Solving the Russian riddles

You’ve got questions ahead of F1 in Sochi this weekend? We’ve got answers.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

Nico Rosberg is making maximum use of a very sharp instrument. Old qualifying formats are much better than new ones. And predictions that the usual pecking order amongst Red Bull’s two teams could be flipped this year have been proved to be off-beam. These are three things we know after the first three races of the 2016 Formula One season – but what are the questions we’re seeking answers to ahead of round four in Russia this weekend? Glad you asked.

1. Is this the race the world champ finally asserts himself?
It has to be, doesn’t it? Lewis Hamilton’s maturely pragmatic approach to his early-season travails has been admirable and, quite frankly, a little surprising – but after three races, he’s already 36 points behind Mercedes teammate Rosberg, who has won every Grand Prix since Hamilton wrapped up his 2015 title in Austin last year. Luck wasn’t on Hamilton’s side last time out in China, but it was a mild surprise that he only made it back to seventh from the back of the grid in a car that’s still the best in the business by some distance, as Rosberg proved with his sixth straight win. The three-time world champion has won both Russian Grands Prix held so far, and we’re predicting Hamilton’s title defence proper starts right here.

Front to back: How the F1 field fared in China

2. Can Ferrari stay out of its own way?
For the sake of some intrigue at the top of the 2016 drivers’ standings going forward, they have to. The Prancing Horse is clearly closer to Mercedes this season than last, but we’re yet to really see how close – a mechanical DNF sidelined Kimi Raikkonen in Australia, while a strangely conservative tyre strategy scuppered whatever chance Sebastian Vettel had of winning in Melbourne. An engine failure hit the German before the Bahrain race even started, and then the Ferrari teammates hit one another – thanks to some assistance (or not) from Daniil Kvyat, depending on your point of view – in Shanghai. A clean race with no self-inflicted wounds will give us an idea of Ferrari’s ultimate potential – and could give the Silver Arrows the hurry-up.

3. Is anyone driving better than Daniel Ricciardo?
Take a look down the drivers’ standings after three rounds. Rosberg has been unbeatable, Hamilton occasionally eye-catching, Vettel relentless, and Kvyat has a podium finish that owed itself to at least some degree to good fortune after a robust display in China. But have any of them outshone Daniel Ricciardo, given what he’s repeatedly done with the machinery at his disposal? Our man Josh Rakic made the case for the ‘Honey Badger’ earlier this week, and after a so-so 2015 following his breakout 2014 campaign, Ricciardo has been absolutely immaculate this season, his decisiveness in traffic and control under braking a standout. Three fourth-place finishes don’t tell the whole story for a driver who has considerably stepped up his game after being surprisingly beaten by Kvyat in the standings last year, while the man himself rated his race in China – where he started second, was in the lead by turn one, suffered an early puncture to drop to the back and still finished fourth – as perhaps the best of his career. Podium finishes – plural – can only be a matter of time in the unofficial ‘best of the rest’ race behind Mercedes.

4. Was China a blip or a sign of things to come for Haas?
We say the former. While some midfield rivals have bemoaned a relaxing of the rules relating to constructors that have allowed the American newcomers to piggyback off the work done by Ferrari to produce a very competitive maiden car, you can’t deny that what the new boys have done to date is very impressive. A disastrous outing in China – on a weekend where Romain Grosjean repeatedly railed against what he felt were unrealistically high tyre pressures mandated by Pirelli – was in stark contrast to their solid points hauls in Melbourne and Manama, but it’s hard to see that becoming a trend. With the team firmly behind him and his confidence at highs not seen since his stellar 2013 late-season run of podiums at Lotus, Grosjean has found a new level this year, one that has only helped his cause to be well placed for any vacancy at Ferrari that might emerge for next season. Expect he – and the team – to bounce back in Sochi.

5. Can Russia serve up a decent race?
The jury is still out on this one. Hamilton has won both races around the 2014 Winter Olympics precinct at a canter, the first made simple after teammate Rosberg tried a clumsy pass at the first corner and flat-spotted his tyres, the second simpler still after Rosberg was an early retiree. The billiard-table smooth surface hasn’t offered too many strategic tyre options for teams in the previous two races, although the greater flexibility in compound choices this season might help in that regard. Watching cars on the limit through the never-ending ferociously fast Turn 3 never gets old, but is there another corner on the track that gets pulses racing for drivers and fans? The majority of the Sochi Autodrom has the feel of the old Valencia street circuit used for the European GP, a seemingly endless array of non-descript short chutes and 90-degree turns for the majority of the lap where it’s hard to differentiate one corner from another. Other than Mark Webber’s frightening flight at Valencia in 2010, can you remember another signature moment in five Grands Prix there before its demise? While Sochi and its bland layout has the potential to go down that road, it’ll undoubtedly last longer on the calendar than Valencia did. In a related point: count the number of TV shots of Bernie Ecclestone and Vladimir Putin in the coverage if the Russian race is less than riveting – again – at the front.

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