For the second time Formula 1 cars will navigate the contrasting city of Baku, which last year hosted the European Grand Prix, and this year hosts the first Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Modern buildings exist alongside ancient castles and F1 cars will race down long, wide roads and snake between the relics of the ancient world, where the track contracts sharply. It will provide an interesting test.
This circuit is one of Formula 1’s rare counter-clockwise venues, featuring three 90-degree left-handers in a row. The long stretch from turn 19, through the gentle curve that is turn 20 and the main straight, is a prime location for Mercedes and Ferrari to show just how much better their engines are than anyone else’s, and the run to turn 1 will be a prime overtaking opportunity. Turn 3 might also be a chance; beyond that, the way the track tightens as it winds through old streets will make it a challenge for anyone to make a move, especially with the wider cars of this year. The squiggly sequence that is turns 8-12 gives way to a series of increasingly sharp left corners, and then there’s only a handful of curves before hitting the fastest section of the track.
Last year Nico Rosberg won with ease here, whilst Lewis Hamilton put his car into the wall during qualifying to effectively end his chances of victory before a wheel had turned in anger. Baku will be unforgiving, and even more so given the wider cars and higher speeds. Much of the track is surrounded by barriers and they will ruin tyres and bodywork if contact is made, so precision driving is the key.
Given the nigh-impossible to predict nature of the season so far, it’s too close to call as to whether we’ll see a Ferrari or Mercedes victory. A lot of people thought Mercedes would struggle in Canada, yet they managed to make the ultra-soft tyres (one of the compounds on offer this weekend) work pretty well. On the other hand, the strong overall nature of Ferrari’s design might serve them well in the messy middle sector. We shall find out.