To be or not to be, that is the Sochi question

Rather, is it the track or is it not the track? That is the question, and this question always seems to come up when there is a new iteration by the German track designer Herman Tilke.

I am not an expert in track design, but I just don’t know if we should be laying blame (lots of that going around these days in F1) squarely at Tilke’s design studio’s doorstep wherever that might be.

I will say this though, despite the drivers generally liking the circuit, and not including the first lap, which was thrilling, I found the race to be extremely uneventful. Was it due to the tires? Possibly. Faster degrading tires would have spiced up the end of the stints and the last several laps that is for sure. Clearly the compounds that Pirelli selected were too hard, or ‘conservative’ to use the proper syntax. However, can you blame them? After last year, when everybody was ready to draw and quarter Paul Hembery and company, what did you expect?

It was a new track and there was no available data to go by. Pirelli did exactly what they should have for the first ever race in Russia. There is something else is at play here and it has nothing to do with the Pirelli rubber.

This race was reminiscent of the title showdown in 2010 in Abu Dhabi where Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber became mired down in midfield after each made an early pit stop and when they rejoined the circuit, could not make any passes on the cars in front of them and get back to their original starting positions.

We all know the saying in F1; it is one thing to catch the car in front, but something entirely different to pass. It has been this way for several years now. There are several reasons for this truism. One, the down force goes away when following too close to the car in front due to not having enough air for the front wing to work properly. Two, too many marbles off the racing line to make the pass, three, tires at a given stage of their life losing grip. Four, a general lack of power in some cases. It would seem that the fans at large do not believe these to be the issues here.

Sochi’s lack of excitement could very well be a by-product of the nature of Tilke’s new track and its accompanying layout. Another cause of lack of passing that I did not mention is this: not enough room or distance from turn exit to turn entrance for a modern F1 car to complete the pass (the pit straight being the exception of course).

Has anyone done an analysis of what tracks provide the most passing opportunities and which do not? I haven’t. Can anyone say with any certainty that a Tilke track is the issue when it comes to a lack of passing? Doesn’t the cars’ performance have a large impact on whether or not we fans get to see an exciting race or not? Doesn’t the driver’s proficiency at driving their car on a certain track also make a big difference?

Several times this season the first ten cars on the starting grid were separated by just under a second and a few times even less. If the cars are so evenly matched wouldn’t passing and therefore excitement be at a minimum?

In the case of qualifying for Sochi, this is what it looked like. Mercedes AMG not included, in the top ten, from Valtteri Bottas to Jean-Eric Vergne the gap was 1.1 seconds. In the next group (of six) it was Sebastian Vettel to Roman Grosjean and that gap was even less at eight-tenths of a second (I used Adrian Sutil’s time instead of Grosjean, a one place difference – 9th- due to the fact the Lotus was not the norm but the exception, similar to excluding Mercedes).

As you can see these cars are extremely close and with this in mind maybe Herman Tilke is not quite the enemy of F1 racing to the degree that we all think. Maybe we are just looking for simplistic reasons to answer some very complex questions when it comes to a sport that is in constant flux, now more than ever. In this case, why has F1 racing, previously the most exciting racing, become the least exciting at some venues?

I did not particularly like the Sochi track, way too much concrete and flashy buildings for me. I like greenery, trees, and hills. Montreal, Melbourne, Monza, and Spa – I like the classics, that is what Grand Prix racing means to me. And yes, I did think the race was rather boring but that happens all the time and is not due to just one aspect of a modern day F1 car and all its new technology or a modern day F1 track or any of the other reasons we fans have come up with. More that likely it is all these issues. It is the sum of all of F1’s changing parts that has eroded the excitement of F1 if you have been around long enough to see this evolution the way I have.

As far as Herman Tilke and his track designs are concerned, they all seem to suffer from the same issue, at least that is the impression the fans have, which may or may not actually have any truth to it. Maybe it is time for Tilke to re-think what it is he should be doing as far as track design is concerned. If only because perception is most of the time more important than the reality of the issues at hand.

Conversely, maybe the fans of F1 should be re-thinking what we are to expect in the modern day of F1 racing. Maybe we need to realize that F1 in 2014 will never, nor should it, look like F1 racing from the Nineties or the early 2000’s. Maybe Sochi looked exactly the way it should have. There was a winner and then the rest of the field finished the race and that is all we can expect.

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