SOCHI, Russia — There are incredibly limited options available to drivers at the Russian Grand Prix, which looks set to be a nailed-on one-stop race.
Mercedes and Ferrari will fight it out with very similar strategies, having both comfortably progressed through Q2 on the ultra-soft tyre — the ‘middle’ compound in Pirelli’s range of three for the weekend. Pirelli predicts the quickest strategy for those up front will be stopping after 15 laps and then taking a set of soft tyres to the flag.
With overtaking notoriously difficult at the Sochi Autodrom, there is added emphasis on the start — with Valtteri Bottas jumping both Ferraris on the long run down to the first corner on route to his first win last year. Sebastian Vettel’s best chance of winning appears to be by doing the same, with a reverse situation of last year and a Mercedes front row lockout in front of him.
The midfield fight should be interesting, owing to Renault’s decision to sit out Q2 on Saturday afternoon. That meant it did not progress to the top-ten shootout but gave itself a free choice of tyres, effectively meaning it can avoid starting on the hyper-soft tyre. Its main rivals ahead, namely Haas, Force India and Sauber, will all start on the pink-striped tyre as they all progressed to Q3. Pirelli estimates those six cars will want to be getting off that set of tyres after around nine laps, meaning there will be very early pit stops which should elevate Renault up the field. The drivers starting on hyper-soft tyres will benefit from an early Safety Car period. The two yellow cars and anyone else who starts on the soft tyre will be required to stop late in the race, assuming that compound does not degrade heavily.
Haas’ Kevin Magnussen is not convinced Renault’s gamble will pay off.
“They are probably starting off the soft and we will start on the hyper-soft,” the Danish driver said on Saturday. “Once we pit off that, which I imagine will be quite early, we will most likely be behind the Renault guys. But then they will have to pit.
“So they’re not the biggest threat I don’t think… We will pit and get behind them and they will need a gap that’s big enough to pit and get out in front, they’re going to be older tyres and we get out on older tyres. I see the Force Indias as a bigger threat.”
Aside from the six cars having to start on the hyper-soft due to the Q3 tyre rule, it’s unlikely we will see that tyre fitted to any other car at any point in the race due to its incredibly limited durability. The ultra-soft — the ‘middle’ tyre in this weekend’s range –is a viable starting tyre and is the one most likely to be used alongside the soft.
Also adding to the intrigue is the fact the Red Bulls will start from the back. The top three teams have a significant pace advantage over the rest and should expect to progress comfortably back to the front, but Red Bull still has a clear lack of straight-line speed which compromises its run down to the best overtaking spot on the circuit, the first corner.
Daniel Ricciardo is convinced the race will be more exciting than the limited strategy options suggest.
“I’m convinced it is not going to be an easy one stop and a boring race,” he said. “There is going to be a lot going on. In the GP3 race [on Saturday morning] there was a lot of tyre deg. It was actually pretty good to watch, so hopefully it is a sign of things to come for us.”