LITTLE BIT OF SUNSHINE: The new Sochi Autodrom circuit in Russia has brought some joy to Formula 1 drivers after the dark week following Jules Bianchi's horrific crash in Japan. Image: AFP / Dimitar Dilkoff
SOCHI, Russia -Six days after suffering the shock of Jules Bianchi's life-threatening crash in Japan, Formula 1's drivers welcomed the high-speed challenge of the new Sochi Autodrom, venue for this weekend's inaugural Russian Grand Prix.
Putting aside their anxieties about the plight of the 25-year-old Frenchman, whose Marussia car crashed into a recovery vehicle in torrential rain at Suzuka last Sunday (Oct 5), they relished returning to work and showing respect for their colleague.
Led by World championship leader Lewis Hamilton, who planted his Mercedes on pole with an emphatic demonstration of speed and superiority, they made clear how much they enjoyed the track laid out in Sochi's Olympic Park.
Hamilton also revealed the mental strength required to slide back into the cockpit of a racing car after such a shocking reminder of the potential dangers.
To explain, he recalled his earliest experience of tragedy at the Kimbolton kart track, in central England, 20 years earlier.
Hamilton said: "When I was nine years old, I saw a young driver die when I was racing in karts. A good friend of mine, who was a good friend of his, stopped racing, but that has never been something that has entered my mind.
"That was a very traumatic time for me as a kid. Even now, I can remember standing on the bank beside a track with him, with our suits on just before a race, all laughing and joking. And then the next thing I knew I was at his funeral."
That memory, he added was difficult to forget and had returned to him in the aftermath of Bianchi's crash.
He added: "Things like this really open up your view a bit. Bad things happen to people, but the world keeps going, which is really sad in a way, but it does not make me rethink wanting to be a F1 driver."
In a demonstration of talent and mental strength that itself revived memories of Ayrton Senna's reaction to major accidents in Spain, in 1990, and at Imola, 24 hours before he died on the same circuit, in 1994, Hamilton has revealed deep compassion and the cold serenity of a champion.
Thus he was able both to reflect on Bianchi's fight for life and his own mortality, but also enjoy the challenge at Sochi.
"It's got a really nice flow to it, it's not too bumpy, the corners are challenging - if you can get the lines just perfect you can put together really nice sectors," he said.
"The tyres are also not falling apart, which they do at other tracks, so it's even more fun because you can do lap after lap and enjoy it..."
Australian Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull enjoyed it. "It is more technical and difficult than it looked on paper," he said.
"It seemed quite hard to get the lap together and has quite a few off-camber corners, which isn't always fun for a driver, but it does make it challenging."
Briton Jenson Button of McLaren found the reality of the track was an improvement on team simulations: "In the simulator, it wasn't fun to drive at all, but it's nice."
Stay with Wheels24 for the 2014 Russian GP this weekend.