Four reasons why we can't forget Sochi

24th September 2018
Damien Smith

What first comes to mind when we think of the Russian Grand Prix?

Memories of absorbing racing around a classic street circuit layout? Not really. The four races that have taken place on the underwhelming Sochi track don’t exactly suggest we should expect a cast-iron classic this coming weekend, when the fifth instalment at the 2014 Winter Olympics Park takes place.


So far, the hot potato of Russia’s controversial status in the political world – and the looming patronage of Vladimir Putin – has overshadowed good motor sport when it comes to this mighty nation. Will that change on Sunday? After all, Russia’s World Cup in the summer defied pessimism and scepticism by offering a fabulous carnival of great football.

Sochi might still surprise us – and let’s face it, for the sake of its heavily patinated reputation, it really needs to.

1 2014: Putin steals the show

It’s a telling statistic that Mercedes has yet to lose a Russian GP since the race’s induction in the first year of this turbo hybrid era. Hell, even the two Russian GPs held in pre-WWI St Petersburg were both won by Benz, way back in 1913 and ’14!

As Sochi took its bow as an F1 venue, Lewis Hamilton dominated an anticlimactic race. Team-mate Nico Rosberg made a desperate lunge at Turn 1, but only emerged with a pair of front-tyre flat spots that required an early stop. His rise back to second only displayed how dominant Mercedes was back then. Not only that, Valtteri Bottas was third in a Merc-powered Williams, with McLaren pair Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen fourth and fifth in the team’s final season with German power. A 1-2-3-4-5 for the three-pointed star.

But that’s not what we remember. This was a race charged with an uncomfortable political significance that F1 blindly tried to ignore.

International outrage against Russia was raw that particular year because of the shooting down of a passenger jet, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, over Ukraine in July that cost the lives of all 283 passengers and 15 crew. F1 collectively shrugged its shoulders and team bosses disgraced themselves by recoiling from comment. They simply followed where the show took them, apparently without question.

Then Ecclestone rubbed salt by ingratiatingly showing Vladimir Putin to his grandstand seat for the final laps of Hamilton’s easy victory.

In living rooms around the world, those fans who manage to exist outside of a political and moral vacuum fought the compunction to bring up their Sunday lunches.

2. 2015: A story of fire and ice

Finland’s strong association with rallying is understandable, given its climate and topography: its impressive F1 heritage is less so. But thanks first to Keke Rosberg and Mika Häkkinen, and more latterly Kimi Räikkönen and Valtteri Bottas, this frozen land is a grand prix superpower when it comes to breeding talent.

In the circumstances, you might think that Finns would stick together, but that’s certainly not the case with Räikkönen and Bottas. Little love is lost between these two.

On the final lap in 2015, Räikkönen’s Ferrari made a bid for the podium with an awkward move on the Williams of Bottas, who was having none of it. Now, Valtteri is hardly a volcano of emotion, but even he was riled by the collision – perhaps more so because of the perpetrator. The Iceman was unmoved, of course, but was blamed and penalised, dropping from his salvaged fifth placed finish to eighth as Sergio Perez scored a welcome podium for Force India.

Putin was in the stands once again. Good show, Mr President?

3. 2016: Kvyat’s unhappy homecoming

Daniil Kvyat is the closest Russia has come to a grand prix winner – and he could still achieve such a status, if his imminent and expected F1 return is confirmed. Could rejoining Toro Rosso be the start of a remarkable career rejuvenation?

Back at his home race in 2016, he appeared to be nosing into a terminal career spiral. When Kvyat’s Red Bull punted Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari into retirement on the first lap, it triggered an immediate demotion to Toro Rosso as promising teenager Max Verstappen was promoted to the A-team. The Dutchman confirmed it was a good call by sensationally winning his first race for Red Bull, in Barcelona. Poor Kvyat must have been hurting.

This was also the year the Russian GP moved towards the front of the season, taking place in May. It also marked a drop in fortunes for Hamilton, who was remarkably defeated for the seventh consecutive time (over two seasons) by team-mate Rosberg.

Nico was on fire – and Hamilton had seemingly lost the knack of knowing how to quench him.

4. 2017: Breakthrough for Bottas

Bottas had been the obvious choice to replace new world champion Rosberg when the German with a famous Finnish father shocked F1 by announcing his retirement just days after securing the 2016 title. Beating Hamilton over a season had been a monumental feat that, as far as Nico was concerned, could not be repeated.

But would highly-rated Bottas manage it? Some thought him capable, and at Sochi in April 2017 – in just his fourth race for Mercedes – Valtteri broke his F1 duck.

The hard work was done at the start when he sensationally passed both Ferraris from the second row, having also outqualified Hamilton. Vettel pushed him all the way and was less than a second behind at the flag, but that only made this first victory all the sweeter – and all the more impressive.

That momentum hasn’t been maintained, of course. Eighteen months on, Hamilton is back on top of F1 in the most emphatic fashion and Bottas is currently resigned to a supporting role, while Vettel and Ferrari desperately need to end Merc’s Russian winning streak to breath new life into their flagging title hopes.

At the fifth time of asking, we could all do with Sochi delivering its best F1 race yet, and its most significant – whether that nice Mr Putin turns up or not.

  • F1

  • Sochi

  • Valterri Bottas

  • kimi raikkonen

  • Daniil Kvyat

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