And why the new Russian GP in St Petersburg won’t be any better than Sochi.
Last month (June 2021) it was officially announced that the Russian Grand Prix will be re-homed from the 2023 season, onwards. Since 2014, F1 has visited the Sochi Autodrom every season for the Russian Grand Prix. To say this has not been a fan favourite would be as big an understatement as saying the Haas livery looks ‘a bit like’ the Russian flag. It’s also probably fair to say that the only team who actually enjoy Sochi and look forward to it each year, is Mercedes. In 7 visits to Sochi, Mercedes have won all 7 races, scored a double-podium 5 times, and set pole position 6 times. Lewis Hamilton boasts the record with 4 wins in Sochi, while Valtteri Bottas has stood on the top step twice, and Nico Rosberg rounds out the dominance with his single victory in 2016. So, very much a Mercedes track, then.
And while a Merc track it might be, a good track it is not. Yes, it has an insanely long pit-straight which does offer chances for some DRS-assisted overtakes, and yes, from time to time there is a late-lunge at the end of the back straight-that-isn’t-straight and after the long left-hander of Turn 3 – although these are more often than not due to the car behind being on fresher tyres and able to virtually not brake the surprisingly fast right-handers of Turns 4 and 13. The rest of the track is as processional as Monaco but with none of the charm or sense of speed, since, like most Tilke-dromes (tracks designed by Herman Tilke), Sochi Autodrom features about 8 miles of concrete run-off at every corner.
And speaking of the corners. There are officially 18 “direction changes”. Of which, as you can see above, 5 don’t actually count as corners (T’s 1, 6, 9, 11, 12); 12 of them are essentially low to mid-speed, 90-degree bends; and only turn 3 could be considered a challenge, and even that barely counts as a corner to modern F1 cars which take it flat out even on lap 1 of the race with a full tank of fuel on board. All this means there’s very little in the way of actual “racing”, with the vast majority of genuine overtakes being solely due to DRS or fresh rubber. The track itself is also spectacularly smooth and while the drivers love this since it’s soft and grippy, it means there’s virtually zero impact on the tyres. At the first race in Sochi in 2014, Nico Rosberg made an unplanned stop on lap 1 for Hard tyres, which he then raced hard on, cleared the entire field, and finished 2nd. And while the track has matured a bit since then, it’s still a very simple 1 stop race – and that 1 stop is only really made because it’s mandatory in F1 to use 2 tyre compounds. So while it might be fun enough to lap around on the Codemasters F1 games, in real life and for real racing, Sochi is not a good track by any stretch of the imagination.
So then, if Sochi’s lacklustre design is a “poor F1 track”, well then what makes a good one? Monaco we’ll ignore since while the drivers love it, fans are typically bored of it but it sticks around because of the history & glitz/glamour of the whole event. Instead, let’s look at a track many believe to be the best race track on the planet. Spa Francorchamps.
Buried deep in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium, Spa is beloved by literally everyone in the world of motorsports – drivers, teams, media, fans, – everyone loves it. And you need only glance at the track map to see why. Spa is the longest track on the F1 circuit, at a whopping 6.95km. It features mind blowing high speed straights, fast, flowing mid-sector corners, and easily the best racing corner complex ever created; Eau Rouge – Radillon. Send a non-F1 fan to watch the cars blast through Eau Rouge in Qualifying and trust me, they’ll be converted in an instant! The track makes for a brilliant challenge for both driver’s, engineers, and strategists, also. The car’s must have low drag to max out their speed on the various long straights, while also having enough downforce to take the second sector’s flowing high-speed corners as fast as possible. For drivers, being such a long and fast track, a tiny mistake at any point has continuous knock on effects for the rest of the lap. For example, if a driver gets a poor exit from T1, “La Source”, their lap time will be affected hugely as they are then driving flat-out all the way to T7, “Les Combes”, and will not be reaching top speed.
To simply look at track maps of Spa & Sochi, you may say “but Spa has 90 degree corners too”. And yes, you’d be right. Sort of. The key difference is that Spa’s slowest “90-degree” turn, T14, “Campus”, is taken at about 160kph. By comparison, Sochi’s fastest “90-degree” turn is taken at just 120kph. So, to sum up, Spa makes for a good track because it has a perfect combination of everything. Long fast straights and heavy braking zones which provide overtaking opportunities (even without DRS), fast flowing mid-to-high downforce corner complexes.
There’s one more thing, that tracks like Spa, Suzuka, Silverstone and Interlagos have which “Tilke-dromes” do not. Consequences! These ‘classic’ tracks feature proper punishing grass or gravel run off areas even to this day. Whereas Tilke-designed tracks like Sochi, Abu Dhabi, and France, all feature unbelievably forgiving run-off areas which actually sometimes offer faster racing lines by going off the track; ‘real’ circuits have race-ending gravel and grass traps to properly punish drivers for pushing the limits too far. And before you say it, no, the “but it’s for safety” argument doesn’t hold any weight with me. Spa, Suzuka and Silverstone have all had concrete stretches added to their fastest and most dangerous corners because apparently it is safer to run onto concrete. But is it? When a driver runs wide or is heading for a barrier, their instant reaction is to slam on the brake pedal and lock the wheels. Which actually impedes any stopping ability of the brakes. A gravel trap does that job for them. The car ditches into the gravel and slows much quicker than if a driver locks their wheels as they soar into an armco barrier. Remember Massa’s Hungary crash in 2009? He hit the barriers at about 180kph head on because after being knocked out he slammed the brake pedal, the tyres locked up running over the ‘run-off area’ and didn’t slow him down in any meaningful way. Even 20 metres of gravel there and the impact of the crash would have been drastically reduced.
Now that we’ve looked at the differences between objectively ‘good’ and objectively ‘bad’ F1 tracks, where does the new “Igora Drive Circuit” in St Petersburg fit in? On the face of it, this new circuit does seem to closer resemble the characteristics of somewhere like Spa or Suzuka, than Sochi. It has fast, flowing corners throughout the lap, and some long-ish straights, meaning it should require a decent compromise between low drag and high downforce, like, say, Silverstone. Good, right?
Wrong. Look closer and you’ll see that, for modern F1 cars at least (and yes, this will apply to the new era of cars from 2022) there is one braking zone which could be considered ‘heavy’, at the end of the pit straight into T1. The end of the ‘back-straight’ (which also isn’t straight) into T13 will not be especially heavy braking since it’s quite a wide parabolic 180 degree corner, and will be more akin to Suzuka’s T1-T2, Monza’s “Parabolica”, or Paul Ricard’s T11. Corners were very few overtakes ever occur. Also, unlike Spa and Silverstone which are extremely wide, the Igora Drive circuit is actually very narrow (see top image), meaning even if the new generation cars are better for racing, they still physically won’t fit alongside one another throughout most of the lap.
There are likely to be 2 DRS zones on this new track. The first on the pit straight just out of T15 and down to T1, with a detection zone either just before or just after T13. Yes, this should help overtakes on the main straight. The second DRS zone will probably start either just before or just after T11, since F1 cars should be able to take both T11 and T12 flat out even with their rear wings wide open. However, unlike T1, the drivers won’t be slamming on the brakes to take T13, and will instead likely just lift off the throttle slightly on entry to the corner and actually brake mid-way through the corner. By which point the chance to overtake is gone since the car behind will actually have to brake earlier than the car in front, as the wide-ish straight narrows into a tight but still quite fast corner. Meaning any DRS overtakes will have to be done on the straight itself, not by out-braking the car in front into the corner. This once again limits overtakes to when the car behind is on new tyres and holds more speed through and gets a better exit from T10.
Beyond these 2 minor possibilities for artificial overtakes, this track will be extremely processional. The corners are so wide that the drivers will likely spend an enormous majority of the lap at or near full throttle with very little braking. Even with the new era of F1 cars, which are supposed to be designed to allow closer racing through fast corners, there’s still unlikely to be any serious competition or ‘2-wide’ battles through any of the corners on this track. There’s also a million miles of run-off at every single turn, meaning there’s no serious penalty for running wide all throughout the lap.
Add all of these worrying factors together and what we may well end up with is a race even more boring and processional than Sochi has been for the past 7 seasons. Sochi at least had the saving grace that the Olympic Park which the track snakes through is a spectacular, high-tech facility with a lot going on, and is close enough to Sochi airport, city centre, a number of big shopping malls, motorways, hotels, etc. By comparison, the Igora Drive Circuit is about a 2 hour drive from St Petersburg in quite literally the middle of nowhere beside a small ski resort which won’t be open at the time of year the race takes place. Even the nearest train station is the guts of an hour’s walk from the track. All of these make for awful experiences for fans.
Fans’ experiences and enjoyment should be upper-most in the minds of F1 and the FIA when deciding on new tracks to bring the circus to. Unfortunately, yet again, like Jeddha and Miami, this is a decision made solely by greedy senior management with dollar signs in their eyes. And the fans be damned!