Preview: F1 Russian GP at Sochi

F1 teams are gearing up for Round 15 of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship Russian Grand Prix, at Sochi Autodrom this coming weekend.

Formula 1 first ventured to Russia in 2014, with the roads around the stadia used for the Winter Olympics converted into a semi-permanent racetrack, known as Sochi Autodrom.

The circuit is the fifth longest on the calendar and combines a number of tight, twisty sections with long straights and a fast, sweeping turn four, perhaps the most notable corner on the track.

The 5.8 km circuit, located alongside the Black Sea, features an abundance of off-camber 90-degree corners linked by full-throttle sections, while its infrequent use means there is a high track evolution (rubbering in) across the course of the weekend.

SOCHI AUTODROM, RUSSIAN FEDERATION – SEPTEMBER 29: A helicopter flies above Alexander Albon, Red Bull RB15 during the Russian GP at Sochi Autodrom on September 29, 2019 in Sochi Autodrom, Russian Federation. (Photo by Mark Sutton / LAT Images)

The close proximity of the walls also adds to the challenge while the long run down to the first heavy braking zone at turn two, and tight nature of the complex, means first-lap skirmishes are commonplace. The circuit’s centerpiece is the long-radius negatively cambered turn four, an acceleration zone that bends 180 degrees around the flag-lined Medals Plaza, taking almost 10 seconds to negotiate from entry to exit.

Keys to the Race

  • Tires: The tires used in the Russian Grand Prix will be Pirelli’s three softest compounds; the C3, C4 and C5. This selection was last used at the Styrian Grand Prix earlier this year.
  • Overtaking: There were a total of just 28 overtakes at Sochi in 2020. In the previous three races, 58% of overtakes have used DRS, with the main straight from Turn 18 to Turn Two providing the best overtaking opportunity. The second most popular overtaking spot is along the second DRS zone going into Turn 13. Drivers often have a good chance to make up positions on lap one and on Safety Car restarts.
  • Safety Cars: First lap incidents at Sochi are very likely. There have been first-lap Safety Cars in four out of the last five races here. More than 70% of that Safety-Car action has occurred in the opening five laps, suggesting that drivers tend to quickly settle into a rhythm around here. Since its introduction in 2015, the Virtual Safety Car has been deployed just three times.
  • 2020 Russian Grand Prix, Thursday – Steve Etherington Photo

Secret to a fast lap – by Dave Robson, Williams F1

The Sochi Autodrom is a tricky circuit, with the final sector in particular being very demanding, especially if the tires have had a hard time earlier in the lap. The track surface has been evolving continuously since we first came here, but is now stabilizing and provides a good base for the Pirelli tires. Like last year we have the softest compounds of the Pirelli range here and these should form a good combination for qualifying and the race. The weather is forecast to be cooler than 12 months ago, and this will require a slightly different approach to the tires, but this should be manageable.

Sochi Sectors

With the majority of Sector Two consisting of medium-speed corners and the low-speed nature of Sector Three, achieving a good overall set-up is difficult. Our experience on Friday will be important for judging how the tires will perform over a full race stint, and therefore what the best compromises are for trading qualifying and race pace.

The Olympic Park provides a dramatic backdrop to this circuit and leads to a track layout that is demanding for both the car and the drivers. There are likely be a range of solutions for tackling this circuit and we look forward to the challenge of competing at this unique venue.

Unlocking The Lap

Finding the flow is the biggest challenge over a lap of the Russian Grand Prix, especially when the circuit switches from the higher speed first and second sectors to the very slow and technical final stretch.

Sochi circuit

Crossing the start line at over 270km/h, the long main straight kinks slightly for “Turn One”, but it’s a flat-out run through one of the longest straights of the year.

With DRS’s impact lessened at Sochi, engineers will reduce downforce, so the car will feel light when reaching top speeds of 330km/h.

It’s then time to slam on the brakes for the tricky Turn Two: this is a tight right-hander taken at 140km/h in fourth gear.

Drivers need to be precise because running wide will invalidate the lap; and, in the race, those running wide must re-join the track after using the run-off, further delaying them.

Taking a wide line and pulling to the right, drivers reach the incredible Turn Three, a constant-radius left-hand bend over 750 meters, where peak g-forces approach 4G.

In the race, multiple lines can be taken here and it provides overtaking opportunities before Turn Four, which is a medium-speed right-hander, taken at around 200km/h.

There’s a short run to Turn Five, which is deceivingly tricky due to a small bump under braking; otherwise, it’s a routine 90-degree right-hand corner.

Turn Six is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kink that’s quickly followed by another 90-degree right-hand turn. On exit, drivers tend to ride the curb but need to avoid the AstroTurf that can unsettle a car.

There’s a short blast where drivers climb above 200km/h before a double-left off-camber corner.

Turn 10 is critical for lap-time; it’s another 90-degree right-hander, and, because it precedes one of the longer straights of the lap, exit-speed is critical.

While the straight gradually curves left and right, and includes “Turns” 11 and 12, drivers will easily clear 300km/h before the slow, technical end to the lap.

At Turn 13, drivers brake to below 140km/h and clip the inside curb, trying to avoid oversteer, before immediately meeting another 90-degree corner at Turn 14 in what is a slow right-left combination.

There’s another complex of corners at Turns 15 and 16 as drivers go left and right in what is almost a chicane, meaning it’s key not to over-commit at Turn 15 and compound lap-time loss.

What Goes into F1 Strategy?

We’ve all been there, sat on our sofas, watching a Formula One race and questioning a strategy call made by a team. It appears straight-forward from the outside, but what you don’t see back home is the amount of data and analysis that goes into those calls to ‘box, box, box!’

How do you sum up a ‘strategy’ in F1?
Most people associate an F1 ‘strategy’ with the call to pit and the decision of which tires to fit. And that is true. During the race itself, the aim of the strategy department is to optimize the car against the competition, to finish the race in the highest position possible. But you need to take many steps back to really see the wider work of the strategy department.

If you take one step back from the race, the strategy team are working on how the team wants to approach Qualifying. But one step back from that is the wider approach to the weekend, how you want to allocate your resources and tires during sessions, and even further back is the wider view of the season: which tracks will we perform better or worse at, how to approach these and where do we see the performance picture for the season?

How does the strategy team prepare for a race weekend?
The strategy team typically works several races ahead, making sure baseline preparations are made well in advance. The team will be using every available piece of data to build a detailed picture of all possible scenarios and their implications for strategy. As each race weekend is completed, our systems are updated to reanalyze what to expect from the upcoming events – every race weekend brings a huge amount of understanding of where we are weak, where we are strong and how we can improve.

Ahead of a race weekend, the strategy team have a whole host of data and information available to them, looking into understanding the weather patterns and the detailed learnings we took from our last time at the circuit, tire performance and what we have learned since then. They’ll also be looking into patterns of cars and how they perform, track evolution and much more. With the key output of these preparations being to determine how fast we expect to be, how fast our rivals will be and how we think the tires are going to work.

2020 Russian Grand Prix, Sunday – LAT Images

What do the strategy team focus on during practice and Qualifying sessions?
During Friday’s practice sessions, a key focus is on how the tires perform and how long they last. We use data not just from our cars but from the entire grid, to build an understanding from multiple samples. It’s tough to get the required learning from one-hour practice sessions, but our aim is to extract as much understanding as possible.

We’ll have lap time, GPS, tire data and a whole host of other inputs for both ourselves and our rivals, with our strategists absorbing this information to make the required decisions. By the end of FP2, the aim is to know what set-up decisions are required and have a plan for Qualifying. But undoubtedly the most important thing is the decision on which tire we want to aim to start the race on, which needs to be decided before FP3.

Saturday’s focus is therefore on building on the existing data set and focusing on low-fuel running, locking in the plans for Qualifying – which tires to run in each session, what the run plans should be, the time of our garage exits, tow or no tow, to name just a few of the elements at play. We formulate a plan (fuel loads, lap counts, and other fundamentals), and then tune the plan throughout Qualifying based on new information (track evolution, competitor performance, tire offsets and issues). We also need to react to anything outside of our control, like weather and red flags.

You only have a finite amount of tire resource to use, so the run plans and which tires to fit for each run are a hugely crucial strategy decision. Everything done in Q1 impacts the following two sessions, so using your resources correctly and the best you can, to start as high up the order as possible, is a tough balancing act.

What elements are at play and being monitored during the race?
During the race itself, thousands of data samples are arriving into the strategy tools every second, from ourselves and our competitors. The team will enter a race with a good baseline on things like tire degradation curves, pit stop loss, weather predictions, ease of overtaking and much more, but the tools are continuously being retuned and refined as fresh data appears, allowing the strategy team to predict what is going to happen.

The strategy team are continuously reviewing this information and spotting things that appear in their tools, which may indicate a change of planned strategy or impact our existing one. There are intercom channels with strict protocols, to allow clear and concise communication, where the strategy team can raise and debate what is happening, what the race planner forecast is saying and what could happen in the future, and therefore how we could react.

Other intercom channels are also discussing strategy throughout the race, with Toto and other members of the pit wall and race engineering team drawing on their knowledge and expertise to share their thoughts.

Teams will also come into an event with plans for different scenarios and these will be constantly monitored. Pre-planning is crucial to be able to react swiftly and calmly to unexpected moments, such as Safety Cars, so when they do appear, it’s about executing the plan already in place.

Do some decisions have to be made last-minute?
Of course, no matter how much planning is involved, some decisions do still need to be made on the spot. Weather can be so unpredictable, creating some of the hardest calls the strategy team has to make. The severity of a rain shower, its location on the track and its effect on available tire grip make tire choice in the rain a torturous decision.

For all the detailed systems in place, some developments during a race are obvious and decisions to deviate from the plan are made in the blink of an eye. For example, the decision to pit Lewis at Monza was a quick one, having seen from his sector time after his rivals had pitted, that it wasn’t going to be quick enough, and the planned strategy wasn’t going to work.

There are thousands of decisions that happen during the course of a race weekend, many of which are invisible to people outside of the team. There are so many moving elements across each session and particularly in Qualifying and the race, with hundreds of different strategy options to analyze before selecting the one that works best for your two cars.

F1 strategy is a continuous game of multi-dimensional chess, but it’s a challenge that strategy teams up and down the grid relish – it’s what keeps them coming back for more.


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