When it comes to new race venues, Formula One has a history of employing the art of misdirection. While the hype builds around one potential new venue, a deal is quietly being concluded with another. While races in Valencia, Baku, Mokpo came as a surprise, nothing was quite as big a surprise as Sochi. When the race was announced in 2010, most people in the paddock hurried to find an atlas. It simply hadn’t been part of the conversation.
While always a popular resort destination in Russia and the old Soviet Union, Sochi had little or no resonance in the outside world. In attracting the Winter Olympics and Formula One, the city fathers have done an excellent job of addressing that: quite literally putting Sochi on the map.
Greater Sochi sprawls along the Black Sea coast for over 100km. The race track is to the South-East of Sochi proper, in the Adler district, near the international airport. So far the race has been staged either before or after Sochi’s busy seasons, filling up hotel rooms that would otherwise be empty at this time of year. Ringed by the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, but only around 100m from a pebble shoreline, where palm-trees line the beach boulevard, it’s easy to imagine the city bustling in summer or being a staging post for winter sports enthusiasts – but in Spring or Autumn, when we’ve raced here, it’s a quiet place with an out-of-season vibe – though the race itself gets a very healthy crowd.
The origins of the Sochi Autodrom are clever, blurring the boundaries between a temporary track and a permanent road course. The circuit is built on – or rather into – the Sochi Olympic Park, and threads its way around several of the stadia used for the 2014 Winter Games. In that sense, it’s a temporary circuit – but as the Olympic Park was planned with its future use as an F1 venue in mind, the layout of the thoroughfares was designed as a race track.
It hasn’t been a particularly successful venue so far, with four races that haven’t ignited. Sochi has lots of short, medium-speed corners, and the lack of variety has tended to make for a quite processional race. The flash-point tends to be at Turn Two (Turn One is simply a kink in the road) on the first lap. Beyond this, not much has happened. Partially this is due to the smoothness of the circuit. Tyres simply don’t degrade in Sochi, which makes for a one-stop race with a very wide pit window.
Perhaps our views on the Sochi Autodrom are coloured by it being something of a bogey circuit for us. It’s one of only two races on the present calendar that we’ve never won (the other being France) and the only one where we haven’t even had a car on the podium. Our best results in Sochi are a brace of fifth places, for Dany Kvyat in 2015 and Max last year.
Of course, statistically speaking, that suggests we’re due a good result…