The Azerbaijan Grand Prix: Formula 1’s ultimate street fight?
While Monaco provides the sport’s historical glamour, and Singapore is now also established as a spectacular showpiece event, Baku has carved out its own distinctive identity inside three years on the calendar.
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It’s a burgeoning reputation that is somewhat at odds with the skills tended to be required by drivers to master a street track. Whereas the tighter and twister confines of such venues demand precision and controlled aggression, Baku already has a history of serving up something rather unpredictable.
Or, if the 2017 and 2018 editions of the race are an accurate yardstick, downright bedlam.
“Crazy, crazy race – could we race in Baku every week?” half-jokingly pondered Sky Sports F1’s David Croft in commentary last year, at the end of a grand prix which saw multi-car carnage on the first lap, Red Bull friendly fire in the middle, and a race-losing tyre blow-out for Valtteri Bottas at the end.
The chaos and controversy
It’s probably no surprise that the longest straight of the entire Formula 1 season has played host to several of the Azerbaijan GP’s most contentious and spellbinding moments so far.
With cars pulling top speeds in excess of 200mph, Baku’s main straight – or, to be more precise, a curved flat-out 1.2-mile section all the way from Turns 16 to Turn 1 – offers drivers opportunity and jeopardy in equal measure.
A year earlier, and it had been a happier hunting ground for Ricciardo, who overtook three cars in one as he surged from 10th on the grid to win the race.
Incorrectly feeling that his race-leading Mercedes rival had brake tested him approaching the end of a Safety Car phase, Vettel pulled up alongside Hamilton exiting Turn 16 and swerved into the Englishman’s front wheel – a move which earned him an in-race penalty and widespread condemnation.
“The trickiest moment under Safety Car conditions is at the restart of the race,” explained Mercedes, in a preview this week. “This is particularly true on a track like Baku, where the start-finish straight offers lots of overtaking opportunities and being the leader of the pack is somewhat of a disadvantage: Go too soon and you will catch up the Safety Car before it enters the pits. Go too late and you can be a sitting duck to cars tucked up tight in your slipstream.”
A restart also accounted for the all-Force India collision between Sergio Perez and Estaban Ocon when running fourth and fifth in 2017.
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Unpredictability and overtaking
In an era in which the F1 podium has been dominated by just three teams, Baku has an unblemished record of bucking the established trend.
In fact, the last three podium finishes that weren’t achieved by a Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull driver have come in Azerbaijan.
In 2016, it was Sergio Perez finishing third for Force India; in 2017, it was Lance Stroll doing likewise for Williams, before Perez repeated the feat again in 2018. With the omipresent barriers and limited run-off areas, particularly in the twisty middle of the lap, mistakes are punished heavily.
Seven drivers have retired from each of the last two races in Baku, with all 2018’s DNFs caused by accidents or car damage.
As Mercedes, winners in 2016 and 2018, noted: “If you get something wrong in Baku, chances are your weekend becomes much quieter while that of your mechanics is suddenly much busier.”