F1: Russian GP preview – Tires will be a key factor in Sochi

Mercedes' Nico Rosberg locks up the brakes at the start of last year's inaugural Russian Grand Prix at Sochi Autodrom.

The second Russian Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrom promises to build on the success of last year’s inaugural event, which attracted a healthy crowd and ran without any unexpected dramas. Now, drivers have a better understanding of what to expect out of the circuit, which has unique characteristics compared to other racetracks Formula One visits throughout the season.

Last year, the drivers found the track to be more challenging than simulations had predicted. It wasn’t an easy task to hone in on the car set-up, or complete a perfect lap. Throughout practice, we saw cars locking up or taking to run-off areas. Even in qualifying, we saw some of the big names over-driving and running out of grip by the last few corners of the lap.

There’s no denying the actual race was not the most exciting of 2014. Durable tires, unexpectedly high fuel consumption that forced many drivers to ease off, and a lack of incidents or safety car interventions all combined to ensure a mediocre race to say the least.

To be fair, the supporting GP2 and GP3 encounters were far more eventful, and they demonstrated that the track can provide some great racing action. It was a perfect storm of factors that impacted the grand prix itself.

Last year, Mercedes secured the 2014 Constructors’ World Championship title, as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg logged the team’s ninth one-two finish of the season. Hamilton is the defending winner of the event, which could have been a different story if Rosberg hadn’t made a mistake at the start.

With tire degradation low on the smooth surface, teams were aiming at a one-stop race. But, it was a question of the timing of that single stop. Any discussion about how strategy might impact the Hamilton/Rosberg battle was ended on that first lap. Rosberg flat-spotted his tires so badly that he was forced to make an early change to the prime, which dropped him to the back. However, he was able virtually go the entirety of the race on that set, as he managed to make a second-place recovery.

This year, things could be a little more interesting. In response to what they learned in the inaugural event, Pirelli has made the decision to switch from the medium and soft tires, to the soft and supersoft. This change is likely to make the weekend as a whole more challenging for the teams.

There are some fears in the Mercedes camp that the combination of the softest tires in Pirelli’s range, as well as Sochi’s virtual street circuit format, will not play to the strengths of the racing package.

Singapore was a wake-up call for Mercedes, but given the team has conducted a good amount of research into what went wrong, they won’t be completely caught off guard. But, Ferrari will be knocking on the door if Mercedes decides to slip up in Russia.

Sebastian Vettel finished eighth in last year’s Russian GP in his final season with Infiniti Red Bull, while teammate Kimi Raikkonen finished ninth. As we saw in Singapore, both Vettel and Raikkonen will easily be able to take advantage of any mistakes made by Hamilton or Rosberg.

Nevertheless, Hamilton will be the favorite to repeat after winning last year’s race so convincingly, while the British driver is also trying to defend his world championship title.

If anything, Mercedes has been more dominant this year than last, as they have had a chance to learn more about the new hybrid V6 technology. This year, the overall reliability of the Mercedes package has improved, and Hamilton hasn’t made many mistakes since he dominated the opening race in Australia.

Rosberg, along with Vettel, feel they still have an outside shot to contend with Hamilton for the championship. But, both drivers need near perfect races, and Hamilton will have to make some mistakes in the process.

Although Hamilton’s season-long dominance has a strong chance to continue into the Russian GP, Sochi is a race course where anything can happen if drivers and teams aren’t careful.