Ferrari waiting in wings to stage a comeback
Despite Mercedes’ stranglehold at the Sochi Autodrom, all the talk is of a red revival as Formula One heads to Russia with Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari on top of the standings.
Two wins in three races – two more than they managed last season – have changed the dynamics at the sharp end of the grid, bringing back memories of yesteryear, when the German and Italian national anthems rang out race after race during Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher era.
It has caught the attention of Formula One fans – those who watch religiously and those who slowly switched off over the past three years of Mercedes’ dominance.
It is what everyone wants – even Mercedes motorsport boss Toto Wolff admits Formula One needs a closely contested battle between two of the sport’s heavyweights. And that’s exactly what we have.
Although we have yet to see Vettel and Lewis Hamilton go wheel-to-wheel, the intricacies of strategy and tyres have seen the Grands Prix decided by the smallest of margins or, perhaps, the biggest decisions.
This played out in an early stop for tyres for Hamilton in Australia, Vettel’s pre-safety car pit stop in China and another – but with a different outcome – in Bahrain.
Throw in a rookie error that saw Hamilton penalised five seconds for holding up the field in the Bahrain pits, and it highlights how close this battle is.
“When you screw up, man, it is painful. There is no other way of saying it,” said the triple world champion.
“I try to handle it the best way I can, but it eats you up a little bit inside, and you have just got to end up trying to cope and move forward.”
He added: “In Bahrain there were certain things ... if they were perfect, I would have been in a far better position to fight for the win ... and I did not put myself in that position. It is only a small percentage, which is what racing should be all about, but we want to operate at the top end.”
One venue where Mercedes have been at the “top end” is the Sochi Autodrom, home of the Russian Grand Prix. The Brackley squad enjoyed 1-2 finishes in 2014 and last year, while also winning the 2015 race. Added to that, they have 100% when it comes to laps led since 2014. It is a sharp contrast to Vettel’s record of only one podium in Sochi.
Swapping Bahrain’s heat for Russia’s cooler conditions is expected to play to the strengths of Mercedes’ W08 car, meaning today’s race will be Ferrari’s first big test. Can they keep up with Mercedes on a track seemingly designed to suit their rival?
Overtaking is not easy on the Sochi Autodrom’s notoriously glass-like surface, and neither is it easy with the new 2017 challengers, so qualifying will be important, and that remains Mercedes’ powerhouse.
Vettel acknowledged that taking Hamilton on the line in Bahrain was imperative to his victory, and it will be even more so this afternoon.
But while the focus is mainly on Vettel versus Hamilton, both their teammates are in need of a good showing. Valtteri Bottas was ordered – not once but twice – in Bahrain to move over for Hamilton, and faces a season of “number two” status unless he gets the better of the Brit – and fast. The same can be said of Kimi Räikkönen.
Daniil Kvyat, who last season lost his Red Bull Racing seat after a wretched Russian GP in which he collided with Vettel in the opening lap, has two points to his name compared with team-mate Carlos Sainz’s 10, while Lance Stroll needs to get his name on the board.
Red Bull have yet to achieve a Russian Grand Prix podium, while Force India’s Sergio Pérez is one of only five drivers to have stood on the rostrum. He is currently engaged in a tussle with Felipe Massa for “best of the rest” behind the big three teams.
Aside from the intrigue at the sharp end of the grid and the intense tussle in the midfield, the other big question that Sochi may yet answer is who will score first – Sauber or McLaren? And that is a sad state of affairs for the once championship-winning McLaren team.
When you screw up, man, it is painful LEWIS HAMILTON
– TEAMtalk Media