Formula One returns to Baku after a gap of 14 months, having not taken place last year due to the COVID restrictions. The city of Baku blends history and modernity, where West meets East alongside the inland Caspian Sea which sits 28 meters below sea level. This makes Baku the lowest-lying capital city in the world, while also being colloquially labelled ‘the city of winds’ for the frequently gusty conditions.
A Little Bit about the Baku Race
The 2021 race will be the fifth race to be held on the street circuit of Baku and the fourth Azerbaijan Grand Prix (2017, 2018 and 2019; the 2016 race was labelled the European Grand Prix). The race has had its fair share of drama over the years and going into the fifth race of a season that has had one of the tightest championship fights to start with, we can expect a very exciting race ahead. One of the best ways to describe the Baku City Circuit layout is that it’s two tracks in one: half Monza and half Monaco. The big braking zones are characteristically similar to that of the Italian Grand Prix venue, while the Old City section is twisty and has a similar feel to the streets of Monte Carlo.
Getting the perfect scenario – immaculate balance of very low downforce on the straights with high downforce for the corners – is a tough one. This means the teams have to find the perfect configurations and generally opt for the medium-downforce configuration. The long straights make this Grand Prix the busiest lap of the year for the gearbox with drivers upshifting and downshifting gears up to 70 times! The circuit’s first sector includes long straights, heavy braking points and 90-degree corners. The middle section has the drivers make their way through the Old City past the castle section and includes the narrowest portion of a Formula One track with Turn 8 being just 7.6 meters wide.
The track has very short corners as the average steer angle is very low. This makes it a challenge to warm up the tyres. Generally, overtaking is extremely hard on street circuits, but that isn’t the case in Baku, with the last race here in 2019 having seen almost 40 overtakes (non-DRS assisted)!
A Couple of Things to Look Forward to
A Wounded Tiger – Red Bull taking the lead in both championships after the Monaco Grand Prix was the first time since 2018 Germany that Mercedes were on the back-foot, which just goes to show the incredible consistency the Brackley-based team has had over the years. Right from FP1, Mercedes were on the back-foot in Monaco, evident from Lewis Hamilton’s quail results. Although Valtteri Bottas tried to salvage what was turning out to be a tough race for the Silver Arrows, his shocker at the pit stop ended his and, effectively, his team’s chances for a podium.
Both team boss Toto Wolff and their talisman Lewis Hamilton have reiterated the fact that weekends like Monaco are important going ahead and the team will learn from it, but rarely have Mercedes had such a poor weekend. Even though they might be hurting from the Monaco disaster, the Baku street circuit isn’t your typical street circuit, which is what Mercedes should be positive about. This circuit is a combination of speed and downforce and Mercedes are certainly strong with both of those; long straights with a superior power unit will give the champions an edge. With the last two races at Baku won by Hamilton and Bottas, it will not be a surprise if the duo delivers another win for Mercedes.
Consolidating the Lead – Red Bull lead both championships for the first time since 2013, when Sebastian Vettel took his fourth championship along with his team. Having consistently taken the fight to the champions this season, Red Bull are favourites going in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. With Daniel Ricciardo, a previous winner here, Red Bull will fancy their chances to build on the lead they have. Both Red Bull and the other teams will know that off weekends like Monaco do not come very often for the champions and they will bounce back, so it is critical Red Bull don’t slip up and lose their advantage in the championship fight. The new aero rules have hindered Mercedes a bit and the Silver Arrow isn’t a car built to follow other cars, and that is where Red Bull must capitalise – qualification. A strong quail from both drivers will allow the championship leaders to fight together and counter Mercedes’ strategies.
Survival of the Fittest – The championship table this year, so far, can be divided into three sections – with the top two teams in a league of their own, followed by a close third-place battle between McLaren and Ferrari, who are then followed by an extremely competitive and fierce midfield battled among Aston Martin, AlphaTauri, Alpine and Alfa Romeo, who scored their first points in Monaco. The lower midfield is so close that Aston Martin’s double-points finish in Monaco leapfrogged them from 7th to 5th showcasing how competitive the midfield battle has been, although Alpha Tauri might just be the surprise package with their straight-line speed. Even though Ferrari might be coming off a podium, they have admitted podiums won’t be a regular occurrence. Although the Maranello-based team have made significant gains on their performance from last year, they still probably have only the fourth fastest car on the grid and their closest rivals McLaren, with that Mercedes engine, will definitely have the edge on them on this circuit.
Vettel’s return to form along with Alfa Romeo showcasing some promising speed has truly ignited the battle, with all the teams trying to extract that extra tenth to outperform their rivals. With plenty of overtaking opportunities, especially on the long run into Turn 1, it will be an interesting fight for the best amongst the rest.
Number of Laps – 51
Circuit Length – 6.003 km
Race Distance – 306.049 km
Lap Record – 1:43.009 (Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, 2019)
- Even though Red Bull go into the weekend as championship leaders, Mercedes will most likely leave Baku victorious.
- AlphaTauri have showcased their speeds on the long straights, especially last year when they took a shock win via Pierre Gasly at the Temple of Speed. The Faenza-based team are well capable of conjuring up a shock result in Baku.
- Even though the honey badger seems like a docile animal, it is known for its strength, toughness and ability to fight when pushed back. F1’s honey badger, Daniel Ricciardo, finds himself in a similar position, but as a previous winner here at Baku, one can expect him to bounce back – especially at a track where he can pull of some of his trademark overtakes.