In a closely fought season one race can make a big difference. Lewis Hamilton’s win at the last outing in Canada now puts him back to within 12 points of leader Sebastian Vettel and with crucial momentum ahead of the highly anticipated Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Baku returns to the F1 calendar for a second time in 2017 after its inaugural staging last season.
The track layout hasn’t changed this year and set in the historical capital the 6 kilometre / 3.7 mile Baku City Circuit twists its way around the old city centre before opening up for a long straight adjacent to the picturesque seaside promenade.
Baku is now the third street circuit in a row for the F1 drivers and offers a healthy mix of the best bits of Monaco and Canada – some tight, unforgiving sections combined with an unusually long straight.
Baku: Drab or Exciting?
Few knew what to expect leading into the first race at Baku in 2016 and the raft of accidents during practice and qualifying hinted at an exciting contest.
But it turned out to be a somewhat dour affair in part because of the lack of overtaking opportunities around the narrow corners and in other part because the dominant Mercedes engine meant Rosberg could cruise away on the endless straight with his superior horsepower.
This year is a different prospect with Ferrari at least matching Mercedes on race pace and arguably getting better performance in warmer weather. With Baku set to be hot this weekend an enticing head-to-head battle could ensue, influenced in good measure by team strategy.
The track itself is a little unusual – not least because it is anti-clockwise – and opens with a rectangular section featuring consecutive 90 degree corners around Turns 1, 2 and 3, while Turns 8, 9 and 10 around the narrow uphill section at the old town wall create stunning views but limits overtaking with the track being only two car widths wide.
Sector 3 is perhaps the most crucial area of the track. The high-speed Turn 15 launches the cars into the Turn 16 left-hander and the long seaside straight to Turn 1. At almost 2.2 kilometres, the cars will push the throttle to bone shaking speeds. Last year saw Bottas, then sitting in a Williams, hit 378km/h (235mph) – the fastest ever recorded speed of a F1 car at a race.
McLaren’s Fernando Alonso said: “Baku City Circuit is the fastest street track on the calendar, so from a driver’s perspective it’s really exciting to be racing at such high speeds with the walls closing in on you either side.”
The Mercedes “Diva”
Mercedes come to Azerbaijan on the back of a strong race in Canada and an important win for Hamilton.
While reinvigorated, the Englishman will know that Baku won’t be an easy task after his 2016 race turned into a disaster with engine settings forcing him to limp around the track.
In the lead-up to the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, team boss Toto Wolff is alert to their challenges but full of praise for Hamilton.
“Lewis is in the best place I have seen him during any of the five years since he joined the team,” said Wolff.
“Not only because he had a great weekend in Montreal – but because he is coping so well with difficult days.”
Mercedes have been rattled with inconsistency already this campaign and Wolff described the season as a “rollercoaster ride”.
“It’s a long championship. There will be weekends that are good and ones that are not so good. It’s about making the best out of it each time.”
“In terms of the car, we’ve joked about it being a bit of a diva. But it’s a good car – though sometimes it can be difficult.”
“This is something we have to accept so that we can understand and appreciate the many positive characteristics that it has. I believe our car is the fastest on the grid and I wouldn’t want any other.”