Russia - A Race Apart

When any grand prix arrives on the F1 calendar, it always takes a while for it to establish an identity, to squeeze into a characterful niche of its own making and, like an old episode of Friends, gain an amusing title: The One with the Glittering Skyline (Singapore), The One with the Amazing Music Scene (Austin) or The One With All That Rain (Silverstone). Sochi, home of this weekend's Russian Grand Prix, has still to attain that status.

It could be The One With The Glassy Surface or The One With The Oddly Narrow Paddock, but whatever way you slice it, the Russian Grand Prix is something of a race apart.

For a start, it is sort of Europe – at least football governing bodies UEFA and FIFA seem to think so – but it really doesn't feel like the start of the European season. For Formula One – a sport that clings to traditionalism with the manic fervour of a castaway grasping for a floating spar – the European jaunt only comes into view when the trucks leave the factory for Barcelona.

So is Sochi a flyaway? Well, we can't take the trucks there so yes it is, but geographically it's close enough to evade long-haul status. Odd then that it often takes as long to get there as it does to fly to Tokyo. Then there's the circuit itself. Located some 30km from the city of Sochi, the Autodrom is, of course, built in and around the complex constructed for the XII Winter Olympics. It therefore winds around some pretty spectacular architectural wonders including ice rinks and snowdomes.

For many, it has a sense of otherness that is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of paddock folk stay within the Olympic Park itself, sequestered in the vast hotel complexes originally used by Olympic athletes. They're uniformly clean and comfortable and a stone's throw from the track so very convenient, but it does mean they're somewhat apart from the surrounding culture.

The circuit itself, though, is a marvellous facility. The team buildings are packed in tightly and the 'street' of the paddock is narrow, leading to a buzzy atmosphere not unlike that of the tight old paddock in Sao Paulo (but this time with enough space to seat more than four people).

Finally, we come to the track and it's here that Sochi really feels like a different kind of race. The surface is notoriously smooth and the race is usually a one-stopper. Indeed, it's so glassy that in the inaugural race Nico Rosberg completed 52 of the 53 laps on a single set of medium tyres – and that was with the previous generation of more 'melty' Pirellis. Sauber's Adrian Sutil raced 40 laps on a set of softs!

True, the surface has had four years to evolve and it is forecast to be decently warm this weekend, but this year's more durable tyres are a lot tougher to switch on, so Sochi could once again conform to its One With the Zero Deg Surface status and present teams with real challenges in qualifying and in the early laps after pit stops in the race.

Surface apart, it's also unusual in that it's one of just two current circuits that we've not had a podium finish at (the other is Baku's street circuit, which only made its calendar debut last year).

From three starts in Russia Daniel has a best finish here of seventh place, which came in the inaugural event. In 2015 he suffered a suspension issue that ended his race and last year he was an unhappy 11th after shipping damage on the opening lap.

Russian GP stats

  • We've scored 20 points in total at the Russian Grand Prix so far. That puts us fifth on the lists of highest points scorers at the race, behind Mercedes, Williams, Ferrari and McLaren.
  • This weekend will be Daniel's 113th grand prix start and Max's 44th.
  • It will be the team's 227th race start.
  • Fifth is our best grid placing in Sochi, scored by Daniel last year.

Max, meanwhile, has only raced here with Toro Rosso, taking a point in 2015 with 10th place and failing to finish in his final race with the Italian squad last year due to a power unit issue. Of course, two weeks later he was pulling on a Red Bull Racing race suit and preparing for what would become his maiden win in Spain. Our best result came two years ago, courtesy of local hero Daniil Kvyat, who raced from 11th on the grid to fifth place.

Can we do better this time out? That's a hard one to read. Russia's race is like the country itself: a massively rewarding experience surely awaits, but finding it requires a degree of careful prodding, a large dollop of stoic patience and a sizeable amount of perseverance. It's a place, and a race, that reveals its charms slowly, but when it does we're sure it will be entrancing.

Check out our gallery of shots from last year's race in Sochi.