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Charles Leclerc dominated qualifying at the Russian Grand Prix to take his fourth pole position in a row, a prospect that was unthinkable only a month ago.

Ferrari’s Singapore-spec aerodynamic changes appear to have finally rectified the issues that have plagued the car all season, principally a lack of front downforce that has forced it to compromise the rear of the car to achieve a happy balance. The SF90 has been super slippery in a straight line as a result but lacking in high-downforce and slow-speed corners.

The Sochi Autodrom is high on the power-sensitive scale, so was always going to be less challenging for Ferrari than Singapore’s Marina Bay, but Leclerc’s 0.4-second margin over second-placed Lewis Hamilton — and it could’ve been more had the Monegasque nailed his final sector — validates Ferrari’s massive step forward.

And it’s more than just Ferrari optimising its single-lap pace to take pole and then worrying about the race later, as was the case last week. In Russia the team’s long-run simulations on Friday were impressive, leaving Mercedes with limited avenues to attack from second and fourth on the grid.

2019 RUSSIAN GRAND PRIX GRID
1 Charles Leclerc 1:31:628
2 Lewis Hamilton 1:32.030
3 Sebastian Vettel 1:32.053
4 Valtteri Bottas 1:32.632
5 Carlos Sainz 1:33.222
6 Nico Hulkenberg 1:33.289
7 Lando Norris 1:33.301
8 Romain Grosjean 1:33.517
9 Max Verstappen Penalty
10 Daniel Ricciardo 1:33.661
11 Sergio Perez 1:33.958
12 Antonio Giovinazzi 1:34.037
13 Kevin Magnussen 1:34.082
14 Lance Stroll 1:34.233
15 Kimi Raikkonen 1:34.840
16 Pierre Gasly Penalty
17 George Russell 1:35.356
18 Alex Albon Penalty
19 Robert Kubica 1:36.474
20 Daniil Kvyat DNQ

Sochi Autodrom

Circuit statistics

Laps: 53
Distance: 5.848 kilometres
Corners: 18
Lap record: 1:35.861 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2018)

Circuit characteristics

Tyre stress: Low
Lateral load: Medium
Asphalt grip: Medium
Asphalt abrasion: Low
Downforce: High

Strategy particulars

Safety car probability: 60 per cent
Pit lane speed: 60 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 414.2 metres
Pit lane time loss: 24.852 seconds
Fuel use: 2 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta: Hard–0.6 seconds–Medium–0.6 seconds–Soft

Strategy forecast

The principal point strategic point is Mercedes using the medium tyre on both cars to start the race, having used the yellow compound to qualify in Q2.

But the decision is more than just desperation to do something different to Ferrari and hope that it sticks. Running longer than the red cars in an attempt to overcut is founded in a couple of key points that together could create a viable way into the lead.

Soft (C4), 4 laps
Ferrari 1:38.698
Red Bull Racing 1:38.821
Mercedes 1:39.609
Racing Point 1:40.467
Toro Rosso 1:40.724
McLaren 1:41.051
Renault 1:41.201
Alfa Romeo 1:41.222
Haas 1:41.285
Williams 1:42.915

First is Ferrari’s massive speed advantage down the straights, which Hamilton estimated was worth up to 0.8 seconds on Friday. This advantage will come down with engines detuned for the race, but it’ll be enough to make overtaking very difficult in a straight fight.

Using the medium tyre gives Mercedes a chance to overtake in the pit lane, and there are two good reasons to believe it’ll be possible.

The first is that degradation is very low at Sochi thanks to the smooth surface, which means Ferrari stopping first to ditch the soft tyre will earn it only a limited undercut advantage.

The second is that Mercedes appeared to have the upper hand on medium-compound long runs during Friday. In theory Hamilton could tuck in behind Leclerc and wait for him to stop before unleashing that pace late in his first stint to overcut the leading Ferrari.

It’ll be tough, though. The relatively small performance difference between the compounds combined with the low degradation means neither the overcut nor the undercut is especially effective here.

These permutations will of course be rendered moot if Hamilton can capitalise on Sochi’s other significant passing opportunity: the first-lap slipstream. The Sochi Autodrom’s 890-metre run from pole to the first braking zone is the longest on the calendar and makes the pole-sitter vulnerable to a pass into turn two.

Medium (C3), 4 laps
Racing Point 1:39.059
Mercedes 1:39.152
Renault 1:39.773
Toro Rosso 1:39.802
Ferrari 1:39.851
Alfa Romeo 1:40.036
Haas 1:40.547
McLaren 1:40.779
Williams 1:41.434
Red Bull Racing No data

Hamilton has already promised to “tow the life” out of Leclerc off the line, but he’ll have to contend with starting on the less grippy tyre and off the race line. Watch out instead for Vettel, starting directly behind his teammate and on the same soft tyre. In that same vein Valtteri Bottas may also threaten Hamilton from fourth place.

Elsewhere, Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen and Alex Albon will start out of place in ninth and 18th respectively. Verstappen will be forced to start on the soft tyre, but at last year’s race the Dutchman made up six places from 19th on the first lap and 14 places in eight laps. Expect him to dispatch the slower midfielders ahead of him quickly and deploy his car’s reasonable pace to influence the podium battle.

Albon has a tougher day ahead of him having never looked very comfortably in the car all weekend, though the RB15 is decently quick on the smooth Sochi surface. Expect him to start on the hard tyre, move past the midfield quickly and drop into the gap between the frontrunners and the rest with his first pit stop onto the softs for a sprint to the finish.

Don’t expect anyone not forced into it to try more than a single stop — the pit lane is restricted to 60 kilometres per hour and is longer than in Singapore, making a pit stop extremely costly.

PREDICTED STRATEGIES

  1. Soft to lap 15–19, hard to flag;
  2. medium to lap 14–22, hard to flag; or
  3. soft to lap 22–26, medium to flag.
  4. soft to lap 16–18, soft to lap 32–36, medium to flag.

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