The Russian Grand Prix we had to have
We all knew it was coming: the Russian Grand Prix on the ultra-smooth Sochi circuit was the perfect storm that gave us an almost entirely soporific race.
Lap one was all action. After Fernando Alonso’s McLaren almost predictably stopped on the formation lap, Valtteri Bottas, after an embarrassing race from pole in Bahrain, rocketed past the Ferraris and into the lead by turn two.
There was a crash, too — a typical lap-one standoff between joyless Jolyon Palmer and luckless Romain Grosjean — that triggered a safety car, after which a brake fire forced Daniel Ricciardo into his second retirement in five races.
But for all the spectacle of the first lap, what followed were 33 laps of procession. Strategic tension? Just a little: Sebastian Vettel chased down Bottas for a thrill in the final 18 laps, but even he had to admit Valtteri had the lead under control in the race’s twilight.
So what went wrong, and has Russia proved the exciting Bahrain and Chinese grands prix to be anomalies, as so many feared in the preseason?
The Sochi Autodrom is the first problem. The Russian track, set up between infrastructure built for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, is a street circuit by nature, meaning it comprises relatively repetitive 90-degree corners that put limited strain on the car, driver, and tyres. For this reason passing has always been difficult in Russia.
Further, because the Sochi circuit was designed on a relatively blank canvas — unlike more famous street races like Singapore and Monaco, which are run in dense population centres — run off is plentiful and the tarmac itself is purpose-laid.
As Formula One knows well, bountiful run-off means driving errors tend to go unpunished, as we saw occasionally this weekend, and the super-smooth surface, seldom used outside the grand prix event, generates minimum grip and creates little tyre wear.
But the circuit is only half of the equation — it’s with the addition of the 2017-specification cars that trouble really starts.
As was detailed by this column after the Australian Grand Prix, this year’s regulations were changed with the aim of speeding up the cars rather than improving the racing. Though the two are not mutually exclusive, neglecting the latter at the expense of the former means the 2017 machines are more difficult to drive at close quarters.
The problem is ameliorated to some degree at traditional-style race circuit like those in Shanghai and Bahrain, which can deliver racing by building in corners that can generate driving errors and encourage overtaking, asphalt that heats and wears tyres at more typical levels, and — whisper it — gravel or grass run-off areas that can punish mistakes.
In Russia, however, the clinical Sochi circuit puts the flawed regulations under a spotlight. With grip at such a premium on the billiard table-like surface, the aerodynamic wake of a car even two seconds up the road can rob an attacking car of the precious little traction it already has, making passing almost impossible.
For this reason even this year’s ultra-tight midfield produced little racing. No car except Bottas and Vettel finished within one second of another, and just seven drivers finished less than 10 seconds behind a rival. Worse still was that the two-tiered nature of the sport this season was on full display, with Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen, a one-time podium getter in 2017, finishing a full 60 seconds behind the leader.
Formula One will never be rid of such races — processional grands prix can happen as regularly as two football sides produce a sedate nil-all draw — but the Russian Grand Prix provides the sport with a sobering reminder that there are still plenty of levers in F1’s control to improve the spectacle.
It should be a particularly illustrative lesson for the sport’s new commercial rights holder after commercial operations managing director Sean Bratches admitted he wants more grands prix raced on street tracks.
“We want to play a bit more offence going forward and identify cities around the world where we can have more city circuits as opposed to traditional tracks,” Bratches told Sky Sports. “We want city centres that have massive fan audiences to drive interest in the tracks and attendance in the tracks.”
Bringing the sport to the people is an undoubtedly worthwhile aim, and city circuits often make for fantastic visual spectacles, but as the admittedly pretty Sochi is teaching us, visual effect counts for only so much if the circuit provides little conducive for worthwhile racing.