What’s at stake at the Russian Grand Prix?

Few Formula One fans anticipate the usually straightforward four-year-old Russian Grand Prix with anything more than a mild curiosity, but this weekend’s edition of the Sochi race carries significantly more interest than guessing how many times Vladimir Putin will make it into the broadcast.

The 16th round of the 2018 season will be imbued with meaning up and down the grid. Including Russia, the sport is set to embark on a concluding schedule of six grands prix across nine weekends, giving precious time for the questions posed by the 2018 season to receive satisfying answers.

For perhaps the first time all season Sebastian Vettel allowed himself to become downcast about his title chances after finishing third in a demoralising Singapore Grand Prix dominated by title leader Lewis Hamilton.

The German held an eight-point lead after winning the British Grand Prix, but since then Vettel’s story has been one of woe, losing on average almost 10 points per race to find himself 40 points behind Hamilton.

The once rosy championship picture has now turned almost lifeless. The equation is simple: Vettel must win in Russia and keep winning until the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on 25 November to guarantee title victory.

And if he doesn’t? Should Hamilton win in Sochi, the Briton would be able to cruise home in second place behind Vettel for the rest of the year and still make himself a five-time world champion in Yas Marina — or Hamilton could then win in Suzuka and Austin and finish third in Mexico to claim the crown.

Counting against what would be a sensational title comeback is that Mercedes has won all four Russian races to date, with Hamilton claiming two of those victories himself.

But Ferrari is at its strongest in years this season, and last year it locked out the Sochi front row, though it couldn’t win the race.

“Russia, I think, has been getting better the last years for us,” Vettel said. “I don’t think we have any tracks to fear.

“I think our car is working pretty much everywhere and that’s a strength of our car, so no need to be afraid of what’s coming.”

But can Vettel, whose ability under pressure has come under question in the last 18 months, deliver at this crunch moment? And will Ferrari, a team feeling the squeeze of letting slip a winnable world title, be able to handle six do-or-die weekends in succession?

It’s no exaggeration to say the Russian Grand Prix is a must-win affair for Maranello.

Last season Valtteri Bottas won his first Formula One race in Russia to kickstart his first season in Mercedes overalls and make himself a title contender. This year he’ll take to the track as Lewis Hamilton’s de facto number two.

His 2017 campaign fizzled out with a poor second half of the season, and after starting 2018 strongly, he has again suffered a significant downturn in performance since midyear.

“It’s been a while since I had good, proper results [and] nearly one year since I won a race,” Bottas lamented in Singapore. “So for confidence and everything I need some results.”

Into that “everything” we can perhaps read “Mercedes future”, because while Bottas continues to race on a rolling year-to-year contract — albeit with a one-year option for 2020 resting with his employer — Mercedes’s junior drivers have been making impressive cases for promotion despite a lack of seats available in the sport.

Whereas the field of play for Esteban Ocon and F2 driver George Russell was straightforward at the time Mercedes recommitted to Bottas, today it is vexed and constrained, with only one at best likely to be driving in Formula One in 2019.

Add to that Ferrari boldly promoting Charles Leclerc into the senior team in 2019 and Mercedes’s decision to hold onto Bottas on a tentative one-plus-one deal pales as conservative and unambitious in comparison, particularly given he trails Kimi Raikkonen in the drivers standings.

Bottas simply cannot afford to continue offering his solid but uninspiring performances and expect to hold onto his Mercedes drive, nor can he wait until 2019 to reset himself with a clean slate. The fight for his drive must begin now, and with Sochi a circuit at which he’s typically performed strongly, he must make this weekend count.

Under similar pressure is Brendon Hartley, who has been vying to continue his unlikely F1 career for virtually the entire season.

The Kiwi has been outperformed by teammate Pierre Gasly in the inconsistent Toro Rosso machine all year, and rumours started as early as May’s Monaco Grand Prix that Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko was looking to replace him with McLaren junior Lando Norris.

The deal never eventuated, but Hartley’s place in the sport has existed under a cloud ever since, and what will apply further pressure on the 28-year-old is the rumoured return of Daniil Kvyat to Toro Rosso for 2019, likely due for announcement at the Russian’s home race this weekend.

However, several factors are working in favour of his retention. For one, Kvyat will replace Gasly, who’s being promoted to Red Bull Racing next season, and the fact the Russian has already been binned once by the Red Bull programme is a sign of the sparsity of drivers eligible to join the team.

Further, the Red Bull Junior team is at least one year away from having a driver ready for Formula One promotion, meaning Hartley might present a reasonable 2019 stop-gap solution until Dan Ticktum can earn enough super licence points to enter F1.

But Helmut Marko isn’t known for his conservatism, and Hartley will have to use these final six races to prove he warrants a stay of execution.

Whether or not the race becomes a thriller, the Russian Grand Prix is shaping up as a critical juncture in the 2018 season.