The Baku City Circuit will host the second round of the 2019 FIA Formula 2 Championship this weekend, four weeks after the opening event at Sakhir, Bahrain.

The Circuit

Baku City Circuit - 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Baku City Circuit
Location Baku, Azerbaijan Circuit Length 6.003 km / 3.730 mi
Opened 2016 First F2 Race 2016 (as GP2 Series)
Direction Anticlockwise Lap Record 1:52.129 – Charles Leclerc  – 2017
2018 Pole Position
Alexander Albon  2018 Race Winners
Alexander Albon  (Feature)
George Russell  (Sprint)

“Baku is a street circuit so that comes with its own challenges. There is no room for error really. It’s quite exciting! In the race, we get really close to 330kph. It’s one of the most exciting races of the year: anything can happen. Qualifying at the front does not really mean much, and the same goes with qualifying last which is what happened to me last year. I qualified last and finished fifth and third in the races respectively. It’s very unpredictable. There’s low tyre degradation as well. It’s a flat-out race which is very unique for Formula 2.

“The castle section is probably one of the most unique corners of the calendar. It’s definitely the tightest. That’s definitely a place that could make or break a lap or cause a pile-up as seen previously.

“Setting up the car is quite difficult because you want to maximise the straight line speed and then you have low speed corners. You want to have two different settings. It’s always a fine balance.

“Overtaking at Turns 1 and 3 are probably the most obvious opportunities. But in F2 any corner can become an overtaking opportunity which is one of the cool things of the championship. But you would risk quite a bit. It’s up to the driver’s discretion!

“Obviously, it’s the second race weekend of the year and you want to build some good momentum. In the past two years, I’ve had quite good results there. I’ve been able to find the good balance. You have to be smart and level-headed. A lot can go wrong. You have to make sure to not make mistakes. It’s one of the tracks I really look forward to on the calendar!” – Nicholas Latifi, DAMS

The Event

2019 FIA Formula 2 Championship – Race of Azerbaijan Schedule (26-28 April 2019)
Free Practice Session 1 Fri 11:00-11:45 Qualifying Fri 15:00-15:30
Feature Race (29 laps) Sat 12:00-13:00 Sprint Race (21 laps) Sun 13:10-13:55

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

Rewind to 2018

Last year’s round at Azerbaijan was headlined by a breakthrough performance for Alexander Albon, who claimed his maiden pole position and race win in his Formula 2 Championship career. The Anglo-Thai driver’s round-by-round deal with the DAMS team was extended to the Baku City Circuit just days before, and he duly rewarded the French squad with a blistering run to secure his first pole position in qualifying ahead of early championship leader Lando Norris’ Carlin.

His run to victory in the Feature Race was helped by Norris stalling at the start of the formation lap, and despite being all alone on the front row he was still beaten to Turn 1 by ART’s George Russell who dived up the inside of Turn 1 to snatch the lead. His lead was short-lived, as Albon immediately counter-attacked as the field exited Turn 2, drew alongside the Mercedes reserve driver down the straight and easily outbraked him into the Turn 3 left-hander.

The racing action was briefly suspended behind the Safety Car thanks to a crash by Campos Racing’s Luca Ghiotto, but at the resumption on Lap 5 Albon held off Russell before the Englishman peeled into the pits for his compulsory pit stop at the end of Lap 6. Albon followed suit a lap later, but was jumped by Russell’s undercut move and now trapped behind the PREMA of Nyck de Vries and the Campos of Roy Nissany.

Albon eventually got by Nissany and began his chase of de Vries, while a succession of fastest laps helped Russell build a lead to the Dutch driver. That was erased when Nissany crashed at Turn 4 to bring out the Safety Car once again.

The race restarted on Lap 21 and the top three drivers all proved too desperate under braking for Turn 1 as each took to the run-off. That allowed Charouz Racing’s Antonio Fuoco, who had been quietly working his way forward, into the lead. Albon managed to rejoin behind the Italian – ironically gaining a place in the mayhem – but de Vries and Russell’s errors had cost each driver several places.

A late and very smokey engine failure for Russian Time’s Artem Markelov caused visibility concerns, not least of which was for Fuoco. The Italian slowed to try and pick his way through the haze, which allowed the more aggressive Albon to close and have a run on the Charouz Racing System driver and reclaim the lead on Lap 25.

Albon was not going to be denied his maiden Formula 2 victory and duly built enough of a cushion to prevent a counter-attack from Fuoco. The former Ferrari Academy driver was left to fend off a hard-charging Jack Aitken, who was giving a patient recovery drive after stalling at the start of the race and eventually overtook the Italian on the penultimate lap at Turn 3.

Fuoco still gave the new Charouz team its first podium finish in just its second Formula 2 Championship event, finishing ahead of Carlin’s Sergio Sette Câmara. Albon’s teammate Nicholas Latifi – who started from the back of the grid – finished an impressive fifth ahead of Norris, who put in a similar recovery drive following his pit lane start.

Alexander Albon, DAMS - 2018 Formula 2 Championship Race of Azerbaijan

The Feature Race saw Albon – who was a last-minute signing to the DAMS team on a race-by-race deal – keep a cool ahead when many of his rivals didn’t to claim a crushing maiden victory that propelled him into championship contention.

Sunday’s Sprint Race saw the fourth different race-winner in as many races crowned after Mercedes F1 junior George Russell claimed victory.

The start of the race was marred by no less than five drivers – Aitken (again), Albon, Markelov, Maximilian Günther (BWT Arden) and Ghiotto – all stalling as the lights went out. Also making poor launches were the front-row starting MP Motorsport entries of Roberto Merhi and Ralph Boschung, and in all the mayhem it was Latifi who took the race lead from the second row of the grid.

Sette Câmara moved into the lead before the end of the opening lap, leaving Latifi to fend off Norris and a fast-closing Russell. On Lap 8, the pair tried to slipstream past Latifi down the start/finish straight, with Russell proving the victor in the battle as Norris outbraked himself at Turn 1.

Russell then set about chasing down Sette Câmara and on Lap 15 Russell was within DRS range and eventually made his move for the lead of the race three laps later at Turn 1. Sette Câmara gamely hung on and reclaimed the position with a counter-attack at Turn 2. The pair jostled for position over the remainder of the lap before Russell was able to make the move stick into Turn 1 on the next lap. This time Sette Câmara had no response, allowing Russell to ease out to a 2.6-second lead by the end of the race.

Sette Câmara earned plaudits for finishing in second place – his third podium finish in four races – but the writing was on the wall when his car stopped on its in-lap to the pits. After it failed to deliver the required one-litre fuel sample to the FIA scrutineers, he was disqualified. That promoted Nyck de Vries – who charged from fourteenth and overtook Latifi on the penultimate lap – into second place, with the Force India reserve driver completing the podium.

George Russell, ART Grand Prix - 2018 Formula 2 Race of Azerbaijan

Mercedes junior driver George Russell became the Formula 2 Championship’s fourth different race-winner in four races.

The Azerbaijan Form Guide

The opening round of the 2019 Formula 2 Championship saw two teams prevail as DAMS took four podium finishes whilst newcomers UNI-Virtuosi Racing grabbed pole position and two rostrums.

DAMS’ Sérgio Sette Câmara drew first blood in the Free Practice setting the pace ahead of teammate Nicholas Latifi but the duo was usurped by Luca Ghiotto, who finally pocketed a maiden F2 pole and 4 bonus points in the Qualifying.

Yet it was Latifi who came out on top in the Feature Race, beating home Ghiotto and Sette Câmara at the flag. Ghiotto fought back from P7 to P1 in the Sprint Race to cross the finish line ahead of the DAMS teammates, with the Brazilian ace second and Latifi third.

The win handed Ghiotto the lead in the Drivers’ Championship fight at the end of Round 1, with the Italian on 37 points and leading Latifi by 2 points, with Sette Câmara on 27. In the Teams’ Championship DAMS have built an early lead with 62 points over UNI-Virtuosi Racing on 48, while defending Teams’ Champions Carlin Racing are a distant third on 18 points.

The Baku Street Circuit has always provided plenty of thrills and spills in the Formula 2 races and this year really should be no different. The six-kilometre track evolves significantly with its grip levels over the course of the weekend, and there will be the added challenge of finding the right set-up to support the Medium and Supersoft tyres that Pirelli has brought along. The Safety Car will inevitably make more than one appearance during both races, meaning that strategy and the timing of the compulsory pit stop in the Feature Race will prove decisive.

Images via FIA Formula 2 Championship

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Geoff Burke

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