THE RUSSIAN GRAND PRIX: SETTLING THE SCORE

By Michael Lamonato

Fresh from their mutual Monza destruction two weeks ago, Lewis Hamilton will aim to retake the title lead from the penalised Max Verstappen in Mercedes fortress Sochi.

SOCHI AUTODROM

Laps: 53

Distance: 5.848 kilometres

Corners: 18

Nestled in the purpose-built 2014 Winter Olympics precinct, the Sochi Autodrom is a hybrid street circuit not without its baked-in party tricks.

Its most recognisable feature is its enormous 750-metre constant-ratio left-handed turn three. Easily flat in an F1 car at nearly 300 kilometres per hour, it offers drivers different lines into the braking zone at turn four, making it a potential overtaking site.

But the long not-straight straight is also a key consideration here, in particular the 890-metre run from pole to the first braking zone at turn two. The polesitter is extremely vulnerable to being slipstreamed at lights-out, and starting directly behind from third is often advantageous.

LAST YEAR’S RACES

Last year’s winners: Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes)

Lewis Hamilton started from pole but served two penalties for improper practice starts on his way to the grid, allowing Valtteri Bottas to control the race ahead of Max Verstappen for his second career Russian Grand Prix victory - and his last win to date.

FORM GUIDE

Only one thing will be on F1’s mind in Sochi: that crash between title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen at the preceding Italian Grand Prix. Both were eliminated from the race in a collision where the stewards found Verstappen to be predominantly — though not wholly — at fault and for which the Dutchman will be dropped three places on the grid this weekend.

But in many respects Verstappen emerged the winner from Monza, a circuit at which Hamilton should have scored heavily against him. Instead, he extended his championship lead to five points at one of the last out-and-out Mercedes tracks on the calendar.

WHAT TO EXPECT

Mercedes is the only team to have ever won the Russian Grand Prix —even the pre-championship races of 1913 and 1914 were won by Benz — and it’s for this reason Red Bull Racing is casting itself as the underdog in Sochi.

But there’s reason to think the streak could be ripe for breaking.

Engine performance down the long front straight counts here despite the high-downforce set-up needed for the rest of the track. Mercedes has in recent history marshalled the most horses, but this season the Honda engine is every bit as powerful, particularly on tracks with long straights, where the Japanese marque is capable of delivering more electrical power for longer.

The majority short-duration, medium-speed corners comprising the rest of the lap have also caused Mercedes real trouble this season. In Baku and Monte Carlo, for example, it struggled to warm the front tyres with the rears, an imbalance that left it without a straight chance of victory.

Nonetheless, the Mercedes car has taken steps forward since those difficulties, and the team’s affinity for this circuit is formidable. Valtteri Bottas in particular goes well here and arrives in fine form after a strong Italian Grand Prix. Combined with Verstappen’s grid penalty and Sergio Perez’s lukewarm form, Red Bull Racing will need a special performance to oust Mercedes from its Russian fortress and prevent Hamilton from retaking the title lead.