It is difficult to write a preview for a track F1 has never visited but it is particularly so after the events in Suzuka. Jules Bianchi’s horrific accident – if you saw the footage I’m sure, like me, you wish you now had not – casts a long shadow over the sport and this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix.
Fans of racing
The outpouring of good wishes and support for the young Frenchman demonstrates that – despite what the crass, headline-chasing mainstream media think – F1 fans do not watch the sport for crashes and genuinely care about the safety of their heroes. For F1 it is now about striking a balance between keeping Jules in our minds and allowing him and his family time to recover.
Given the nature of his injuries, only one thing is certain: the process will be slow. The best course of action for F1 would be to focus on look in depth at the contributing factors in Japan for future changes but also to take short-term steps to minimise the risk of a repeat. For one, the FIA must ensure a race is neutralized before heavy machinery is allowed to move from behind safety barriers to recover stricken cars. Longer term, I think this would be wise change to make anyway.
Tight, fast and concrete-lined
When the safety of F1 is under more scrutiny than usual, the Sochi circuit is far from the ideal location to visit. High-speed sections, limited run-offs and concrete walls that line most of the circuit make this the last race most in F1 would have chosen to visit after last weekend’s tragedy.
From a racing perspective, a new circuit often throws up opportunities to unsettle the natural order. Thanks to the sophisticated simulators used in F1, the minnows won’t be springing a surprise but the order of the top teams might vary. The counterpoint of course comes from Mercedes’ emphatic performance in Japan.
They demonstrated with aplomb that they are not resting on their laurels. With both drivers on best behavior, the slim chance of Red Bull’s Ricciardo mounting a late charge for the title drowned in monsoon conditions. Lewis Hamilton was in dominant form and comprehensively out drove his title rival. In this kind of form and as a previous winner at 2 of the final 4 races of the season, you suspect that reliability and other factors will need to come in to play for Rosberg. Nico will need to unsettle Lewis somehow and it would not be at all surprising if the recent outbreak of peace between the two were to be severely tested from this weekend onwards.
Who goes where?
Which leads in to driver moves for 2015. Despite cheeky suggestions from Christian Horner, rumours have surfaced this week of a Vettel/Alonso dream team at McLaren-Honda. For me, Vettel is still certain to join Ferrari and be the focus on their next revolution. Whilst insiders have suggested the departure of Vettel has weakened Alonso’s negotiating position I still suspect the Spaniard is actually waiting to see what happens at Mercedes. Were Hamilton to lose the title this year in ‘controversial’ fashion, an irretrievable break-down in relations with Mercedes is not inconceivable. And with Ron Dennis back at the helm of McLaren, the return of their favoured son for the Honda revolution has a nice symmetry to it.
Red Bull’s decision to move Kyvatt up to the big league from Toro Rosso potentially offers Jean-Eric Vergne a shot at F1 redemption. The meteoric promotion of Max Verstappen appeared to sound the death-knell for Vergne’s career. Now with Ricciardo and Kyvatt confirmed at Red Bull and Verstappen, in principle, the only driver confirmed at Toro Rosso, JEV does have a chance. His performance in Japan is not likely to have caused an immediate change of heart but starting this weekend, he has 4 races to prove he still deserves a place at the top.