt the coronation? Mathematically it would appear a tough ask, even with Rosberg and Hamilton being unlikely to give each other any quarter given their fight for the drivers' title. Whatever the outcome of the pair's individual scrap, Mercedes could well have an extra reason to celebrate on Sunday afternoon in Sochi.

Can Rosberg finally convert pole in victory?

Two weeks ago in Japan, Nico Rosberg outshone Lewis Hamilton in qualifying only to get robustly outmuscled by his Mercedes team mate through the first two corners in the race. "After that, I was fighting for P2 rather than the win," the German said later.

Having secured a second successive pole in Sochi, Rosberg - 48 points adrift of Hamilton in the title race and with little to lose - now has the chance to exorcise that ghost and capture his fourth win of the season.

The German knows that a good start is absolutely crucial to his chances, so it was little wonder that he chose to spend much of Friday's curtailed sessions working on his starts at the end of the pit lane, while many of his rivals sheltered in their garages.

"I'm in the best possible position for tomorrow," Rosberg said after qualifying. The question is, will he take full advantage this time?

Massa keen to avenge qualifying mistake

A fuel pressure issue put paid to Felipe Massa's chances of qualifying at the sharp end in Russia in 2014, but this year the Brazilian only had himself to blame after making a critical error at Turn 8 on his first timed lap in Q2.

With traffic and diminishing tyre life thwarting his subsequent efforts, Massa could do no better than 15th on the grid for Sunday's race, a full 12-places down on team mate Valtteri Bottas, who showed the full potential of Williams' package.

But while Massa was left ruing his mistake on Saturday evening, he could at least take some consolation in the fact that he should be able to make decent forward progress in the race, even if a podium place now seems out of reach.

Big question marks over optimal race strategy

Despite the lack of running in practice, the teams always knew that the supersoft tyres would be the quicker of the two compounds in qualifying. But what they're less sure of is how long they'll last in the race.

Pirelli had hoped their tyre nomination for this race - which is one step softer than last year - would get the teams back in the two- to three-stop window, but the Italian manufacturer now expects many teams to adopt a one-stop strategy, with the cool ambient temperatures and smooth track surface contributing to limited degradation.

Perhaps more than any race this season, the optimal strategy is hard to predict, but Pirelli expect the fastest to be to start on the supersoft and then switch to the soft between laps 18 and 22. However, if conditions turn out to be warmer, degradation levels could increase and the teams might be forced down the two-stop route.

As ever, the ability to read and react to changing conditions will be key.

Sainz ready to race - but will he be allowed to?

The F1 paddock breathed a sigh of relief when news filtered through that Carlos Sainz was uninjured following his huge shunt into the Turn 13 barriers in FP3.

And no sooner had the Toro Rosso driver been airlifted to hospital for precautionary checks than he was tweeting from his hospital bed that he was ‘all ok’ and ‘already thinking about how to convince the doctors to [let me] be on the grid tomorrow!’

For their part, Toro Rosso have repaired Sainz's badly damaged car and the Sochi stewards have given the Spanish driver permission to start the race from the pit lane despite his lack of a qualifying time, but it's the FIA doctor who'll have the final say on whether he can race or not.

What's certain is that if he does, he won't be holding back. And that could make him the driver to watch on Sunday afternoon.

As team principal Franz Tost put it: “We fix the race car and if the driver is right then we get him back in the car and we go racing again. Isn't that what we are all here for?"

Kvyat looking to give home fans something to cheer

In his maiden outing on home soil last year Daniil Kvyat qualified a brilliant fifth before fading to a lacklustre 14th in the race. This year he'll be hoping for a reversal of that trend after disappointingly missing the cut for the top-ten shootout in qualifying for the first time in three events.

But while the home fans were disappointed to see the Red Bull man bow out in Q2, all is not lost for the race. Unlike those in the top ten who will all have to start on the supersoft tyres, Kvyat - who'll start just behind them in 11th - has a free choice of rubber, and thus the option to try something slightly different strategy-wise to those ahead. In a tightly-contested midfield battle, Kvyat knows that could well make all the difference.

"I will fight hard and hope to finish in the points," the Russian said after qualifying. The fans in Sochi will expect nothing less.