We are now officially in the second half of the 2020 Formula 1 season and after a what must feel like a luxury week off for the teams and drivers, things reconvene in Russia at Sochi Autodrom.
The Russian Grand Prix will have a lot to live up to after the manic Italian and Tuscan races that have preceded it, but it will have on its side the potential of becoming the race in which Lewis Hamilton equals Michael Schumacher’s Formula 1 win record, should he notch up his 91st race victory on Sunday.
With four prior wins in Sochi, Hamilton looks set to do just that but team-mate Valtteri Bottas arrives at arguably his strongest circuit on the calendar with time quickly running out for his title hopes.
Last season, Hamilton pressured Ferrari and capitalised best on errors to secure another Russian win, but this season it will likely be the two black Mercedes cars going head-to-head.
Here is the team-by-team guide ahead of the Russian Grand Prix.
Having never left the Russian Grand Prix without the first place trophy – a record dating back to 1913 albeit with a few years between wins – Mercedes arrives as clear favourite before you take into account its rivals’ prospects for this weekend.
At Monza, a track reliant on top-end speed, Hamilton had built-up a 10sec-plus lead by the time his race unravelled under the safety car, and Mugello’s downforce demands put the W11 in a class of one.
A lot of soul-searching will have gone on between Italy and Russia for his team-mate Bottas, who suffered another demoralising defeat, having had ample opportunity to claim the win himself last time out.
Losing the lead he had won on the initial restart and then being unable to replicate his team-mates move at the final one into Turn One will have hurt the Finn beyond the eight points dropped.
Russia then could be the perfect venue for Bottas, a circuit he usually enjoys and the one where he scored his first F1 win at. Last year it was Hamilton who scored the win around the Olympic park, but without a Ferrari threat to deal with this season it looks to be a straight fight between the Merc pair once more.
In the two most recent qualifying sessions, Bottas has missed out on pole by just 0.059sec and 0.069sec, a knife-edge deficit that he would do well to overturn, but keeping up with his team-mate’s race pace is a much bigger problem.
With the Netflix crew reportedly shadowing Mercedes this weekend in expectation of Hamilton matching Schumacher’s record, it would make for good viewing down the line for Bottas if he was to delay that celebration a while longer.
A podium finish probably hasn’t been met with as much relief by a driver as it was by Alexander Albon in Mugello. The Anglo-Thai driver will have been hurting after Pierre Gasly’s Monza win as talk increased about the possibility of a swap back to the Red Bull junior team.
He had come close twice before but contact with Hamilton on both occasions stopped likely podium visits; there was no denying him last time out.
“There has been quite a bit of external pressure on him this year, especially from the media,” team principal Christian Horner said.
“He is such a nice guy out of the car but he is mentally very strong and what impresses me is that he is always able to come back and put in a performance, especially on race day. After a bad Saturday, he’s always brushed himself down and come back strong on Sunday.
“In the last three races he has started to make a lot of progress. Alex is a deep thinker and he works very hard. He is super analytical and very honest with his feedback.
“The podium will be good for Alex. A big thing for all drivers is thinking you can do it but it is only when you actually achieve a podium or a win that you think ‘ok I can do this’. It is the realisation and I really hope this opens the doors for him confidence-wise and that he walks tall, as he deserves his seat and his place in F1.
Team-mate Max Verstappen has all but given up on the 2020 championship challenge, admitting in Italy that his hopes to become the youngest champion in history was over with Mercedes so far in front.
He would like nothing more than to deny Hamilton a historic win to ease a disappointing season.
Fairly anonymous in Mugello, Lando Norris secured another solid points finish for McLaren with the same kind of consistency he has had all season long.
He enjoyed an impressive rookie season in 2019 and has taken another step so far in 2020, earning himself the most impressive driver tag in a fan vote between Mugello and Sochi.
Last season, Norris achieved a points finish of eighth at the Russian GP, but with Renault and Racing Point bearing down on the McLaren team in the standings, he could do with going even better this year.
“The schedule is looking a bit more ‘normal’ for the next few races after three triple-headers,” said Norris. “Having time to recharge after nine races in 11 weeks was needed but I’m ready to go again. We know we’ve got our work cut out for us with the midfield competition being so close, but hopefully we can hit the ground running right from FP1 on Friday.
“The track in Sochi has its own challenges with a mixture of technical 90-degree corners and high-speed straights, not to mention the 180-degree left-hander that is Turn Three. Following on from Mugello, it’ll be great to have fans back in the grandstands again in Russia to cheer us on. Of course, the priority is to ensure they enjoy the race safely, and we want to put on the best show we can for them.”
It was close but no tattoo for Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul, who has an ongoing bet with his driver Daniel Ricciardo that should he make the podium in 2020, the team principal will be getting some fresh ink at the Australian’s behest.
The recent performances though will be a positive for the French team, with a marked improvement in form in the last three rounds producing good points finishes despite missing out on the rostrum spots.
“We want to continue the strong run and score well this weekend,” Ricciardo said ahead of the weekend in Russia.
“We’re in a really tight midfield fight with a number of teams, with one- or two-tenths, either way the difference between the second row of the grid or ending outside the top ten. That challenge is exciting, it means we have to find everything from within the car and make it work.
“We had two fourth places from the last triple-header, the target remains to take those big points to keep in the championship fight.”
A number of major updates were brought to Mugello for Lance Stroll to use and the team was happy with the results minus the Canadian’s crash following a tyre failure.
Sidepod, front brake duct and rear wing updates were all on the car for the last race, and the data looks positive going forward according to the team.
Racing Point is 14 points back from McLaren in the standings, but with the layout of the Sochi circuit and with the knowledge the team has built up about its car so far in 2020, Stroll feels confident that they will be able to fight for a strong ponits haul this weekend.
“We’ve shown over the first half of the season that we are competitive at all types of circuit, so I’m confident we’ll fight for good points,” Stroll said.
“We’re improving a strong package with the latest updates, so that’s a boost for us all too.
“It’s like all tracks in that you have to hit your markers exactly right and string the lap together. It’s key to exit the final corner correctly as it’s a long straight where you can lose a lot of time. The long Turn Three is also important, even though it’s completely flat. Otherwise, it’s about keeping it clean and tidy.”
12 months ago Ferrari locked out the front row for the Russian Grand Prix but it would take some miracle for history to repeat itself in 2020.
The banning of qualifying engine modes gave Charles Leclerc the chance to shine on Saturday, lining up fourth for the Tuscan GP but any race pace the Prancing Horse might have hoped to show evaporated quickly.
At a circuit where it challenged Mercedes in the past, the team is likely to be fighting for a top ten start barring any dramatic issues elsewhere in qualifying.
Sebastian Vettel rather spoiled the Ferrari celebrations coming into the team’s 1000th F1 race with his announcement for 2021 of a move to Aston Martin, a sign of the deteriorating relationship between driver and team.
The German hasn’t had the pace to compete with Leclerc recently, the qualifying battle currently standing at 7-2 in Leclerc’s favour.
From the highs of Monza to the lows of Mugello, it was an up and down week for Gasly and AlphaTauri to say the least.
The team did secure points in Mugello with Daniil Kvyat, but lost ground to rivals ahead in the midfield battle with only one car making it to the finish following Gasly’s first lap crash.
The Frenchman remains positive of his and the team’s chances coming into Sochi, but admits that they will have a tough time overhauling rivals ahead on pure pace.
“I would say our car has been looking more competitive in these last few races, with continuous progress being made. In general, it’s a very tight midfield and, as we have seen in normal circumstances, without any unusual events in the race, we are slightly behind McLaren, Racing Point and Renault.
“However, we are talking about very tiny margins. We are looking to completely eliminate that gap in the near future and I believe we are on the right path to doing so.”
Consistency finally paid off for Kimi Räikkönen, who managed his first points of the 2020 season last race.
Alfa Romeo has been on a competitive level with Ferrari over the past few rounds, which has the team feeling more positive heading into the second half of the year.
“We head to Russia with the very welcome confidence boost of our recent result in Mugello,” team boss Fréd Vasseur said. It’s not just the two points giving us morale, but the knowledge of having claimed them with a car that was badly damaged.
“We have made some obvious steps forward recently, as displayed in the last triple header, and now we have to build on those gains to keep challenging the other teams in the midfield. Executing a clean race weekend will now be crucial to maximise our potential, but we can be positive looking forward to Sochi.”
All you need in 2020 for a good race is a Kevin Magnussen retirement. With DNFs in Monza and Mugello for the Dane, F1 has enjoyed a chaotic afternoon on both occasions.
The American team continues to struggle its way through 2020 with focus largely on the next generation of car already, with Guenther Steiner confirming that there are still no updates on the car for this weekend’s Russian GP.
“It’s a tough year for us but we’re always trying to do our best,” the Haas team principal said.
“That is our aim at the moment – to get into Q2. That then gets us into a position where if something surprising happens in the race, we can hopefully take some points away from it. At the moment it seems we’re just there to create the surprise for other people. Maybe our luck turns and we get something good out of it at some stage this year.
“We also haven’t brought any upgrades to the car. We are at least fighting every weekend with Alfa and Williams, and I think we can continue to do that for the rest of the season.
“With a little bit of luck, and some of our own talent, we should hopefully get some points before the season ends.”
Sebastian Vettel admitted after the Tuscan GP that he felt bad for depriving George Russell of his first F1 points finish, but Russell’s Sochi fortunes can only improve following 2019’s retirement.
The team is already aware that the circuit won’t play to any of the car’s strengths but that lessons had been learned from the past few races that might help its competitive outlook in the race.
“It was disappointing missing out on those points at Mugello, points that I felt we thoroughly deserved,” Russell said. “However, it has given me and the team greater motivation to go out there and extract even more performance from the car.
“Russia is a circuit that on paper won’t suit us as much as Mugello, but we have learnt some things with the set-up in the recent weeks that I hope will allow us to be more competitive with our nearest rivals.
“I think everybody will have enjoyed a well-deserved week off after an intense 11 weeks, and will be back ready and fighting in Russia.”