Uralkali Haas F1 Team is geared up for Round 15 of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship, the Russian Grand Prix, at Sochi Autodrom.
Formula 1 first ventured to Russia in 2014, with the roads around the stadia used for the Winter Olympics converted into a semi-permanent racetrack, known as Sochi Autodrom. The 5.8km circuit, located alongside the Black Sea, features an abundance of off-camber 90-degree corners linked by full-throttle sections, while its infrequent use means there is a high track evolution across the course of the weekend.
The close proximity of the walls also adds to the challenge while the long run down to the first heavy braking zone at turn two, and tight nature of the complex, means first-lap skirmishes are commonplace. The circuit's centerpiece is the long-radius negatively cambered turn four, an acceleration zone that bends 180 degrees around the flag-lined Medals Plaza, taking almost 10 seconds to negotiate from entry to exit.
Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher have prior experience of the Sochi Autodrom. Mazepin, a native of Russia, finished on the podium during previous visits in the GP3 Series in 2018 and Formula 2 championship in 2020. Schumacher's first taste of Sochi Autodrom in 2020 resulted in an emphatic Formula 2 Feature Race victory while a podium in the Sprint Race the next day put him firmly within reach of a title he went on to clinch.
After a fairly grueling triple-header to kick start the second half of Formula 1's 2021 season - how did the team get through it and how does past experience help you guide personnel through the demands of such a schedule?
Guenther Steiner: "Everybody was tired after the triple-header which is very demanding as we found out, and even after the summer break it was still tough for everybody. These things, you just have to work through them and try to keep the team motivated and try to give them a few days off in-between when it is possible, so at least they can chill out for a few days but there is no magic to it. It's trying to have them see the light at the end of the tunnel."
You managed to spend time at the team's Maranello design office before the Italian Grand Prix along with team owner Gene Haas. What was his take on the work going into the VF-22 and the team's push towards the 2022 campaign? Is there a more streamlined approach to the design process with the new base?
GS: "These are the things that keep me and the whole team going - the future. Going there with Gene, he hasn't been in Italy for three years, due to COVID-19 he couldn't come for the last few years, so I showed him around and how we've changed over, how we've organized ourselves and how Simone is leading the group. I think he was happy with what he saw, and again he looks forward to 2022 like all of us. I think we will be ready. Where we end up, I don't know yet but for sure we will make steps forward."
Obviously, the Russian Grand Prix is a home race for Nikita Mazepin. Have you spoken to Nikita about the excitement of competing in your first home race as an F1 driver and any extra pressure it potentially brings? Having witnessed the 'Max Factor' at Zandvoort recently, do you feel it adds an extra dimension for the crowd to have a home driver to root for?
GS: "I haven't spoken with Nikita yet about it but obviously when I get there I will speak to him, if he's got time for me! I've seen his schedule and what he's got to do, only for media, and the attention he gets in Russia it will be quite a demanding weekend for him but hopefully a lot of people support him. Obviously, he's not racing for the championship like Max is at the moment so the crowd may not be as big for him but I'm sure he has got a lot of fans there and let's see what they come up with. I am interested myself in how far we can bring Formula 1 in Russia."
In your opinion, how has the Russian Grand Prix evolved over the years - first as a new F1 territory back in 2014 to present day and with a new circuit in St Petersburg on the agenda for 2023.
GS: "I think Russia is always an interesting race. It's completely different to anything else in my opinion as a track. People are welcoming there, there is a good vibe in Russia, the organizers always do a good job with it. Somehow, it's sad that we leave Sochi but somehow, it's nice that we go to St Petersburg as it's a new racetrack again. Apparently, it's a fantastic city - I haven't been there - but as I always say, I love the historic style, but I also love the new style. I'm sure Sochi wants to do their second to last Grand Prix on a high and the last year on an even higher status. All in all, Sochi is a great place to go to, especially with a Russian driver and hopefully we will have a lot of fans rooting for us."
This week we head to Sochi for your home race, the Russian Grand Prix. Tell us what it's like to race at home in front of your home crowd?
Nikita Mazepin: "First of all, I'm massively looking forward to going there. I've been in Sochi a few times, I went there for the first ever Grand Prix back in 2014 if I'm not mistaken, and back in the day, the country had a very different meaning for me. I didn't race for my country, I wasn't even in Formula 3 at the time. Obviously to have made it six years later means a lot to me and I'm one of the fortunate drivers who has a home race and I'm looking forward to experiencing the feeling of it."
You've stood on the podium here, most recently securing second place in the sprint race during the 2020 FIA Formula 2 Championship, tell us what that was like.
NM: "I've been on the podium twice and taken pole position there. It's a circuit I genuinely enjoy driving, not that we will be doing much this year. There's a very long straight with DRS in, and in junior categories I've done a few very nice overtakes there. It's always nice to be on the podium in any race, and if it's your home race it's even better."
Do you feel the pressure from racing in front of your home crowd or do you view it as extra motivation? How is it from a driver's mental perspective?
NM: "I think it's positive pressure. There's this pressure that makes you tense in the car and makes you slower. The Sochi pressure for me is just giving me extra motivation and it gives me more endorphins and energy to power through the more difficult moments in the build-up to the race. Nevertheless, I'm going there with a clear mind to try and extract everything I can from myself and the car and I'm looking forward to seeing what the atmosphere is going to be like after what everybody has seen the Netherlands and what they showed us."
Sochi is Round 15 of the 2021 FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Tell us about your Formula 1 journey so far - what's surprised you and what's excited you?
NM: "It hasn't been a smooth ride but the tougher situations in life make you enjoy the easier ones and make you taste the success with a different feeling. It hasn't been easy, Formula 1 is obviously a very complex championship - unlike any other - and the fact we're at 15 races and we're not even close to the end yet makes it challenging for everyone in that environment. I've had a positive progression from my first race and I'm sure that I'm a little bit like wine - I get better with the years I do. I think you can see that from any of the categories and classes that I've raced, so my competitors will not have an easy time going forwards."
You've posted on social media videos of yourself driving off-road buggies, what is it about that style of driving that allows you to relax away from the pressure and the cauldron of Formula 1?
NM: "I like driving in general. I haven't got onto two wheels yet but that's something I hope does come in the future. For me, anything that has four wheels, a steering wheel and an engine I enjoy driving. It's completely different styles - in Formula 1 it's my job and at times when you succeed it's fun and the times when you don't succeed it's not fun, but when you just go out there in off-road buggies with your friends and you just have fun trying to keep it on the road without flipping, that's something else.
Sochi will hold one more year of racing before it relocates to Igora Drive, near St Petersburg from 2023. What are your thoughts on the move and has the appetite for motorsport grown in Russia since hosting a Grand Prix?
NM: "Positive. I think Sochi sets a very high level of hospitality, the racetrack itself and the views around the track. I'm sure the people in charge of it will do their best not to lower the standards, but to potentially up them."
For fans coming to Sochi for the Russian Grand Prix, it's a place you know fairly well, what things are there to see and do away from the racetrack? It's a destination known for a lot of tourism in Russia, what are the favorite things you like doing there?
NM: "Sochi is in the south of the country. Obviously, the country is so big that you can jump on a plane and end up in the winter or in the summer at the same time. Sochi is the best place to go to for the sea but there are loads of things to visit such as the Formula 1 racetrack - it was designed after the Olympic project, so it was designed in the Olympic village, and if you leave the racetrack there are so many nice places to walk around and the scenery is just special. At the same time, there are loads of very nice restaurants by the seafront - it's a very long seafront - especially at night when the lights are all lit up. You won't get bored, that's for sure."
What do you want to say to the fans?
NM: "To the fans that are hopefully coming over from various countries to see the Russian Grand Prix, my home Grand Prix, I'm hoping that they're going to have a good time. Everyone is very welcoming and friendly in our country. It's one of the bigger events that is happening in that part of Russia over the whole year, so it's going to be a special thing for the people to see so many international fans come and be in their home."
This week we head to Sochi for the Russian Grand Prix. You've stood on the podium twice last year here, winning the feature race and finishing third in the shortened sprint race in the FIA Formula 2 Championship. Tell us about your past experiences there.
Mick Schumacher: "Last year was quite successful for me there. We won and were extending our championship lead which was obviously very helpful going into the final few races after that. I definitely think my past experiences there have been quite good and I collected a lot of points."
Sochi will hold one more year of racing before it relocates to Igora Drive, near St Petersburg from 2023. What's your assessment on the Sochi Autodrom and the move away from the street circuit?
MS: "I'm excited to get to know new tracks and Igora looks like an interesting one. I think Sochi is quite a 'simple' track - we have a lot of 90-degree corners, but obviously if you're not good at that it could be terrifying, if you're good then it helps. It's interesting to see the Winter Olympics stadium and everything being quite close, so it's a lot of sports meeting in that spot and obviously there's big tourism there so it's interesting to see the theme parks - there's a lot going on! I haven't gone around and seen much more than the track, but it looks like an interesting place."
Last week the roster for the 2021 F1 Esports Pro Series was revealed, with Cedric Thomé, Samuel Libeert and Matthijs van Erven chosen to represent the Uralkali Haas F1 Team Esports. What advice would you give to the newest members of the team?
MS: "Any tip that I would give would probably be wrong for the esports series! They definitely know what they're doing better than me. They'll do the best they can and we from trackside will be supporting them."