The Hamilton v Vettel battle resumes
Three races into the new season and it’s already clear that this year’s title fight will be between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Despite winning seven of the past nine drivers’ titles between them, we’ve never really been treated to a proper fight between these two – but finally, it looks as though this is the year.
Despite having the ‘quickest’ car in qualifying trim, Mercedes has been unable to convert Saturday form through to Sunday and have been beaten in two of the three races so far. Cooler temperatures and low tyre degredation mean that, on paper at least, this is a track that should suit Mercedes. After all, Mercedes has led EVERY SINGLE LAP since the first race here three years ago. Yes, every single lap.
But Ferrari has shown this season that Mercedes are beatable, if not on raw pace, but through strategy. Implementing that successful strategy will be a whole other story, however, as passing here is tricky, meaning track position will become even more important than in recent races.
There are only seven points separating Hamilton and Vettel in the standings, but a win for Hamilton here this weekend, with Vettel coming home in second, would see the pair tied on points heading into the next round in Barcelona.
A chance for Bottas to shine
Sochi is a track that Bottas has performed very well at in recent years, so it represents an excellent opportunity for him to banish the disappointment of having to let Lewis Hamilton pass in the Bahrain Grand Prix two weeks ago.
Bottas will be relishing this weekend as he finished third here in 2014, fourth last year, and was running third in 2015 when punted off by Raikkonen on the final lap.
If you like a bet, then a tenner on Bottas to get pole could be worth a punt as he tends to qualify well here too. Three years in a row, Bottas qualified his Williams third on the grid – only beaten during that time by the two Mercedes, and the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel.
It may be a little early for some to be talking about Bottas playing the number two role this season, but in all honesty, Mercedes may be forced to make that decision if Ferrari continues to win races. A good result here may change Toto Wolff’s mind (in the short-term at least), but realistically, he needs to beat Hamilton this weekend if he is to postpone that discussion for too much longer.
A big opportunity for Williams
Considering how Williams performance tailed off in the second half of last year, its start to this season has given the team reason to be encouraged. While Lance Stroll has been short on luck in the first few races, Felipe Massa seems to be enjoying his retirement U-turn and has shown he still has something to offer with strong drives in Australia and Bahrain.
Williams usually performs well here, and have finished third, fourth (twice) and fifth in the past three years. It is a track that Massa admits that he personally enjoys driving, but Stroll, on the other hand, has never driven here before and may just see finishing the race as his primary target this weekend.
Podiums look a step too far at this stage of the campaign, but Williams does at least seem to be leading the midfield pack and will see Force India as its main rival this weekend. There may even be an outside chance to match last year’s result (fourth with Valtteri Bottas) if Red Bull has another underwhelming weekend, but another solid top six finish is likely to be a more realistic target.
An improved showing from McLaren?
After a series of MGU-H problems in Bahrain, McLaren made some small progress in the post-race test and arrives in Russia with a ‘reliability update’ from engine supplier Honda.
With the team failing to score a point so far this season, the gains made during that test appear to have given the team a boost with Stoffel Vandoorne describing it as “very encouraging” and Fernando Alonso saying it was a “big positive” for the team.
All the talk since Bahrain has understandably been about a certain driver missing a race to go do another race somewhere else, but this weekend the team’s focus will be firmly back on F1 and at least getting both cars to the flag.
A repeat of last year’s double points finish may prove tricky, but a step in the right direction this weekend, in terms of reliability at least, will give the team fresh motivation as the European season kicks off next month.