The fourth round of the 2019 Formula 1 World Championship season takes teams and drivers to one of the most challenging and unpredictable races on the calendar: the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
|Baku City Circuit|
|Location||Baku, Azerbaijan||Circuit Length||6.003 km / 3.730 mi|
|Opened||2016||First Grand Prix||2016|
|Lap Record||1:43.441 – Sebastian Vettel – 2017||2018 winner||Lewis Hamilton|
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.
Bearing a number of similarities to the iconic Macau Guia street circuit, the Hermann Tilke designed Baku City Circuit combines long, high-speed sweeps on the wide boulevards of the city’s modern quarters with the tight and twisting confines of the Old Town.
This contrast means that the drivers reach some of the highest top speeds of the season along the circuit’s 2.1-kilometre long pit straight, while also needing to thread their cars through medieval-era streets less than 8 metres wide.
For teams, the challenge is no less difficult. Car set-up has to be biased towards a low-downforce configuration so you can hit peak speed on the start/finish straight, but that translates into poor low-speed handling through the twisty bits. The close proximity of the barriers has led to plenty of Safety Car interruptions, with their restarts – usually four or more cars wide in a mass slipstream to the start/finish line – proving particularly fraught.
|Formula 1 SOCAR Azerbaijan Grand Prix 2019 – Schedule|
|Event Dates||26-28 April 2019||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 2018
The thrills and spills of last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix would have made many a Hollywood scriptwriter blush.
The streets of Baku were once again the stage for a truly dramatic Formula 1 race, where few cool heads and more than just a little bit of luck prevailed to deliver Lewis Hamilton an unexpected victory and the lead in the Drivers’ Championship standings.
The Englishman inherited first place with two laps to go when Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, who had craftily gained the lead with a late pit stop during a Safety Car period, suffered a spectacular right-rear tyre failure.
Hamilton snatched the championship lead by finishing ahead of his rival Sebastian Vettel, who fell to fourth after a rash lunge on the leaders at the final Safety Car restart.
The German had led the race from the off from pole position and avoided the many dramas behind him, but this time Ferrari found itself outfumbled with Mercedes’ decision to delay Bottas’ sole pit stop for an inevitable late-race Safety Car.
Hamilton hadn’t been on the pace nor looked a likely race-winner all weekend, but fortune swings both ways and he was quick to acknowledge that it was his turn to profit.
Bottas’ late puncture was the final climax in a thrilling series of incidents and accidents. His move to the front of the field came by dint of the Safety Car being called out after Red Bull Racing suffered its own implosion when Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen collided on the approach to Turn 1.
The end result – two badly damaged cars stranded in the Turn 1 run-off was as tragic as it was predictable. Having tried repeatedly to pass Verstappen around the outside of the left-hander as the Dutch youngster doggedly held the inside line for the corner, Ricciardo tried to sell him a dummy by feinting to the outside. Verstappen jinked right to cover and then moved back to the left – against the rules – into the space where Ricciardo had committed he would brake. The Australian hit the rear of his teammate’s RB14, propelling both haplessly into retirement.
Completing the podium was Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen and Force India’s Sergio Pérez, who both put in sterling drives.
Räikkönen found himself with a damaged front wing after the other Force India of Esteban Ocon chopped across his nose at Turn 3, leading to the immediate retirement of the Frenchman as he was turfed into the barriers by the Finn. The Ferrari driver pitted at the end of the opening lap and switched to the Soft compound Pirelli tyres to try and run the remaining race distance without a stop and bring himself back into the mix.
Ocon was swiftly joined by Williams’ Sergey Sirotkin. The rookie was rather too eager to make up places after the start and after brushing Hülkenberg exiting Turn 2, he banged wheels with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso as he found himself squeezed between the two of them. A furious Alonso limped back to the pits with both right tyres punctured – the Spaniard would soldier on to finish a creditable seventh – but Sirotkin was out with broken suspension.
One of the few drivers to keep out of trouble all race was Sauber rookie Charles Leclerc, who drove with a maturity his rivals could have learned from to finish a superb sixth and claim his first points finish of his Formula 1 career.
Behind seventh-placed Alonso, Lance Stroll finished eighth to give the Williams team its first points of the season ahead of Alonso’s teammate Stoffel Vandoorne. Brendon Hartley closed out the points placings in tenth.
Tyre Compound Selections
Baku is the longest and also the fastest street circuit on the Formula 1 calendar, thanks to some lengthy straights that form the majority of the 6.003-kilometre track: the second longest of the year after Spa. However, while the speeds are high, the track is narrow – and that combination has caused a few incidents in the past. As was the case at the last round in China, Pirelli brings the C2 as the Hard tyre, C3 as the Medium tyre, and C4 as the Soft tyre: right in the middle of the range.
Speaking ahead of the Grand Prix, Pirelli’s Head of F1 Mario Isola spoke of the challenge that the historically unpredictable races at Azerbaijan have brought to tyre management.
“The main challenge in Baku lies in balancing the front and rear axles, keeping both the front and rear tyres in the right operating window. It is quite a varied track, with a very long two-kilometre straight and also some more technical corners. The frequency of the safety car also often causes a headache – or maybe an opportunity – for the strategists. The tyres that we have nominated from the middle of our range should be well-suited to the mixed demands of Baku, but it’s always one of the most difficult races of the year to predict. This is often the case for a street circuit, but Baku is the most unconventional street circuit on the calendar, with the high speeds of a conventional track as well as a very long lap.”
The top-three placed teams – Mercedes-AMG, Scuderia Ferrari and Red Bull Racing – have all opted for different tyre nominations this weekend. Red Bull Racing has the most sets of Soft tyres of the trio, followed by Mercedes, while Ferrari has selected the fewest sets of Soft tyres of any team.
The Azerbaijan Form Guide
Ferrari faces some serious questions coming into this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Despite having what everyone perceives as the fastest car on the grid, the Scuderia has gone winless across three races while rivals Mercedes have finished 1-2 at every event – a feat no team has achieved since the dominant Williams FW14B was the car to beat in 1992. If the SF90 can’t perform in Baku, then where can it?
On paper the red cars should be strong in Azerbaijan. Their car seems to have a straight-line speed advantage, which will be critical at a circuit where the cars are on full throttle for almost half a minute down the 2.1-kilometre blast to the start/finish line. Crucially, the team is starting its mid-season development early by bringing a major aerodynamic upgrade to this weekend’s race instead of waiting – as is tradition – for the first proper Europe-based Grand Prix in Spain in a fortnight’s time.
Another major upgrade will arrive in the form of new ‘Spec 2’ internal combustion engines from Honda, which will benefit Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Toro Rosso. Honda is promising that the new motors will bring improved durability and reliability, along with a little extra horsepower.
The Baku circuit is one that rewards cars which are slippery in a straight line. Keep an eye out for the McLarens of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Lando Norris, with the MCL34 proving particularly quick through the speed trap in 2019.
Across the three Grands Prix held at Azerbaijan to-date, there has never been a repeat pole-sitter or race-winner. Indeed, the only driver to grace the Baku rostrum more than once is Sergio Pérez, who has a pair of third place finishes with Force India in 2016 and 2018. Each year so far, the podium has been occupied by a driver from outside the ‘big three’ teams – the other visitor is Pérez’s new teammate Lance Stroll, who gave Williams its last top-three finish in 2017.
|2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix Weather Forecast|
|Friday||10°C – 18°C||Saturday||10°C – 17°C||Sunday||10°C – 18°C|
Images via FIA, Pirelli Motorsport, Red Bull Racing, Scuderia Ferrari