Nikita Mazepin, Haas, Sochi Autodrom, 2021

Paddock Diary: Russian Grand Prix part one

2021 Russian Grand Prix

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Anti-doping sanctions mean there will be no pre-race performance of the Russian national anthem at Sochi Autodrom this weekend. Dieter Rencken brings more stories from the paddock.

Wednesday

It’s 14 hours from home in Belgium to hotel in Sochi – a distance of around 2,600km – due to the fact that airlines have dramatically reduced flight schedules despite travel restrictions being eased. Where before I had a choice of at least 20 flights per day via Istanbul or Moscow, the number has dwindled dramatically, and mostly with inconvenient connections to boot.

I settled on a flight that takes me well north to St Petersburg on the Baltic Sea to head south to Sochi on the Black Sea on the basis that connections for both legs are convenient. Plus, I’m acquainted with the rather compact stopover airport from previous visits, including the 2018 FIA Awards Gala livened up by Kimi Raikkonen and a visit to the Igora Drive circuit, to which the Russian Grand Prix will relocate after next year. I arrive at the media hotel – converted 2014 Olympic Village digs – at 10pm.

Thursday

Head to the circuit by shuttle. Sochi tends to the media better than most – meet-and-greets at the airport, media hotels at special rates, shuttles and a memento gift (or two), in this case a travel bag and a box of Russian teas from Nikita Mazepin – and I’m in the media centre by 10am.

The dining area overlooks the final turn, bedecked in the red, white and blue of the Russian flag, which may not be displayed in international sport at present due to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s sanction against the Russian Anti-Doping Agency. I decide to check out the situation, plus whether the Russian anthem may be played pre-race or, indeed, on the podium should Mazepin pull off a shock win.

It seems the circuit’s border liveries comply with WADA’s prescriptions. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto Number One will replace the national anthem during the grid ceremony and in the unlikely event of a local victory. The irony is that this very race saw the introduction of pre-race national anthem performances when it was added to the calendar in 2013, clearly a sop by then-F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone to his friend President Vladimir Putin.

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During the Thursday FIA media sessions I’m again astounded at how certain outlets could not be bothered to send representatives to grands prix – I use the word ‘bothered’ decidedly as the list includes BBC, Reuters and other outlets who could afford the costs. The time is surely ripe for journalists who are fully committed to F1 despite its costs and challenges to enjoy greater media freedoms and be rewarded with better access.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Sochi Autodrom, 2021Due to my spread of media outlets I attend various language sessions and during the respective English and Dutch Max Verstappen sessions I’m struck by the difference in the current championship leader’s demeanour in response to similar questions from the different language media packs.

During the former’s sessions, he is at times combative; surrounded by his ‘home’ group he is relaxed and chatty regardless of the topic. Fernando Alonso once commented about the “British environment” of F1, and I wonder how, say a Lewis Hamilton or Lando Norris would fare were they forced to respond to probing questions in foreign languages.

As I pack up the Miami Grand Prix announces the date of its inaugural race, which will come as no surprise to those of you who read it here several days earlier. Our scoop on the 2022 F1 calendar plans also revealed that Monaco agreed to adopt a three-day format, which was subsequently confirmed by F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali. The final calendar is expected to become known in mid-October, which illustrates how fluid the Covid situation continues to be.

The hotel recommends a local restaurant which turns better than anticipated: succulent minced lamb kebab and fresh tomato and tarragon salad, while the banana caramel milkshake dessert is to die for. Indeed, so tasty (and well-priced) is dinner – albeit with slow service, so clearly I can’t have everything – that Hungarian colleague Sandor and I decide there is absolutely no reason to venture elsewhere on Friday.

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Friday

First off, regulatory Covid test which I’m dreading but turns out to be less intrusive than most, although I’m initially shaken when I later receive the results – the test certificate has bright red borders and headers and only after scrolling through a lengthy Russian version do I see it is “negative”. Relief does not begin to describe it.

Column: How F1 politics is scuppering its efforts to court a new engine manufacturer
I follow up on the 2025-26 engine situation and it seems the best prognosis is a broad concept framework ready for rubber-stamping during this year’s December FIA World Motorsport Council meeting, enabling FIA president Jean Todt to step aside after his third and final term with a clear direction in place. Full regulations can follow, in shades of 2009: Todt’s predecessor Max Mosley handed a broad 2013-14 engine framework before he stepped aside.

I’m also told if Porsche enter F1 they are most likely to do so as a full team – either a turn-key operation or acquired – so big decisions and developments face F1 over the next two or so months. Hopefully the sport learns from the past and doesn’t screw up the chance to lure a badly needed major manufacturer.

During my wanderings I chat with Pirelli’s Mario Isola, who tells me development of their new 18-inch tyres for 2022 is effectively complete. Construction and compounds for slicks is finalised, with teams due to receive modelling data and compounds shortly and ‘wet’ information to follow shortly. ‘Intermediate’ testing was delayed by mechanical problems at Alpine but a replacement session at either Magny-Cours or Paul Ricard is due shortly.

After first practice I attend the FIA conference via Zoom and am gratified that the majority of questions relate to young drivers, a topic close to my heart and one I’ve highlighted regularly, most recently about Formula 2 championship leader Oscar Piastri’s depressing situation.

Following the hour-long conference there’s an add-on announcement, that Formula 2 and Formula 3 will in 2022 revert to appearing at the same F1 rounds and scrap their triple-header formats after this year’s Covid-induced experimental costs cuts clearly proved counter-productive. Where does this leave W Series during grand prix weekends, particularly given Michele Mouton, head of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission, was recently rather scathing about the category?

After FP2 I meet with Alexey Titov, general director of RosGonki (“to race” in Russian), the event’s promoter, and we discuss both this race and the 2023 move to Igora Drive. Alexey is totally unperturbed about the change for one simple reason: RosGonki will also promote that race. More on this soon.

He does tell me, though, that the local government approved a 50% capacity event this weekend, so around 27-30,000 punters, which is still a very good turn-out under the circumstances.

No guesses where we have dinner – and it’s as good as the first time. There is unlikely to be a third visit this year, though: Massive rain is forecast all day Saturday evening and on Sunday I leave Sochi after completing my reportage. Indeed, as I write this shortly before midnight Friday the first giant drops begin falling.

2021 Russian Grand Prix

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Author information

Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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8 comments on “Paddock Diary: Russian Grand Prix part one”

  1. Well, by now it looks like Saturday evening might not be so bad Dieter, so maybe you can still get in a thrid serving at that restaurant!

  2. Like his reports … local insights, people, technoid …

  3. Pretty obvious Verstappen would be happier meeting meeting Dutch journalists, rather than international, no?

    1. Deliberate typo, btw. Just to stay “in with the in crowd” of course…

    2. Most drivers seem happier with the Dutch journalists. There are lots of clips on YouTube of drivers (particularly Vettel and Ricciardo) having a giggle with them.

  4. It would not surprise me if W Series ended up on F1’s roster for the rounds that don’t have F2 and F3. So long is F1’s calendar that I think it would have little difficulty fitting in a complete season of W Series alongside a complete F2/F3 season in 2022 (barring a complete disaster regarding COVID).

    Channel 4 got access to the Red Bull factory this weekend, which may explain its absence from Russia. Given some of the BBC’s reporting this year about Russia, I’m not sure it could guarantee 100% the safety of any journalist it sent to Russia (one of the few advantages of being an independent journalist is that your conduct can’t be affected by things said by colleagues in the same company). Not sure what the reasons are for the others.

    1. I am referring to bbc.com, not TV – and I’m referring to ALL races, not only Russia although it became all the more glaring here given the modest media presence.

  5. Lol at the covid scare, but not at the rumours Porsche entering as a full team, as that will likely mean they will pull out before long. Much better as just engine provider imho.

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