The F1 circus returns to Baku this weekend for a second visit following last year’s successful inaugural event on the streets of the city.
There is one significant change. While the 2016 race was known as the European GP, this time around it’s the Azerbaijan GP, a name designed to strengthens the sport’s ties with the country. The promoters realized last year that with the use of the generic ‘European’ title locals felt that it was an outside event being imposed upon them – the hope is that this time they will be more supportive.
We will also have a new winner this year, as 2016 victor World Champion Nico Rosberg is now enjoying his retirement.
Few F1 insiders knew what to expect last year, as is usually the case with new venues, but the unusual track layout proved to be an instant hit, with many describing it as part-Monaco, and part-Monza. Amazing straight line speeds were achieved, especially with a tow.
The combination of the tight turns through the old city and the seemingly never-ending blast down towards the start/finish area worked well, and it also provided engineers with a special challenge as they tried to optimize car setup. The teams have the advantage of returning with all the benefit of all the data they gathered last year – but now of course the cars are very different, with wider tires and higher downforce levels.
The other area everyone will have to keep an eye on is brakes – Baku is tough, especially in the hot conditions, so there’s no margin for error.
The track also proved to be a challenge for the drivers, with the tricky left-hander at Turn 15 catching several people out through the weekend, and the tight section through the old town allowing little margin for error – as Lewis Hamilton found out when it mattered in qualifying.
To the surprise of many last year’s actual Grand Prix ran virtually trouble-free, following two spectacular GP2 events that saw a series of accidents and safety car interventions. Nevertheless, it’s obvious that Baku is the sort of track where incidents can play a role, and thus the strategists really have to be on their toes, and be ready to plan stops around yellow periods.
After two races where the ultrasoft was used, this weekend’s Pirelli tire choices are the supersoft, soft, and medium, a combination already seen this year in China and Bahrain. In 2016 the top six finishers all made it home on a single stop, but there was a wide range of timing of that pit visit, stretching from fourth-placed Kimi Raikkonen (on lap 8) to winner Rosberg (lap 21). In contrast both Red Bull drivers who finished seventh and eighth, and many others further down the field, stopped twice.
The big story this year has been the resurgence of Ferrari. In 2016 Sebastian Vettel came to Baku in third place in the World Championship, already 38 points shy of leader Rosberg. This time around he is leading an intense title contest with Hamilton. Last year the red cars qualified on the second row, and finished second and fourth, with Vettel ahead.
Ferrari has not only found speed this year, but found it on a regular basis, and the car is much more consistent in different conditions relative to its Mercedes rival. As well as Monaco, Vettel won the opener in Australia and the third race in Bahrain, and he has logged a string of second places elsewhere. His team mate Raikkonen has struggled to match him, and was hugely frustrated to lose out in the stops in Monaco, having taken pole and led early on. He also lost valuable points with a first lap retirement in Spain, and it’s already obvious that Vettel is Ferrari’s title contender.
Bottas vs. Hamilton
It’s less clear cut at Mercedes, where Hamilton and new teammate Valtteri Bottas have been more evenly matched, and where the car’s form has been inconsistent, with the team often struggling to optimize tire usage.
Lewis won in China and Spain, but had disappointing weekends in Russia, where he was fourth, and Monaco, where he recovered to seventh after a poor qualifying session. He then bounced back in Canada, where there were signs that the tire issue has been addressed.
Hamilton had a terrible time in Baku last year, struggling with his brakes on Saturday and starting 10th after clipping the wall in qualifying. Despite some frustration with engine issues, he salvaged fifth in the race.
Bottas has had some ups and downs in 2016, but he logged a superb pole in Bahrain, won in some style in Russia, and also outperformed Hamilton in Monaco. A turbo failure in Spain cost him valuable points, however. Last year the Finn finished a distant sixth in Baku.
Mercedes vs. Ferrari vs. Red Bull?
It should be all about Ferrari vs. Mercedes – but can Red Bull get involved in the fight too? This has largely been a season of frustration for RBR as the team had built up momentum heading into the winter, and many saw the dark blue cars as the main rivals to Mercedes. That hasn’t been the case, and instead the team has been established instead as number three in the pecking order, with both the chassis and Renault power unit needing more work.
The drivers haven’t given up of course, and have taken any opportunity that has come their way. Daniel Ricciardo earned third places in Spain and Monaco, while Max Verstappen was on the podium in China. Despite concerns over lack of engine performance Ricciardo qualified as high as second here last year, so perhaps it might not be so bad, but in the race the cars proved to be hard on their tires, and he faded to seventh.