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Photo credit: Mark Thompson - Getty Images

Photo credit: Mark Thompson – Getty Images

It’s only Friday, but Formula 1’s championship leader Max Verstappen knows he’ll be starting Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix from the rear of the grid.

That’s because Verstappen has taken on an entirely new Honda power unit.

Formula 1’s power units comprise six separate components and drivers are restricted on the number of each component that they are permitted to use each year. If they take on a fourth power unit of the season then Formula 1’s regulations dictate the driver must start that weekend’s race from the back of the grid.

Red Bull made the decision between Friday’s two practice sessions at Sochi Autodrom, the semi-permanent street-style facility on the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, adjacent to the Black Sea.

There are a handful of reasons as to why Red Bull has now taken the decision.

• Verstappen entered the weekend facing a three-place grid penalty after colliding with title rival Lewis Hamilton in Italy. That meant that even if he qualified on pole position he would start no higher than fourth. Taking a back-of-the-grid hit this weekend renders that sanction null and void.

• Another reason is that Sochi Autodrom is not expected to be one of Red Bull’s strongest circuits among the remaining Grands Prix on the 2021 calendar.

• Verstapppen leads Lewis Hamilton by four points in the standings, and should there be any damage suffered this week by a points loss, Red Bull figures there’s enough time in the season (F1 hopes for seven more races after Sochi, COVID-19 permitting) to make up the difference.

Photo credit: Rudy Carezzevoli - Getty ImagesPhoto credit: Rudy Carezzevoli - Getty Images

Photo credit: Rudy Carezzevoli – Getty Images

Mercedes is undefeated at Sochi Autodrom since its introduction onto Formula 1’s schedule in 2014. That peerless form continued through Friday as Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton finished first and second in both free practice sessions.

Red Bull also made the decision ahead of the dry-weather second session in order for Honda to run all the necessary on-track systems checks with the new power unit. Heavy rain is forecast for Sochi through Saturday, meaning track running could be disrupted.

Taking the hit at Sochi means there is an element of damage limitation for Red Bull, as opposed to being penalized at a circuit where it feels victory from pole position is a strong possibility.

Verstappen, when he was not in contention for the title, took a similar penalty at the 2018 running of the race. From 19th on the grid, he managed to finish in fifth.

“We thought it would be best to take it here,” said Verstappen. “Of course, in 2018, the gaps to the midfield were a bit bigger, so it will be a bit more difficult to come through. But we have to take the penalty, and if we didn’t take it here we’d have to do it somewhere else, so we’ll try to make the best of it.”

Verstappen is not the first driver to take an engine penalty in 2021, with teammate Sergio Perez, Mercedes’ Bottas and AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly already having done so. Verstappen will be joined on the back row this weekend by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who also exceeded his allocation so that his car could be fitted with an upgraded hybrid system.

But Verstappen’s title opponent Hamilton is hoping to get through the remaining rounds without having to take a drop.

“As far as I’m aware right now I think we are OK,” he said. “However there is a long way to go. At the moment we have no plans to put in a new engine, I hope that stays the same, but obviously I can’t predict the future.”


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