Fer­rari wait­ing in wings to stage a come­back

CityPress - - Sport - MICHELLE FOSTER sports@city­press.co.za

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

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