Here are my thoughts on some of the stories throughout the race weekend, at least everything that happened before the main F1 race:
On The Sochi Autodrom (yes, it’s spelled that way in Russian)
Sochi is my favorite out of the new, modern circuits across all motorsport series. It’s classified as a “street circuit” per se, being built around the Sochi Olympic Park which hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics. Despite that, it feels like a proper race track, not at all narrow, and I think the circuit organizers did a great job in building around the spectacular Sochi park complex. Even though a major portion of the track, especially the long straights, is lined and enclosed by barriers on either side of the tarmac, there are adequate run-off areas in braking zones and corners.
My favorite part of the track is the long, winding, and scenic Turn 3 left hander which practically shapes a semi-circle going around the Olympic Square. In this corner, it’s quite visible on television how much the weight of the car leans heavily to its right as it accelerates full throttle through the entire corner. It is very possible to see spectacular overtakes around the outside not only in the F1 race, but also (and more so) in the GP2 and GP3 races.
Aside from that, the back straight, one of two DRS zones, has its own charms. It isn’t exactly a straight, as it veers right and then more sharply to the left as it quickly approaches the Turn 13 right-hander. The curved end of the straight is tricky because it represents the hard braking zone into Turn 13 and it’s difficult to properly brake given that the cars are not traveling in a straight line by the time they get there. Now, speaking of this back straight…
Carlos Sainz crashes heavily during FP3
FP3 was, like in Japan two weeks ago, a frantic test session for all teams after the Friday practice sessions were rendered useless due to the diesel spill on track in FP1 and the rain in FP2. Halfway through the session, Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz suffered a massive crash at the end of the back straight, his car buried deep into layers of Tecpro barriers. The young Spaniard lost control of his car going into braking for Turn 13. Due to the characteristics of the curved back straight, drivers find the optimal line by staying wide right and waiting for the latest possible instance to veer left and brake heavily at the end. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a difficult corner to assess because the car would not be traveling in a straight line while braking, leaving the drivers vulnerable to losing control. The worst possible scenario happened to Sainz when it looked like he lost the rear-end of the Toro Rosso while braking, hit the side wall on the left and continued traveling at high speed into the Tecpro barriers past the runoff area. The car hit the barriers head-on and submarined underneath, with the initial fear that Sainz’s head may have gone unprotected with the barriers piling up over the car’s cockpit. According to Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost, Sainz hit the barriers at 204 kph with a 46G impact.
The good news is that Sainz was uninjured in the crash but the word certainly took a long time to reach the commentators and TV audience. The Toro Rosso crew lost radio contact with their driver due to the impact of the crash and marshals had to clear the barriers on top of the car before Sainz could be properly and safely extracted. Sainz stayed conscious all throughout, apparently, but he was still taken away on a stretcher as a precaution. A helicopter camera hovered over the site as the Spaniard was being loaded into an ambulance and Sainz gave a wave and a thumbs-up to quell all the fear and tension that built up given how horrifying the aftermath of his crash seemed and how news about his condition took quite a while to reach the audience. The young Toro Rosso driver was airlifted to hospital and tests officially revealed no injuries and he was even released from the hospital earlier than expected despite initially being supposed to stay overnight for precautionary measures. It’s great to see that he is in good spirits, as evident on social media posts from his personal account, as well as Toro Rosso’s. Amazingly, Sainz has been cleared by the FIA medical officials to participate in Sunday’s race.
Turn 13 claims more victims
At least not as bad as Sainz’s crash, the tricky corner proved to be troublesome to at least two more high-profile drivers on Saturday. In the Q3 shootout, Lewis Hamilton overshot the corner and just missed hitting the barriers in the runoff area during a flying lap. It proved costly to the Formula One championship leader as he never had another chance to beat teammate Nico Rosberg’s pole time. Ahead of the race, the order for the top 3 is the same as the one in Japan two weeks ago, with Rosberg, Hamilton, and Valtteri Bottas heading the field.
Over in the GP2 Feature Race, Alex Lynn looked to be set for a victory when in Lap 12 he couldn’t slow his car down enough for the Turn 13 corner, hitting the barrier on corner exit and damaging his front-left tire and suspension. The DAMS driver, who won the GP3 title last season, saw his promising race end there after starting on pole. This gifted the race lead to Alexander Rossi, who held off a charging Pierre Gasly to earn the win of the truncated 15-lap Feature Race.
Stoffel Vandoorne cements his dominant GP2 season with championship
Even though Vandoorne’s closest championship rival, Rossi, won the shortened Feature Race on Saturday, the Belgian finished the Sprint Race on Sunday enough places ahead of the American to claim the GP2 title on only his second season. Vandoorne, a junior driver for McLaren, calmly moved up a couple of places in Race 2, while Rossi couldn’t respond in time by gaining places of his own. As seen often throughout the season, Vandoorne’s driving was cool and measured, carefully stalking the car in front and picking the optimal racing line to make a clean pass.
Definitely, it is a much-deserved championship win for the young driver, who will have to start looking for a drive for next season, as winning the GP2 title means automatic graduation from the series. With Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button staying with the McLaren F1 team next year, Vandoorne will most likely be without a race seat for next year. Add to that the current state of McLaren’s reserve driver Kevin Magnussen, who has unfinished business in Formula One after he was demoted from his race seat after only one season. Perhaps McLaren will have both Magnussen and Vandoorne waiting in the wings next year but certainly, that would be quite a handful for the struggling F1 squad. For sure, Vandoorne rightfully deserves an F1 seat one day and only time will tell when the talented driver will earn his spot.
Stockinger couldn’t get past Turn 3 in both GP2 races
The Philippines’ own Marlon Stockinger had a weekend to forget in Sochi as he crashed out on both GP2 races, both on the opening lap. In the Feature Race, Stockinger ran into the barriers on the outside of Turn 3, in the bizarre first lap incident where he was collected by Artem Markelov and Sergio Canamasas. On Sunday’s Sprint Race, the Filipino ran into the back of Rene Binder’s car as the back of the field jostled for position at the tight Turn 2. As it proved, Stockinger never completed the first lap of both races and never gone further than Turn 3 on either instance. It was simply a weekend of bad luck for the Status Grand Prix driver, whose teammate Richie Stanaway claimed victory in the Sprint Race. Stockinger’s underwhelming GP2 campaign continues as he has been completely outraced by the rising talent Stanaway in almost every race despite being in identical machinery.