The 2018 season’s opening sequence of flyaway races draws to a close this weekend with the Formula 1 World Championship field heading to the Baku City Circuit for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

The Circuit

Baku City Circuit - 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Baku City Circuit
Location Baku, Azerbaijan Circuit Length 6.003 km / 3.73 mi
Opened 2016 First Grand Prix 2016
Direction Anticlockwise Capacity 18,500
Lap Record 1:43.441 – Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari, 2017) 2017 winner Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull Racing)

An oil-rich and tourist-poor former Soviet state, Azerbaijan is billing itself as ‘the new Dubai’ by using its newfound wealth to transform the once drab capital city of Baku into a modern and glittering upscale metropolis to position itself as a potential playground for the rich and famous. So it appears to be the perfect host for the lavish and affluent circus that the world’s richest sport brings with it.

The Baku City Circuit layout, designed by renowned F1 track architect Hermann Tilke, takes the cars on a high-speed anti-clockwise loop of 20 corners as they make their way through the city centre in the Land of Fire.

The mix of long straights and sharp, angled turns as well as the tight left-right-left sequence of corners around the historic castle will have the drivers pushing their cars and themselves to the limit. The run to the start/finish straight spans 2.1 kilometres in length and sees drivers reach peak speeds of almost 350km/h.

It is one of two circuits on the calendar predominantly below sea level – Bahrain’s Sakhir International Circuit being the other. By contrast, the lowest point of Mexico City’s Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez is a breathless 2,226 metres above sea level.

Contribution by Elle Haus

The Event

Formula 1 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Schedule
Event Dates 27-29 April 2018 Free Practice Session 1 Fri 13:00-14:30
Free Practice Session 2 Fri 17:00-18:30 Free Practice Session 3 Sat 14:00-15:00
Qualifying Sat 17:00-18:00 Race (51 laps) Sun 16:10-18:10

Session times quoted in Azerbaijan Time (GMT + 04:00)

Rewind to 2017

Daniel Ricciardo defied the odds to win the most thrilling Grand Prix of the 2017 season, storming through the field to claim victory after starting from tenth place thanks to a crash in qualifying.

Under the baking Baku sun, the race got underway with pole-winner Lewis Hamilton beating Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to the first turn.

By the exit of Turn 2, four cars had already struck drama. Carlos Sainz Jr. had a spin trying to avoid Toro Rosso teammate Daniil Kvyat as the Russian returned to the track after running into the Turn 1 run-off. At turn Turn 2, Bottas and Kimi Räikkönen came together jostling for position, with Bottas copping a puncture and rejoining the race a lap down.

Hamilton continued to lead the charge up front, enjoying a sizeable lead over Vettel who had an almost as large a gap to Force India’s Sergio Pérez behind him. Despite suffering a small amount of damage on the opening lap, Max Verstappen remained in fourth.

Ricciardo was the first of the top ten to pit, coming in on Lap 5 for the soft tyres and rejoining the track in 17th place with a lot of work ahead of him.

As Ricciardo quickly worked past the lower runners, the race was neutralised behind the Safety Car when Kvyat and and a furious Verstappen retired in quick succession.

A second Safety Car followed almost immediately after the green flag, and this time the tension between Hamilton and Vettel boiled over into the most controversial moment of the season and their championship battle.

As Hamilton backed up the field to give the Safety Car enough of a head start to return safely to the pits, Vettel thought the Briton had brake-tested him. Furious, he pulled up alongside the Mercedes driver and steered his Ferrari into him – the pair touched wheels but both continued without any apparent damage.

The race was restarted and the two Force India drivers conspired to ruin each other’s race when Esteban Ocon tipped teammate Pérez into the wall exiting Turn 2. Räikkönen ran over the debris and punctured a tyre, littering the track with more bodywork as he struggled back to the pits.

Race Control elected to red-flag the race so a full clean-up of the circuit could be undertaken. Hamilton led from Vettel and the Williams duo of Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll. Ricciardo was in fifth place.

The race was restarted and Ricciardo jumped both Williams drivers with a hearth-in-the-mouth pass into Turn 1 to move into third place.

That became second place when Hamilton was forced into the pits at the instruction of the FIA Stewards when his headrest began to work its way loose. Ricciardo then moved into the lead when Vettel was handed a 10-second stop/go penalty for his earlier contact with Hamilton – ironically he would rejoin ahead of the Mercedes driver.

Ricciardo would lead the race until the chequered flag to claim a most unexpected victory, with Bottas – who soldiered on from his first-lap collision with a masterful recovery drive – overtaking Stroll to claim second place on the sprint to the finish line.

Vettel finished fourth ahead of Hamilton as both overtook Ocon in the closing laps, while Kevin Magnussen (Haas), Carlos Sainz Jr (Toro Rosso), Fernando Alonso (McLaren) and Pascal Wehrlein (Sauber) completed the points. Nine of the ten teams finished in the points in a race of incident and attrition.

Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing TAG Heuer RB13 - 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

An overjoyed Daniel Ricciardo overcame a crash in qualifying to win a thrilling Azerbaijan Grand Prix last year.

Contribution by Jordan Mulach

Tyre Compound Selections

2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix - available Tyre Compounds

Two-time winners this year Ferrari will again, after China, enter the weekend with the most aggressive tyre approach over its two main rivals stocking up on ten Ultrasoft tyre sets each for their drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen.

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix holds its third race in its short but exciting history around the Baku City Circuit. The track’s characteristics are good on tyres with high speeds and sweeping corners complementing the aerodynamics of the car and 90-degree turns putting pressure on brakes.

Tyre strategy unfortunately has not been too complex on previous Sundays in Baku – compared to the fantastic Chinese Grand Prix almost a fortnight ago – due to low tyre degradation around the six-kilometre street circuit.

Ferrari has chosen to take full advantage of this by sacrificing Soft and Supersoft tyres for the sticky purple-walled Ultrasoft compound.

Meanwhile new Constructors’ Championship leaders, Mercedes, have elected to take one less of the softest compound in favour for a harder set of Pirelli rubber. Both teams have decided to split their drivers’ strategies as well.

As for Red Bull Racing, the Milton Keynes squad have picked only eight sets of the Ultrasoft compound for their drivers along with two and three sets of the Soft and Supersoft rubber respectively. This suggests the Milton Keynes team may run a contrary strategy to Ferrari and Mercedes with one less pit stop.

Further down the pitlane, plenty of midfield teams have decided to stock up on plenty of the Supersoft compound and balance out their Soft and Ultrasoft sets in order to approach the weekend with some flexibility.

Renault has nominated to enter the weekend with four Supersoft tyre sets and only seven Ultrasoft sets for Nico Hülkenberg and Carlos Sainz Jr., the lowest of any team on the grid.

The likes of McLaren and Haas have only chosen to bring one Soft compound tyre for each of their drivers in Baku as Stoffel Vandoorne will have ten Ultrasoft sets up his sleeve to use throughout the weekend.

At the far end of the pitlane, Sauber will suit up with ten Ultrasoft sets for both drivers, but will split Marcus Ericsson and Charles Leclerc – similar to parent team Ferrari – on the yellow-walled Softs and the red-marked Supersofts.

Below shows the complete grid’s tyre choices for this weekend’s Grand Prix:

2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix - Tyre Compound selections

Contribution by Luke McCullough

Stat Attack

This weekend will be the third Grand Prix held at the Baku City Circuit and the second Azerbaijan Grand Prix. The inaugural Grand Prix in 2016 was named the European Grand Prix.

Nico Rosberg accumulated a ‘grand chelem’ in Baku during its inaugural event claiming pole (his 25th), victory (his 19th), fastest lap and leading every lap of the race.

Last year’s winner was this year’s Chinese Grand Prix victor Daniel Ricciardo, who claimed his fifth career victory for Red Bull Racing. The Australian won from tenth on the grid having crashed in qualifying.

Mercedes is the only team to feature at both podiums in Baku. Along with Rosberg’s 2016 win, Valtteri Bottas finished second last year, pipping Williams rookie Lance Stroll on the line by 0.105 of a second. Mercedes is also the most successful engine manufacturer to have had raced in Baku: Sergio Pérez finished third in 2016 for Force India with a Mercedes power unit and Lance Stroll finished third for Williams last year.

Stroll’s third place in Azerbaijan marks him as the only visitor to the podium by a driver from outside the “big three” teams (Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing). It was Stroll’s first, and so far only, podium.

Last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix was the liveliest race of 2017, with 42 of the season’s 435 overtaking manoeuvres completed in green flag racing across 2017.

Azerbaijan is the only country on the 2018 calendar in which Lewis Hamilton has not been on the podium. Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen has also been on the podium in every country on the 2018 schedule, excluding Azerbaijan.

The Baku City Circuit is one of six tracks to have hosted Grand Prix of different titles. Other include: Brands Hatch (British and European), Jerez (Spanish and European) The Nürburgring (German, Luxembourg, European), Imola (Italian and San Marino) and Dijon (French and Swiss). There is also a case to be made for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which has hosted both the United States Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500 which was held as a round of the F1 World Championship between 1950 and 1960.

Only Brendon Hartley will make his first visit to the circuit as other rookies Pierre Gasly, Sergey Sirotkin and Charles Leclerc have all appeared before in either the FIA Formula 2 Championship or its forebear, the GP2 Series.

All have incidentally featured on the podium. Leclerc and Sirotkin drove here last year in Formula 2 with Leclerc winning the Feature Race and coming second in the Sprint Race on Sunday. Meanwhile, Sirotkin finished second and third in 2016 when racing in the GP2 Series’ final year. Gasly also appeared in that same year, retiring from the Feature Race and finishing second in the Sprint.

Mercedes have gone three races without a victory for the first time in the turbo-hybrid era. They have previously lost consecutive races only twice when Daniel Ricciardo went back-to-back over the summer break in Hungary and Belgium in 2014. Last year Max Verstappen’s victory in Mexico was followed by victory for Sebastian Vettel in Brazil before Valtteri Bottas claimed the final win of the season in Abu Dhabi.

Contribution by Luke McCullough

The Azerbaijan Form Guide

The Baku City Circuit is one of the most contrasting circuits on the entire calendar, with engineers needing to compromise between getting the quickest straight-line speed down the 2.1-kilometre flat-out blast to the start/finish straight while also extracting enough downforce through the twisty middle sector of the track’s 6-kilometre lap.

This is by no means a one-size-fits-all solution. Many teams will experiment with a number of different aerodynamic solutions during practice as they optimise their cars’ set-ups, with some even going as far as developing rear wing designs that will be unique to this event.

Managing brake and tyre temperatures – indeed, getting them up to a decent operating temperature – will be a new challenge facing this year’s grid following the Azerbaijan Grand Prix’s move from its traditional summer calendar slot in June to a cooler April berth.

Despite finishing behind Lewis Hamilton in the previous Chinese Grand Prix, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel enters the Azerbaijan Grand Prix as championship leader with a nine-point advantage over the Mercedes driver. The German had a torrid event here last year when he deliberately collided with Hamilton under Safety Car conditions – scandalously escaping with little more than a smack on the knuckles – and is unlikely to have such a brain fade second time around.

Despite its protestations, Ferrari seems to have made it clear pretty early in the season that it has thrown all of its eggs in the Vettel basket for the Drivers’ Championship standings. Teammate Kimi Räikkönen has had his race strategies compromised by questionable pit calls in all three Grands Prix to-date.

Mercedes will be seeking redemption this weekend, having gone winless to-date in 2018 despite being perceived as having the quickest car in the field. The Silver Arrows should consider themselves unlucky to have lost out on victories in Australia and China after being caught out by ill-timed Safety Car interruptions, but the F1W09 has also struggled with getting the Pirelli tyres to an ideal operating temperature compared to its rivals. Even so, the Brackley squad leads the Constructors’ Championship standings by 1 point over Ferrari.

Red Bull Racing heads into Baku with a skip in its step following Daniel Ricciardo’s brilliant drive to victory last time out in China. The Australian is a former race-winner here – that came by dint of some equally fearless overtaking and a well-timed Safety Car – and the Perth-born driver finds himself at the centre of plenty of speculation over his whereabouts next year. He will need to put those distractions aside this weekend and hope that the RB14 has the speed and reliability to keep him in the mix at a circuit where engine horsepower plays a major role.

Teammate Max Verstappen has had a clumsy start to his seasons with several spins, crashes and collisions that have brought unwanted attention to the Dutch youngster’s championship credentials. He needs a clean weekend here to regain some confidence.

The midfield will again be a really tight scrap between Renault, Haas, McLaren and Force India who were in the mix in the minor points positions last time out in China. Haas probably has the edge given its VF-18 has proven slippery in a straight line thanks to its Ferrari engine.

By contrast, Honda-powered Toro Rosso may find its motor getting rather breathless through the high-speed sections of the Baku City Circuit. Teammates Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley collided last time out in Shanghai and will be seeking a return to form that brought the former a superb fourth-placed finish in Bahrain. Matching that result here might be too big a stretch, but its performance will be indicative of how much progress Honda has made in eking out more power.

2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix Weather Forecast
Friday 15°C – 24°C Saturday 15°C – 24°C Sunday 11°C – 17°C

Images via FIA, Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team, Pirelli Motorsport, Red Bull Racing

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.