On the one hand Lewis Hamilton has never been beaten in Russia, winning the first two races staged at the Sochi Autodrom. On the other his Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg is in red hot form. Will this be the place where Hamilton turns his fortunes around or will Rosberg continue his roll and make it four from four in 2016 (and a history-making seven in a row)?
Or could this possibly be the race where Ferrari finally silence both Silver Arrows drivers and end their own barren run?
Hamilton aiming to bounce back
“There was plenty going through my head after China, as you'd expect,” admits Hamilton, who recovered to seventh in Shanghai after yet more first-lap contact.
“But, after all these years, experience has taught me to stay calm and keep pushing forwards when I get knocked back. I've been here before a few times now. A lot can happen over the next 18 race weekends and I have the utmost confidence in this team. But adversity is part of the journey: it brings us closer, makes us stronger and I know that together we'll bounce back, so I'm confident of better weekends to come. There are lots of positives to carry into the next battle.
“If nothing else, I know after these first few races that I can still overtake! I had a great start in China too, so hopefully I can continue that and use it to my advantage to build my races from a better base.
“This is a race that I've won on both occasions so far and a track that seems to suit me pretty well, so let's see what we can do here…”
The world champion’s damaged powertrain from China arrived back at Brixworth in the early hours of last Thursday morning and investigation into the problem he suffered in qualifying has been on-going ever since.
The MGU-H has been stripped and the issue is suspected to be associated with the insulation. The turbocharger will be replaced in addition to the oil pumps, after debris was found in the oil system. Now that repairs have been completed, the unit remains in the driver pool and will be used as a spare in Sochi.
Both of the top two teams have suffered reliability issues so far this year, and Ferrari’s focus will be on striking the right balance between power and reliability after their recent turbocharger woes. Besides a new front wing for both SF16-Hs, the Scuderia have spent another three development tokens on combustion chamber development and will bring engines with a higher compression ratio for Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen to use this weekend.
Kvyat set for hero’s welcome
This weekend will also be a big one for local hero Daniil Kvyat, of course, at a time when Red Bull are definitely back on an upswing.
“I’m very excited to get back to Russia for the Grand Prix,” says the 22 year-old, who picked up just his second F1 podium and Driver Of The Day last time out in China. “It’s an important race for me and it’s nice to see my family and friends and all the fans who come to support me and the team in Sochi. I can’t wait!
“It’s a very modern track with a few corners that look quite similar but they are never as easy as they might look, because you have to try and drive the car on the limit each time you turn. I think Turn 4 is the nicest corner, and it’s also the grandstand named after me. I see my face on that corner often during the race, and that support is really nice. Any time I want to say something cool I say: I have a grandstand named after me!
“It will be a hectic week and thinking about Daniel’s busy week in Australia it’s a bit of a payback for me in a way but you already got into quite a good rhythm after the first few races so you’re used to it in a way. In the end it’s my home race and that gives me an extra boost as well. It’s very nice to have a home race. It’s very special for every driver, so I think I’m very lucky to have one.”
Teams split on tyre choice
On the tyre front, Pirelli have brought the same medium, soft and supersoft compounds seen at every race so far this season to a track that features some very quick corners - some of which require a lot of heavy braking. But despite this, the Italian manufacturer is not expecting to see a high number of pit stops. Last year, for example, Hamilton won after starting on supersofts and ending on softs after a single stop.
“We’re back to Russia just six months after coming to the race previously, which means that we can probably expect conditions in spring to be different from how they were last autumn,” Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery says. “This is one of the lowest degradation tracks we visit all season, so we can expect to see some quite long stints even on the supersoft, as Lewis Hamilton showed last year. However, the performance increase that we have consistently observed from the 2016 cars will increase wear, so free practice will be very important to get an accurate read on tyre behaviour in these new conditions with the latest generation of cars.”
Its Sochi’s very smooth asphalt that accounts for the low tyre degradation - and as a result several teams have been very aggressive with their tyre choices and strategies. The top four teams, meanwhile, have each chosen something different.
Red Bull and Haas have gone for a set of mediums, two sets of softs and 10 sets of supersofts for their drivers, while Williams have opted for one, three and nine; Mercedes, Toro Rosso and Force India for one, four and eight; and McLaren, Renault and Sauber for one, five and seven. Interestingly, Ferrari have been relatively conservative, with one, six and six.
Two ‘old’ faces return to the paddock
After a short absence, former Manor team principal John Booth is back in the F1 fold with Toro Rosso after being appointed as director of racing on a consultancy basis for the Italian team.
“I have known John for many years and I am delighted to welcome him to the team,” says Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost of the clever appointment of the much-respected Booth, whose fresh F1 involvement will run parallel to a separate Manor WEC campaign.
“Formula One is becoming ever more complex, with recent changes on the tyre front, car set-up, radio communications and so forth. Therefore, having a competitive car and talented drivers, both of which we have, on its own is not enough. With his vast experience I am sure John will help the team raise its game and become a more effective force over a race weekend.”
Another returnee is Russian GP2 racer Sergey Sirotkin, who will take over Kevin Magnussen’s Renault R.S.16 in FP1, as part of his new test driver duties for the French marque.
“This is a great opportunity for me, although it has all come together so quickly,” says the 20 year-old Muscovite, who had a similar FP1 run for Sauber at the Russian track in 2014.
“I still can’t quite believe it. This is, however, the moment that all young racing drivers are working towards, and I am determined to learn as much as I can, as quickly as I can, doing the best possible job for the team.”
As befits the ‘summer capital of Russia’, it is expected to be dry and sunny all weekend in Sochi, with an ambient temperature high of 18 degrees Celsius on race day.
The lights will go out at 1500 hours local time (1200 GMT) on Sunday, with the race running over 53 laps or 309.745 kilometres (192.467 miles).