Russian Grand Prix 2016: 5 Bold Predictions for Sochi Race
The fourth round of the 2016 Formula One season will take place at this weekend's Russian Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrom, where Ferrari are hoping to get their stuttering campaign back on track.
Still without a win after the opening three races, the Italian team are reportedly set to intensify their hunt of two-time world champions Mercedes, with Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen likely to be armed with an upgraded engine.
The decision to introduce an update to their power unit at this early stage of the season carries a high element of risk, but could the potential rewards outweigh the possible pitfalls?
We've referred to our crystal ball to come up with five bold predictions for F1's third visit to Russia, including the contrasting tales of the Ferrari drivers, the hopes for the local hero, the bleak prognosis for a driver usually so strong at Sochi and the latest chapter in the most interesting inter-team battle of 2016 thus far.
Sebastian Vettel Will Retire Despite Reverting to a Previous-Spec Ferrari Engine
After watching his drivers run into each other on the opening lap in China, effectively gifting Nico Rosberg a third consecutive victory of the 2016 season, Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne issued a warning to his underperforming employees.
"The team knows that the clock is on and we need to start winning some races and bringing them home," he told Sky Sports' James Galloway, and the chairman's message appears to have been heard loud and clear.
As reported by Motorsport.com's Roberto Chinchero, Ferrari will fast-track their first in-season engine upgrade of the year to the Russian Grand Prix as part of an increased push to hunt down the all-conquering Mercedes team.
With Sebastian Vettel already 42 points adrift of Rosberg in a year he was expected to engage in an exclusive head-to-head duel with Lewis Hamilton for his fifth title, the move—even at this early stage of the season—smacks of desperation.
And like most frenzied decisions in this sport of intense analysis and careful consideration, it will probably backfire.
In 2015—the first year of the in-season token system—all four engine manufacturers tended to encounter initial teething problems whenever they attempted to improve their power units, to the extent where it was debatable whether the increased performance gains were worth the short-term reliability glitches.
Ferrari themselves suffered issues after introducing their first engine update in Canada, where Vettel was eliminated from the first segment of qualifying due to a loss of power, and we reckon he will encounter more problems in Russia.
Concerns over the reliability of the new engine in practice will force Ferrari to reinstall a previous-specification unit in the four-time world champion's SF16-H ahead of qualifying, with Vettel down on power compared to his fellow front-runners.
And with no shortage of reliability worries over the older engine, Vettel will retire for the second time in four races, leaving him even further behind Rosberg and Hamilton.
Things may get worse before they get better.
Kimi Raikkonen Will Win from Pole Position
Something rather odd happened at the Chinese Grand Prix.
Having failed to start from the tip of the grid since June 2008, and performed poorly in one-lap conditions since his F1 comeback four years ago, Kimi Raikkonen found himself on provisional pole as qualifying ticked toward its conclusion.
He was eventually beaten to pole position by Nico Rosberg, of course, and was forced to settle for third after an elementary mistake at the penultimate turn on his final run allowed Daniel Ricciardo to shuffle his Red Bull onto the front row.
Yet Raikkonen's all-too-brief time at the summit of the timesheets offered one of the biggest hints yet that he may not—as many have feared since his return to Ferrari in 2014—be in the process of a terminal decline after all.
The whispers of his demise were at their loudest in the aftermath of the 2015 Russian GP, in which the 2007 world champion made a heroic lunge on Valtteri Bottas on the final lap but only succeeded in punting his compatriot into the barriers, damaging his own front wing and incurring a 30-second time penalty.
But this time—more than three years since his last F1 win—Raikkonen will prove he is still capable of big results as his team-mate bears the brunt of the Prancing Horse's misfortune.
Should Ferrari take their aforementioned upgraded power unit to the Sochi Autodrom, the team may finally be strong enough to compete equally with the all-conquering Mercedes outfit, potentially creating a multiple-car lottery in the fight for pole.
Even if Raikkonen succeeds on Saturday, there is no guarantee the pole-sitter will still be ahead after the first braking zone of the race given the long, long run toward Turn 2 (the first corner is nothing more than a flat-out kink).
But as long as he can string his sector times together, we have a good feeling about Raikkonen in Russia.
Daniil Kvyat Will Be Brought Back Down to Earth with a Bump
With his podium in the Chinese GP, all is rosy once more in the world of Daniil Kvyat.
He had been under severe pressure after the first two races of 2016, in which he failed to progress to the third segment of qualifying, as Daniel Ricciardo made fourth position his own and Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz put themselves forward as worthy potential replacements for his seat.
After his spotless drive to third place in Shanghai, however, Kvyat—as Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told Crash.net—has rediscovered his confidence.
The question now, then, is how the 22-year-old will channel that confidence in his home event at the Sochi Autodrom, where a spectator grandstand bears his name and where he dragged an underpowered Toro Rosso to fifth on the grid in his rookie season.
Will he treat his China podium as a starting point, building upon it with another assured performance and another welcome result? Or will he, not for the first time, allow himself to become too complacent, too desperate to impress the local spectators and ultimately ruin all his good work?
Red Bull arguably had the strongest car in the slow final sector in last October's Russian GP, and with the promising improvements made to the Renault power unit over the winter, this year's RB12 should pack a relatively decent punch on the long straights.
But while Ricciardo, the outstanding performer of 2016 thus far, can be relied upon to excel every single time he rolls out of the pit lane, can the same be said of Kvyat?
We fear not, and more qualifying disappointment on Saturday will be followed by an untidy, frustrating drive to the minor points positions in the race.
Valtteri Bottas Will Be Eliminated on the Opening Lap
Lewis Hamilton may have dominated both of the previous editions of the Russian Grand Prix, but it is arguably Valtteri Bottas who has been the best pound-for-pound driver in the two-year history of the Sochi Autodrom.
The Williams driver came so very close to securing one of the most spectacular pole positions in recent history in 2014, when he was fastest in the first two sectors at the climax of qualifying before running out of grip in the tight and twisty final complex.
Even so, he was the only driver remotely capable of keeping Hamilton and Rosberg honest and set the first fastest lap of his F1 career en route to a comfortable third place.
He was again the best of the rest behind the Silver Arrows' in qualifying last October, but a return to the podium was cruelly prevented when Kimi Raikkonen assaulted him on the last lap.
As F1 returns to Russia, there will no doubt be an emphasis on Bottas to produce another timely performance for Williams, who have paid the price for their dithering in recent years by tumbling down the competitive order and back into the midfield battle.
But at a time Daniel Ricciardo, who also burst onto the scene in 2014, is producing "equal best" performances of his life—as the Red Bull driver told Motorsport.com's Adam Cooper of his Chinese GP display—there remains a lingering feeling Bottas' own career has stalled.
Once among the most consistent drivers on the grid, Bottas—an embodiment of the modern-day Williams team in many ways—is making mistakes on an increasingly regular basis having failed to make Q3 in Australia and oversteered into Lewis Hamilton at Turn 1 in Bahrain.
Williams have qualified no higher than sixth in 2016 thus far, but even at a circuit that traditionally favours their car, you would no longer back Bottas or team-mate Felipe Massa, who has started 19th and 15th in his two visits to Russia, to extract the most from their machinery on a consistent basis.
Should Bottas start from the lower echelons of the top 10, he will be exposed to any early silliness at a track where long straights are followed by slow, tight corners, and his strong record at Sochi may come to an end on the first lap.
Felipe Nasr Will Claim Sauber's 1st Point of the Season
The biggest rivalry in Formula One at the moment?
It's not Lewis Hamilton versus Nico Rosberg at Mercedes; or Fernando Alonso's tussle with Jenson Button at McLaren-Honda; or, indeed, the playground war at Toro Rosso, where Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz are competing for a promotion to Red Bull.
In fact, you would have to look as far down the pit lane as Sauber to find the most compelling inter-team battle of 2016, with Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson—who haven't been "best buddies" since their GP2 days, as the latter told Autosport (h/t Eurosport) at the beginning of the year—fighting for supremacy.
The pair established a decent relationship in 2015 to claim 36 points and eighth place in the constructors' standings, but with the Swiss team still yet to score after the opening three races of this season, the tensions between both sides of the garage are becoming increasingly apparent.
Having struggled badly with the handling of his C35 since the Australian GP, Nasr recently told Motorsport.com's Valentin Khorounzhiy how he is "100 per cent convinced" his chassis is fundamentally flawed, complaining of "a general lack of stability of the car, especially under braking."
Ericsson, however, has dismissed those claims, telling the same source his current superiority has nothing to do with faulty machinery and he is simply demonstrating "who is the strongest" Sauber driver.
As Nasr told Autosport's Ben Anderson and Matt Beer, Sauber ran identical setups on both cars at the Chinese GP in an effort to determine whether his concerns were genuine, and with the Brazilian's struggles persisting in Shanghai, he is set to receive a new chassis in time for the Russian GP.
And that, coupled with the prospect of the upgraded Ferrari power unit, could give Nasr the opportunity to re-establish his advantage over Ericsson and potentially score Sauber's first point(s) of the season at a venue where he finished as high as sixth last October.
In other words, he should remind Ericsson that form is temporary and class is permanent.