Formula 1 moves to its 32nd new country this weekend with the inaugural Baku European Grand Prix in Azerbaijan on what looks like the fastest street track F1 has ever seen. Speeds of up to 350km/h are predicted on the 2.1km long straight, which is the kind of speed only seen at Monza and in the high altitude of Mexico!
The race is the 23rd running of the European Grand Prix, but it will be the first F1 race ever to take place in Azerbaijan. Fernando Alonso is the most recent winner of the European event after his triumph for Ferrari at Valencia in 2012, and the Spaniard has the most wins at the European GP of the current crop of drivers with three, while Vettel has two and Felipe Massa one.
At just over 6km in length, the Baku circuit is the second longest on the calendar, only behind Spa, and it has been designed by regular F1 architect, Hermann Tilke. It is not like anything seen before in F1 as most of the corners are low speed, but the straights are long and fast. This calls for two completely different downforce configurations. It will reward cars with good mechanical grip, like Mercedes and Red Bull and with plenty of engine power like Ferrari and Mercedes.
It looks very much like Mercedes will enjoy a margin this weekend. It is also a high fuel consumption circuit, so there will be some fuel management to be done.
The layout travels around the downtown area of Azerbaijan’s capital city, which incorporates the UNESCO heritage site known as Icheri Sheher, the old city – where the organisers have laid temporary asphalt on the cobbled streets to allow the cars to race through – and the more modern sections on the promenade near the Caspian Sea.
As the circuit winds its way around Baku, the width of the track varies greatly. The widest part of the track is 13m, while the narrowest section, between Turns 7 and 8, is just 7.6m. Turn 8 will also be the slowest corner on the track, with an expected apex speed of 53mph.
The Baku track is also expected to have an extremely high average speed for a street circuit. This is largely because of the rapid sequence of flowing corners in the final sector that form part of the 2.1km (1.5-mile) main straight, where drivers are expected to be on full throttle for over 20 seconds and hit 350km/h. The Haas F1 team’s pre-race briefing stated that the calculated lap time for the track is expected to be 101 seconds.
Wind could also play a part in the on-track action this weekend, as Baku is unofficially known as the “City of Winds” and unexpected gusts blowing along the sea front could cause the drivers problems as they hit the brakes for Turn 1.
There will be two DRS zones this weekend, one on the approach to Turn 1 and one on the straight coming into Turn 3, while McLaren has highlighted the “deceptively fast” Turn 15 as a key corner as it is lined with close barriers.
What’s the strategy for Baku?
Before a car turns a wheel on the new track there are a few observations that can be made. It is a street track and given the high speeds in parts of the track, it’s likely that we will see a Safety Car. This is especially true because, as a new event care will have to be taken to give the marshals time to deal with incidents.
New street circuits tend to be low grip at the outset and the grip should ramp up over the course of three days running. The temperatures will be warm and with the cars likely to run lower downforce, they will slide in the corners.
Pirelli has brought medium, soft and supersoft which is a conservative choice – due to the ‘unknown’ of a new track. The soft is likely to be most people’s mandatory race tyre, while the supersoft will be the qualifier and first race stint tyre. The soft is proving a very durable and raceable tyre, so with pit stops quite slow and unattractive at 24 seconds, it looks like this could be a one-stop race. But there may be surprises when the cars run on Friday.
Heading to Baku: The F1 drivers in numbers
After they finished first and second in last weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are now tied together on 1,974 career points, although in should be noted that their tallies are inflated by the changes that F1 has made to its points scoring positions in this century.
Nico Rosberg, who has seen his championship lead cut from 43 points to nine in just three races, is seeking a 14th consecutive front row start – a streak that started at the Singapore Grand Prix last season. Another qualifying statistic, albeit a worrying one for Ferrari, is that Vettel has been quickest in four FP3 sessions so far this season but neither of the Scuderia drivers has yet started on the front row of the grid.
Several drivers are on streaks of their own in recent races. Pascal Wehrlein is echoing his Manor predecessor Max Chilton, as he is only driver to have completed every race this season but without scoring a point.
At Force India, Nico Hulkenberg has scored points in last two events, the first time he has finished in the top ten in back-to-back races in 2016, but his teammate Sergio Perez saw his own a four-race scoring streak end in Canada. Esteban Gutierrez has out qualified and out raced Romain Grosjean in last two races, but is still yet to score for Haas F1.
Although many drivers up and down the grid are coming under increasing pressure to deliver good performances, two men who hold unenviable recent records are Jolyon Palmer and Daniil Kvyat. The Russian driver is yet to out qualify any teammate in 2016, as he failed to beat Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying while at Red Bull and has been out qualified by Carlos Sainz so far at Toro Rosso, while Palmer has only completed 23 racing laps in last two races thanks to his crash in Monaco and mechanical failure in Montreal.
What do you expect from this weekend’s European Grand Prix? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the the JAonF1 Facebook page for more discussion.