RED BULL IN EARLY: Triple Formula 1 champion Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel (second right), ex-F1 driver David Coulthard (second left) at Sochi on in April 2014 during a promo event for the new track. With them (centre) is Krasnodar region
• Will politics interfere at Sochi?
• Vettel warns of 'green track'
• Bernie just says 'we're happy'
SOCHI, Russia - Formula 1, only days after Jules Bianchi's life-threatening crash at a wet Suzuka, Formula 1 is driving into another controversy with opening practice for the inaugural Russian Grand Prix.
As the severely brain-damaged 25-year-old Frenchman battles for his life in Yokkaichi, Japan, the F1 circus has pitched its motorhomes at a new semi-street circuit in the sprawling park built to host the January 2014 Winter Olympic Games on the Black Sea coast.
BERNIE: 'CRITICISM ILL-JUDGED'
To many observers outside Russia F1's arrival close to the Georgian border is a cynical commercial exercise that, by association, endorses Russia' - and therefore president Vladimir Putin's - behaviour in the conflicts in the Crimea and Ukraine through 2014.
F1's ruler, Bernie Ecclestone, says the widespread criticism and many calls to cancel the race are ill-judged and ignored. "We are happy, the sponsors appear to be happy, so we carry on," he said. "Nobody has spoken to me about this race or told me that we cannot go. The sanctions do not affect us and what we are doing is not illegal."
NEW EVENT UNFOLDING
As the political arguments rage, the sport's leading figures are almost certain to restrict their comments about the first circuit introduced to the calendar since Austin, Texas, in 2012, to bland technical assessments while being more engaged by concerns for their stricken colleague Bianchi and the circumstances of his accident.
But amid the confusion a new event will unfold, intensified by the prospect of the Russian-owned Marussia team arriving without Bianchi and Russia's representative rookie driver Daniil Kvyat reacting to his coming promotion in 2015 from Toro Rosso to Red Bull as successor to Ferrari-bound, four-times champion, Sebastian Vettel.
It will be a 53-lap race and, for Suzuka winner and 2014 championship leader Lewis Hamilton, it is an opportunity to extend his 10-point advantage over Mercedes team mate and title rival Nico Rosberg. Each has kept a low profiles since Japan.
Vettel, third in the final classification in Japan, is one of the few men to have taken a close look at the 5.853km Sochi circuit; it was during advance testing - and he has warned that it will be fast and demanding.
'SIGNIFICANT MOMENT FOR F1'
"The best comparison is Singapore," he said, "but the layout - unlike Singapore - is more fluid, so will be much faster. Some sectors remind me a bit of South Korea or Abu Dhabi. It has a very successful mix of corners, each with a different character and some of them very difficult... that's what we want as drivers.
"It will be quite slippery at the beginning of the weekend and I'm expecting a few driving errors, not only because the track is new for everybody but also because the surface is still so green.
"It will be a while until we feel comfortable."
That comfort may be restricted to Sochi and 'Planet F1' if the world beyond rejects the argument that sport is not political. McLaren racing director Eric Boullier said: "This marks a significant moment in F1's on-going expansion into new global territories.
"While that's significant for the sport, it's equally important that the event proves able to deliver sporting spectacle and excitement for the fans.
"I hope it's a successful weekend - for the sport and for McLaren."Stay with Wheels24 for the 2014 Sochi F1 GP weekend.