Why Sochi flatters to deceive, and how it could be improved as a Grand Prix venue

New track. Same old story.

Sochi – with the majority of February’s Winter Olympic venues still standing in all their glory – may have provided an intriguing backdrop to Sunday’s inaugural Russian Grand Prix, but as with so many of the newer circuits to have graced the Formula One calendar over the years, in the end it flattered only in its deceptiveness.

The problem Sochi had, as with so many of the more modern breed of Hermann Tilke-designed racetracks, is that the venue just doesn’t feel like it should be playing host to a motor race. Aesthetically, the circuit is bland, and the layout, as has sadly become a Tilke trademark as time has gone on, feels too clinical.

When you think of a classic racetrack, a Silverstone, a Spa or a Suzuka, you think of long, sweeping bends, vast elevation and spectacular, flat-out blasts. But most importantly, the layouts feel right. They feel like places where Grand Prix racing should be held. They follow the natural contours of the land, and whilst certainly a romanticised exaggeration, you feel as though you’re watching a road wind a path where farmers used to walk their cows, before the motor industry arrived and took its hold.

The issue that this new, 21st century generation of circuits have is that they give off the very whiff of being built by setsquare. You get the sense that Tilke sits down with a blank piece of paper, ruler and pencil in hand, and sketches something that resembles a track without looking at the land that he has to play with. He sets out to design a challenge, whereas the classic circuits can catch drivers out with their natural landscapes, and as a result you end up with a finished product that looks disjointed and ungainly.

That’s not to say that Sochi doesn’t have anything going for it. The fast, right-hand sweep that starts the lap looked spectacular – helped in part by FOM’s brilliantly-placed camera on the inside kerb – whilst the never-ending left-hander at turn three was a proper old school corner that made for some thrilling action (Jean-Eric Vergne’s stunning move around the outside of Kevin Magnussen a case in point). But those flashes of brilliance, as is the case all too often with Tike’s portfolio, are lost in a river of mediocrity.

A series of frustrating, 90-degree right-angles that prove all too common a feature of modern tracks, the dreaded adverse camber section that is designed to catch out a driver, but in reality does nothing but infuriatingly force the field to play an elongated game of follow the leader and kill off any chance of an overtake into the following bend. These make an all too familiar and unwelcome appearance, as they do at other recent arrivals such as Abu Dhabi, Korea and India.

The two main overtaking points on the track – the run to turn two and the back straight into turn 13 – could both be improved significantly, the former by reconfiguring it into a tighter and more conventional chicane, similar to the final corner at Montreal, whilst the latter, which had the potential to be a haven for overtaking, was far too tight, which when added to the kink just before the braking zone (admittedly unavoidable due to lack of space) prevented much in the way of wheel-to-wheel action.

Similarly, if turns four and five had been opened up with the inside kerbs removed, there lies the potential for a proper flat-out, balls to the wall style run into turn six, which with the extended and quicker approach, would in itself become a third potential passing place. One of the major flaws with Valencia, which is repeated here, is the tendency for a huge section of run-off to be placed on the inside of some of the tighter corners, thereby leading to a filter system and preventing cars from running side-by-side. If these pointed, jagged sections were removed and the road opened up, it would result in a much more flowing, and spectacular, Grand Prix venue. Again, a faster and more sweeping S-bend could replace the painfully Mickey Mouse left-right at turns 15 and 16, and if the second of the two right-handed corners that end the lap were made faster, it would increase the chance of a driver getting a proper run on the car in front and being able to slipstream past him without needing the help of DRS.

Admittedly, the lack of any form of tyre degradation in a way not seen since the Bridgestone era didn’t help, nor did the miscalculation on the part of most of the teams in planning their fuel levels around a theoretical safety car that never materialised, leading to a significant number drivers having to nurse their machines home in the latter stages. However, things could have been improved if the circuit had been better designed.

It’s a shame, because given the right circumstances and location, Formula One in Russia could be a huge success. It’s an enormous global and commercial market, it appears – by the pictures in Sochi – to have a large and passionate set of fans, and it’s close enough to the racing heartlands of Western Europe to ensure good numbers of travelling supporters are well placed to make the journey east to come and spectate.

But for the country to fully maximise its vast potential as a part of the F1 calendar, one of two things would probably need to occur. The circuit at Sochi would have to undergo some minor surgery to allow it to be better configured, or the race could be switched to a purpose-built, permanent venue.

Until that happens, it appears that what we have here is, unfortunately, another venue that doesn’t live up to its billing.

Stephen D’Albiac

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