Azerbaijan Grand Prix Preview: Baku life, Baku reality


Max Verstappen - Red Bull Racing - during the 2016 European GP at Baku Street Circuit. Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix will be part of the Formula 1 calendar for the first time this year, although the Baku Street Circuit did host the 2016 European Grand Prix last season. Prior to that though, the event was but a distant pipe dream for then F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone.

The Baku Street Circuit is one of the fastest street tracks on the calendar, in fact Valtteri Bottas recorded the fastest ever speed (235 mph) by a F1 car at a race, when driving for Williams Martini Racing there last year. It is also the second longest circuit visited in the year, behind Spa Francorchamps.

The Azerbaijan capital is known as “the city of winds”, which could cause some problems for teams in terms of set-up, along with the low speed corners and long straights that make up its unique layout, that incorporates the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the Azerbaijan old city.

Nico Rosberg won the inaugural race in Baku last year as well as taking pole position after an unprecedented crash for Lewis Hamilton during qualifying saw him start the race down in tenth place. If the Brit manages to secure pole this weekend however, he will go ahead of his hero Ayrton Senna in terms of pole positions achieved, and will be just two away from Michael Schumacher’s overall record of 68.

2016 European Grand Prix

Setting things straight…

The European Grand Prix of 2016, was dominated by Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team driver Nico Rosberg, who led the race from start to finish, culminating in what looked like an easy victory for the German.

But it was far from a breeze for then team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who struggled with an erroneous engine setting throughout the duration of the race, which kept him down the order for many laps, and effectively ruined any prospects he had of winning.

Having started down the order in tenth place anyway, after a calamitous qualifying session, the Brit initially began to make up places, until he was sat in fourth place, just behind Sahara Force India F1 Team driver Sergio Perez.

The triple world champion could find no way past the Mexican despite his best efforts, and ended up wearing down his already part destroyed tyres, worn down from his incident on Saturday.

Hamilton decided to try an alternative tack, by jumping the Force India driver in the pits, but that strategy fell apart, when the Silverstone based squad called Mercedes bluff and pitted Perez next lap around.

The Brit tried his hardest to get by, but suddenly began to drop off the pace and away from the Mexican. Radio communications between the driver and team suggested that there was a problem with the engine setting Hamilton was now in.

Due to the recently clarified communications ban however, although his engineer knew what the issue was and how to resolve it, he was unable to help his man out in any way, leaving Hamilton to work it out for himself, whilst driving along the streets of Baku at speed.

The Brit did not have a clue how to resolve the problem, and became increasingly frustrated, as he tried different setting, after different setting, warning that he would just press every button if he could not be given instruction on what to do. It was not until there were just ten laps remaining that Hamilton finally made a change that removed the problem.

Although the Mercedes driver initially set some fast laps following the correction, he was unable to realistically catch Perez ahead of him and had to settle for fourth place at the line, unhappy that the communications ban had made life so difficult for him.

Due to the extremely tight nature of the track in parts, many had predicted the race would be action and incident packed, with safety cars likely to be the norm. That never came to pass however and we ended up with a cautious run of the mill affair, with drivers all managing to keep their cars out of the barriers, unlike the practice sessions, that threw up plenty of incidents.

Rosberg took an impressive win in the end, ahead of Scuderia Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.

2017 Race weekend

Canadian GP 2017 podium. Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

Going into the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix this weekend, the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team have gone back ahead in the constructors standings, following a dominant one-two victory for Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas in Monaco, and are eight points clear of Scuderia Ferrari, who faltered in Montreal.

Hamilton reduced the gap to Vettel’s lead in the drivers’ championship to twelve points, after the German finished down the order in fourth place, following a first lap incident that knocked part of his front wing away, causing him to make an early first pit stop.

Red Bull Racing remain third in the standings, though they are more than one hundred points down on Ferrari, and will need to start making headway soon, if they are to have any hope of bringing themselves into contention for the title.

The Sahara Force India F1 Team stay fourth, after a strong fifth and sixth place for drivers Perez and Esteban Ocon in Canada, although there could be trouble ahead for the Silverstone based team as things got heated between the pair on track, following a disagreement over team orders.

Scuderia Toro Rosso remain in fifth place, now just seven points clear of Williams Martini Racing, who saw rookie Lance Stroll take the first point of his F1 career last time out, at his home race. That was good news for the British team after driver Felipe Massa was taken out on the first lap by Carlos Sainz Jr, through no fault of his own.

The Renault Sport Formula 1 Team are chomping at the Grove based squads heels in seventh position though, and now sit just four points away from overturning that place. With driver Nico Hulkenberg continuing to finish in the points, a battle looks set to brew between those two squads for the foreseeable future.

The Haas F1 Team are three points adrift, after driver Romain Grosjean was also caught up in the first lap incident caused by Sainz Jr, hampering the Frenchman’s race. Whilst team-mate Kevin Magnussen had his race result affected by a time penalty for overtaking under the virtual safety car.

The Sauber F1 Team remain on the four points bagged by driver Pascal Wehrlein in Spain, now three races ago, but are still ahead of the McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team, who remain pointless after another disappointing engine failure for driver Fernando Alonso with just three laps of the race remaining, having been sat in a pretty secure tenth place.

The Spaniard is now likely to require some new PU components this weekend, which will come with numerous grid penalties, and is not something the Woking based squad need when they are already so far behind.

The 2017 Pirelli tyre issues that caused Mercedes problems in Monaco, appeared to have vanished in Canada, and the German squad will be hoping that they are now on top of the issue, and that sort of strong performance continues for the remainder of the season.

However, the Baku Street Circuit is a low grip affair, akin to the asphalt of Monaco, so could those issues rear their ugly head once more, and allow Ferrari to reign supreme again this year?

With all things on a par, expect a close battle between the top two teams in Azerbaijan.