After a brief jaunt around the narrow streets of Monaco another street circuit was up next. The city of Baku in Azerbaijan has hosted F1 Grands Prix since 2016, though the inaugural event was called the Baku Grand Prix, which is legally a separate event to the Azerbaikan Grand Prix, despite being held at exactly the same location.
The track reflects the nature of the city it passes through. The sharp angles of the eastern portion of the circuit pass through modern streets and past modern buildings, whilst the western section features threading the car through historic structures, particularly the nail-biting 8-12 section, where the track abruptly narrows and you pass through a castle. The smooth curves after turn 16 allow you to accelerate hard and then you’re onto one of the longest, fastest sections of track in F1.
I discovered two things about this track. Firstly, in dry conditions I loved it. Practice sessions when smoothly and in both Q1 and Q2 I pumped in some very good laps. In Q3 I was half a second down on Max Verstappen’s pole time, but then I went out for a final run and knocked him off pole! Whereas Monaco had been horrendous, Azerbaijan and the Baku streets were, so far, proving to be a lot kinder. So far.
The race started reasonably well. I fell back to second, behind Verstappen, and trailed for a couple of laps before getting by him under DRS, down the inside of turn 3. From there I began to pull away and I looked extremely comfortable. After lacking in this kind of pace for several races, I started to believe a win was very much on. The yellow-walled medium tyres were holding out quite well, and I was easing into a gap of some 15 seconds. I could afford to take things easy, but then the weather decided to mix things up.
The announcement of impending rain changed my dry tyre strategy, which led to my second discovery. Initially my second stint was to have been on another set of mediums, but I opted for the softs, and pumped in some quick laps (including setting the fastest lap of the race), until the rain came and inters went on. In the damp conditions I lost time to Bottas and Verstappen and found myself holding a gap of around five seconds. In the wet conditions turn 15 was proving to a nightmare beyond all imagination, and I will freely admit to using the flashback system quite a few times to avoid front wing damage. After all, I am playing a game, I want to draw satisfaction from said game, and taking what I felt was unnecessary damage because of ridiculous braking expectations was not on the cards. I had dominated the race, and a decision to pit for full wets right before my chief rivals ensured I had a 22-second gap with some 12 or so laps remaining.
That gap quickly shrunk. I did take some minor damage and the car’s handling began to suffer. I had to slow a lot more to make it through the laps, and in the end this led to an exciting – and annoying (hence more flashbacks) final lap, with Bottas trying to squeeze around the outside of the fast corners leading to turn 15, and me stubbornly refusing to let him pass. Verstappen was right in the mix as well, and barely more than 0.1 seconds separated me from Bottas as we crossed the finish line. I had won my first race, and the first for Meerkat Racing, and yes, one might argue that the flashbacks mean I’m not doing this properly, but like I said, I am racing to enjoy it. I greatly admire the players who can crank the AI to max and race with none of the assists, but that’s not me.
Anyway, the result meant I (and the team) leapt up the standings, but spare a thought for Lewis Hamilton, who retired at the end of lap seven with an engine failure. Bottas is now even further ahead in the standings, more than a victory clear, and it seems no one is going to prevent him from the most unlikely of championships.
A 35-point lead is hardly insurmountable with the number of remaining races, but both Verstappen and Hamilton face a huge battle to close that gap, especially if Bottas continues his form. Canada is next. Who will produce what?