The championship is finely balanced as F1 returns to Baku for what will be called the Azerbaijan Grand Prix this weekend. Lewis Hamilton will be on a high after cutting the gap to Sebastian Vettel to just 12 points, and around a circuit where Mercedes, in the hands of Nico Rosberg at least, looked unstoppable last year, Lewis will be hoping to continue to close the gap to Vettel. Sebastian may have lost ground in Canada, but his stirring performance to minimise his losses will mean he comes into this race with his own confidence high. With Mercedes looking to get on top of their early season inconsistency, Ferrari may well come to regret not capitalizing fully on those early Mercedes struggles, so there can be no more slip ups for the Scuderia like in Canada – for Ferrari, as always, the pressure is indeed on this weekend. Despite coming home in second place in Canada, the writing would appear to be on the wall for Valtteri Bottas championship hopes, as he was obliterated in qualifying by a mega Lewis Hamilton qualifying lap that saw Lewis equal Aytron Senna’s 65 pole positions. Over at Ferrari, their second driver Kimi Raikkonen was unfortunate to suffer from mechanical trouble just as the recovering Sebastian Vettel was approaching him, and around the streets of Baku Kimi will be looking to show that he is still the best option for Ferrari for 2018. One driver formerly in Ferrari’s sights, Sergio Perez, may have incurred the wrath of many neutral fans with his dogged defence against Force India team-mate Esteban Ocon in Canada, but if he can produce a podium performance like last year, all will surely be forgiven at Force India.
Last year’s race saw none of the mayhem that was widely expected after an eventful GP2 support race. Lewis Hamilton was fasted in all three practice sessions, but was also struggling to keep his car between the barriers, with a number of offs during practice. In qualifying, Hamilton crashed out in Q3, leaving him stranded in 10th place on the grid. In the race, Lewis hopes of a recovery were hit by his Mercedes de-rating as he was stuck in the wrong mode, with the ban on driver instructions in force at the time preventing Mercedes from instructing him on how to correct the problem (although simply breaking the rule and taking a penalty could have cost him less time!). Polesitter Nico Rosberg led the field away cleanly, with only some minor bumping behind into T1, while it was Sergio Perez Force India that was immediately on the move, jumping both Kvyat and Massa on the run down from T1 to T2, Checo making amends for the grid penalty he had received courtesy of a gearbox change necessitated by his brush with the walls in practice. Rosberg has an easy Sunday drive to win for Mercedes, while behind the Red Bulls challenge faded quickly, with Vettel quickly past Ricciardo to move into a comfortable second place. Further back it was Sergio Perez who provided the excitement, with a charging drive that saw him overtake Kimi Raikkonen for the final podium spot on the last lap – an unnecessary manoeuvre given Kimi had a time penalty coming anyway, but Checo secured the final podium position in style!
This weekend will be the first official Azerbaijan Grand Prix, after the race ran under the banner of the European Grand Prix last year.
The circuit runs around the streets of Baku, with the track mostly sitting below sea level. The circuit layout is counter clockwise, and at a length of just over 6 kilometers is one of the longest tracks on the calendar. The track layout was designed by Hermann Tilke, and is characterised by very narrow sections with plenty of 90 degree corners and long straights. The street circuit is super quick, last year saw Valtteri Bottas Williams record a speed of 378 km/hr in qualifying. The track races alongside the Caspian Sea before winding its way through downtown Baku and making its way back to the coast via the historic old town.
The drivers will line up on the grid alongside Azadlig Square. After a short burst the first corner is a tight left hander, and with DRS available down the very long start finish straight, expect to see plenty of moves into T1 during the race. There is a short 300m burst down Aleksandr Puşkin street into another left hander corner 2, with the pit exit feeding back to the track on the inside coming out of turn 1, which could provide some interesting moments around the pit stop window. Turn 2 also saw overtaking action last year, with Lewis Hamilton getting the job done on Max Verstappen here. From turn 2 the drivers head back up another straight for about 1 km before reaching turn 3, another sharp left hander, which saw a nice move by Romain Grosjean to pass Daniil Kvyat last year. Another short 240m burst brings the cars to the first right hand corner, turn 4 – not really an overtaking spot, but a place where a compliant number 2 can allow his team leader pass (as Kimi Raikkonen did last year for Sebastian Vettel!). Out of Turn 4 the track winds to a left right flick through turns 5 and 6, watching out for the walls on exit as the circuit opens out into another short straight running in parallel with the back end of the circuit.
At the end of the straight the cars will have a sharp right hander turn 7 which leads into the historic old town, with the cars bursting down a short stretch before winding left into a narrowing track uphill past the old fortress walls into turn 8 and jinking thru turns 9 and 10. Thankfully the cobbles here will be temporarily covered, but the track is at its narrowest here, turn 8 being just 7.6m wide. Careful people!! The cars crest the hill turning right at turn 11 and dip slightly into a left hander turn 12 as the track widens out again. From here the cars will accelerate winding left around Turn 13 and a slight curve at Turn 14, blasting down towards turn 15, a downhill left hander passing the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall and heading down towards the coast. The drivers then turn left at turn 16 and from here blast their way 2.2 km along the coast to the start/finish straight, winding gently right/left/right/right through turns 17 to 20, with the DRS detection point just after Turn 20. The pit entry is on the start/finish straight (which caught out Kimi Raikkonen last year, his Ferrari straying across the pit entry line as he followed in Ricciardo’s slipstream as the Red Bull pitted, leading to a penalty for the Ferrari driver). With the cars reaching maximum speed here, expect plenty of action as the cars return to turn 1, with the DRS activation zone on the straight giving further assistance.
TYRES WITH PIRELLI:
As the most recently arrived venue on the Formula 1 calendar, the Baku street circuit is the one that the teams have the least information about, having only driven there once for the inaugural race last year. Since then the technical regulations and tyre characteristics have changed, so it’s once more a blank sheet of paper. The tyres nominated for the longest and fastest street circuit of the year are P Zero White medium, P Zero Yellow soft and P Zero Red supersoft: a combination last seen in Bahrain this year (and also used in Baku last year).
THE CIRCUIT FROM A TYRE POINT OF VIEW
- At 6.003 kilometres (including a 2.2km straight) Baku is the second-longest lap of the year after Spa, with 20 corners.
- It’s known as ‘the city of winds’: these gusting winds can make car set-up tricky.
- At the beginning of the up-hill old town section the circuit is very narrow: and the cars are 20 centimetres wider this year.
- High top speeds over 360kph are expected on the straight: in 2016, it was 378kph.
- Part of the lap is on new asphalt, so teams will discover the grip in free practice. One stop was the winning strategy last year and this should be the case again in 2017.
MARIO ISOLA – HEAD OF CAR RACING
“Following Monaco and Montreal, Baku is the third non-permanent, low-grip venue in succession, but it has a very different character. The lap is a lot faster, with more energy going through the tyres, and track temperatures could be very high, like last year. For these reasons, we’ve chosen a range of tyres in the middle of the spectrum, which worked well in 2016. Maybe a surprise back then was that there were no safety cars, despite predictions to the contrary, so this could be a factor to consider when formulating race strategy. With a combination of low-speed corners and long straights, it’s quite hard to find the right balance, especially in terms of downforce.”
- The Baku street circuit is largely unchanged in layout from the inaugural race last year, with safety barriers having been altered in five or six corners, especially Turn 15.
- If Lewis Hamilton claims pole position in Baku, he will have broken the record of 65 poles established by Ayrton Senna and will be within touching distance of Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of 68 poles this year.
- It’s much more than possible that the lap record will be broken this year. Currently the fastest lap ever of Baku is 1m42.758s in qualifying and 1m46.485s in the race.
BAKU MINIMUM STARTING PRESSURES (SLICKS)
22 psi (front) – 21 psi (rear)
EOS CAMBER LIMIT -3.50° (front) | -2.00° (rear)
Blue bags, blue bags! – Maybe Sebastian Vettel’s constant requests for blue flags were responsible for the blue plastic on track, maybe not, but it did provide a bit of entertainment as the Ferrari cars passed a piece of blue plastic that had strayed on track between them – Kimi was not amused!
“This is ridiculous, guys. I don’t know, looking at my frickin’ dash every five seconds trying to find a switch that’s in a wrong position” – Really. Welcome to F1, the pinnacle of motorsport, 2016 style, as Lewis Hamilton desperately tried to sort the problems in his Mercedes whilst flying through the streets of Baku. Not a good advert for F1.
Checo grabs third – Perez passes Raikkonen into T1 on the last lap to secure yet another podium position for Force India – like him or not, Perez has a knack of being in the right place at the right time when a podium position is up for grabs – he’s been on the podium 4 times for Force while former team-mate and 2015 Le Mans winner Nico Hulkenberg never made it to the podium in the same span with Force India
3 cars into T1 – why not? The (very) long straight in Baku can make for some interesting viewing, one of the highlights of last years race being the trio of Bottas, Verstappen and Hamilton running three wide as they approached the first turn at the start of lap 5, with Verstappen losing out first to Bottas in T1 then Hamilton on the run down to T2
Lewis Hamilton typically bounces back after a bad weekend, and last time out he put his disappointing performance in Monaco behind him with an absolutely stunning qualifying lap in Canada that laid the foundations for his sixth Canadian Grand Prix win. This weekend Lewis has the opportunity to lay the ghosts of his worst weekend in 2016 to rest, and if he can continue the form he showed in Canada, he will be very hard to stop in Azerbaijan. While Mercedes seemed more comfortable with the Pirelli tyres in Canada, concerns still linger that their problems may return, and Ferrari will be hoping that they can pounce should any trouble arise. Behind the leading due, all eyes will be on Force India to see if they can challenge Red Bull after their indecision on the pit wall cost them the chance to put Ricciardo under further pressure for the final podium positon in Canada. Red Bull are still awaiting more power from Renault, and with the long straights of Baku sure to test the power units to the fullest, could be in for a tough time on Sunday. Honda may potentially be bringing an engine upgrade this weekend, if so it will be interesting to see if their progress, if any, can convince McLaren that their relationship still has potential.
Formula 2 will provide the support action during the Grand Prix weekend. There was huge disappointment at his home race in Monaco for Ferrari Academy driver Charles LeClerc, with the series leader looking comfortable at the front until losing the lead through no fault of his own due to the timing of the safety car coming out, and then being forced to retire due to a loose wheel nut. LeClerc has been looked very impressive this year, taking pole position in all 3 rounds so far this season, but now sees his championship lead whittled away to a mere 3 points from Oliver Rowland. Rowland, the Renault development driver, benefited from LeClerc’s misfortune to take his first Formula 2 victory in the Monaco feature race, and will be looking to build on that momentum as he seeks to establish his championship credentials. Further motivation for Rowland will come in the form of fellow Renault hopeful Sergey Sirotkin (who finished third overall in 2015 and 2016) returning to the series this weekend to replace the injured Alexander Albon.