By new F1®, we mean bigger aerodynamic loads, wider tyres and considerably increased cornering speeds, as the 2017 lap times so far demonstrate. Pole was more than three and half seconds quicker than last year in China, for instance. That’s despite increased drag due to the bigger profile presented by the wider front tyres.
To be clear, the three grands prix held so far this year – Australia, China and Bahrain – have already indicated what we can expect. The cars are quicker. They are also more aggressive, because the extra downforce and grip through corners allow the drivers to attack more and put on a better show. But Sochi is Sochi. It’s built around the Olympic Park, partly using public roads, but it has high ambitions to stand tall as a circuit in its own right – and in fact some of the corners are a guarantee of real performance. But there’s also some question marks about the asphalt itself, which makes the circuit much more slippery than average.
Let’s take a step back. In 2014, when the Russian Grand Prix made its Formula 1® debut, it was immediately obvious that the nature of the asphalt was its defining characteristic. It was a brand-new surface, which had only just been laid.
Often this situation can simply be defined as a ‘green’ track: that’s to say a circuit without any rubber deposited on the surface, providing little potential for mechanical grip. But Sochi went one step further; the actual asphalt exuded oil, making it extremely slippery. In some places, rather than motorsport, it looked more like skating. A very strange form of Russian skating: extremely fast, with drivers forced to catch full-on power slides, and pay very close attention to their braking.