After 14 entertaining races, F1 heads to Sochi Autodrome for the 2021 Russian Grand Prix. The stakes are high as the fight for the championship is closer than ever. Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton are separated by just five points in the race for the drivers' title.
Understandably, the two men at the top of the standings have dominated the headlines this year. However, there are closely-contested fights brewing lower down the order as well.
Here's a look at five stories to watch out for at the Russian Grand Prix:
Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton's title fight
After 14 races, it looks like neither Max nor Lewis are willing to lift their foot off the gas pedal, and Monza was a perfect example of that. Late in the race, the two men tangled in the first chicane, resulting in a scary crash which could've proved fatal for Hamilton.
Thanks to the protective halo device, the Brit managed to escape serious injury after Verstappen's car drove over the top of the Mercedes. That aside, Hamilton also lost an opportunity to overtake Verstappen in the standings at a track where Mercedes looked quick.
Verstappen too came out of the accident unharmed but he'll be ruing the slow pitstop which put him behind in the first place. Additionally, he even received a three-place grid penalty for the Russian Grand Prix as the stewards deemed him responsible for the accident.
Heading into Sochi, a track where Mercedes have usually had the edge and are expected to be strong this weekend as well, Verstappen's penalties will put him at a greater disadvantage. Furthermore, the Red Bull team has hinted at a possible power unit (PU) change for the Dutch driver this weekend. That will put him even further behind in the pack for the start of the race.
All this bodes well for Hamilton, who can expect a breezy drive to victory. The Brit will be looking forward to a trouble-free weekend and a chance to overtake his title rival in the driver standings.
Valtteri Bottas and Mercedes vs Red Bull
With Verstappen's penalties and Mercedes' pace, it looks like Hamilton won't face too much of a challenge out front. However, his teammate Valtteri Bottas knows his way around the Sochi Autodrome pretty well.
The Finn has two wins, one pole and five podium finishes at the track. His expertise dates back to the very first race at the venue. Driving for Williams at the time, Bottas finished in third place. After switching to Mercedes in 2017, he stood atop the Russian Grand Prix podium in his debut season for the German team.
After a strong result at the 2021 Italian Grand Prix despite penalties, Bottas has the required momentum, confidence and experience to win. Not to mention, he is on his way out at Mercedes and will be driving for Alfa Romeo in 2022, so he might not be too obedient when it comes to team orders!
Regardless of which driver comes out on top, Mercedes are in a good position to capitalize. They are leading Red Bull in the F1 constructors' championship by 18 points and will be looking to increase that gap this weekend.
Meanwhile, Red Bull can expect a tough weekend ahead. With Verstappen's penalties and a spate of poor performances from Sergio Perez, the team will be hoping for luck on their side. Speaking about the upcoming weekend, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told F1.com:
“We have the grid penalty to take for Max too, but in Sochi, it’s not such a handicap because of the strength of the tow down to Turn 1. I was looking through the results at the Russian Grand Prix and back in 2018, Max went from last to first before needing to make his pit stop. We were second there last year but it’s a circuit we have never won at… I’m looking forward to it and seeing how we get on.”
Battle of the midfield
All eyes will be on the tight title fight between Hamilton and Verstappen. But there are an interesting couple of close-knit battles for P3 and P5 positions in the constructors' standings.
The contest between McLaren and Ferrari for P3 is as close as the one between the championship contenders. The British squad leads the Italian team by just 13.5 points in the standings.
With Daniel Ricciardo finding form in the McLaren and Sochi being a power-sensitive circuit, the Mercedes-propelled car could have the edge over the Ferraris this weekend.
Another fiery battle is the one for P5 and has three teams fighting over it: Alpine F1, AlphaTauri and Aston Martin.
AlphaTauri poses a challenge only by way of Pierre Gasly, who is on a hot run this season while rookie Yuki Tsunoda continues to struggle.
Alpine F1 have lately found strong form, with both their drivers finishing in the points consistently.
Aston Martin, however, are on the back foot as they continue to struggle to finish races and will be hoping to turn things around from this point on.
Antonio Giovinazzi and the second Alfa Romeo seat
The grid line-up for 2022 is almost set, but for a hiccup at Alfa Romeo. After 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen announced his retirement from F1, the Swiss team immediately hired Bottas to replace the Finn for 2022.
However, they seem to be having trouble deciding who takes the second seat, currently occupied by Antonio Giovinazzi. The Italian has been with them for the last three seasons.
The team has been considering fresh options to replace Giovinazzi but his recent run of good finishes could have changed their minds. The Russian Grand Prix weekend gives him another chance to prove his abilities and show that he deserves the second seat.
Nearing the end of the road for F1 at Sochi
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The upcoming Russian Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrome is set to be the penultimate race at the venue. Earlier this year, F1 management declared that the race would be shifted to Autodrome Igora Drive, north of St. Petersburg, starting in 2023.
The Sochi Autodrome has hosted F1 races since 2014, and Hamilton has scored the most wins (4). The track has never witnessed a non-Mercedes car take the top step on the podium. The circuit is laid around the Winter Olympic Park which was held the same year the track made its debut. F1 will return to Sochi in 2022 for one last race before the switch is made.