It's been a good year for Sochi.
The city on the shores of the Black Sea is known by many as the venue for the 2014 Winter Olympics, but this weekend we'll return to the Olympic Park, the Bolshoi Palace and other such iconic venues echoing to the yowl of V6 engines as the Formula 1 circus arrives for the first ever Russian GP. The 3.5 mile hybrid purpose-built and street circuit was first raced upon earlier this year after three years in the making, and it provides a genuinely exciting prospect for F1 fans as a completely new circuit...none of the teams or drivers have seen it before, no team has tested there for any length of time, and we have no idea either how a race will run or just what a "quick" F1 lap is-a titillating prospect.
There have been attempts to set up a Russian GP for 30 years, but this will be the first ever race in one of the largest countries on earth. Sochi will hold additional resonance this season, as it's the home race of the Marussia F1 team, who are still in serious emotional pain after the accident suffered by Jules Bianchi in Suzuka. They'll only race one car.
The one problem with a "brand new" circuit is that it has no history, so this weekend is a complete blank slate for all concerned...including those of us trying to write circuit previews. It's hosted a few Russian Touring Car races and will also host GP2 and GP3, but the simple fact is, it's still in the "shiny and new" stage. There aren't that many stories to tell yet. Hopefully, that will change.
A LAP OF THE CIRCUIT
The Sochi Autodrom is a Hermann Tilke track, designed to wind around the Olympic Park in Sochi. It's part-public roads (for a third of the lap) and part purpose-built.
Blasting off the line, it's a medium-length run to a rare thing in F1 nowadays...a long, fast opening corner. Cars accelerate through a gentle sweep right before a 90-degree 2nd-gear right leads into a long, looooong tyre killer of a sweeping left around the Olympic Park medal plaza, which effectively counts as turn two, three and four before another 90-degree right for turn 5. Turn 6 comes a short straight later...another 3rd-gear right which takes the cars past the iconic Bolshoi Ice Dome (which ice hockey fans will definitely recognise), kinking right at turn 7 before another 3rd-gear right for turn 8. Two medium-speed lefts for 9 and 10, another 90-degree right for 11 and then one of the fastest parts of the lap...accelerating all the time and kinking left through the gentle turns 12 and 13. Brake hard and go 90 degrees right, then left through 14 and 15 (15 taken in 4th gear)-then a mirror of those two corners through 16 and 17. Turn 18 and 19 are yet more 90-degree corners, both right, and then it's the long squirt back down the start finish straight and off for another lap. The lap record so far is 1:39, so that should give you a clue on what a "quick" lap is round this very flat, medium-fast circuit...the third longest in F1 behind Spa and Silverstone.
Sochi isn't an inspiring circuit at first glance-it's very "typical Tilke"...with lots of 3rd gear corners, 90-degree left and rights and...well, it just doesn't really have anything special to recommend it yet.
The problem with new circuits, particularly those designed by Tilke, is always that they look perhaps too similar...Sochi could be Silverstone, or the Nurburgring, or Bahrain, or Valencia..
It needs the drivers to make the Sochi experience unique...and that can only happen once they race on it.
Sochi right now is a circuit waiting for an identity. We'll see if this weekend gives it one.