Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Preview

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Following Formula One’s 1000th race in Shanghai, China a fortnight ago, the sport makes a long trip to Baku for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Round 4 of the 2019 FIA F1 Championship.

Azerbaijan has a short history in Formula One. The country hosted its first ever race in 2016. It first appeared as the European GP, but it changed its name to the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in the following year. The event is organized by Baku City Circuit Operation Company.
Former F1 President and CEO Bernie Ecclestone suggested in December 2013 that a race in Azerbaijan would take place in the coming years. In July of the following year, it was announced that the race would make its debut in 2016.

The six km, anti-clockwise layout of the track was designed by the Hermann Tilke-led group. The circuit was projected to the be second longest track on the current calendar behind the 7km-long Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. With the track being in the heart of the city, drivers travel by some of the iconic buildings and places of Baku. The track layout runs alongiside sights such as the Azadliq Square, the Old City, the Neftchilar Avenue, the Government House and the Maiden Tower.

The first race was controlled and won by Nico Rosberg after the German took pole position the day before. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Force India’s Sergio Perez joined him on the podium. In the qualifying session for the race, Williams’ Valtteri Bottas set a new unofficial top speed record. The Grove-based team claimed that its Finnish driver reached 378km/h, eclipsing the previous record of 372km/h of Juan Pablo Montoya set in 2005 for McLaren while testing in Monza.

Most successful drivers and teams

The three races in Baku had three different winners. It was Nico Rosberg who dominated the race in the inaugural year while the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix saw Daniel Ricciardo take the victory with his Red Bull. Last year, Lewis Hamilton emerged as winner after fighting with the balance of his car over the entire weekend, but he managed to make profit of Sebastian Vettel’s and Valtteri Bottas’ misfortunes.

The results leave Mercedes the most successful outfit in the history of the fastest street race with Red Bull the only other team with a Baku win. As there are no drivers with multiple victories, the race is on between Hamilton and Ricciardo to claim the title of the first driver to take repeated Azerbaijan GP wins.

Despite having failed to win a race in Baku, Sebastian Vettel holds the official lap record. The German clocked in a laptime of 1m43.441 in 2017.

Track characteristics

The Baku track is the fastest street circuit on the calendar. 6.003 kilometres in length. The track features long straights and right-angle turns. That makes engine power a key requirement, while drivers have to brush the walls in search of a quick lap, using every inch of the track. One conundrum is how to keep the brakes and tyres up to temperature, as they cool down more than usual on the long straights.

The start-finish straight plays probably the biggest role in the fame of the Baku street circuit. The map of the track is a bit deceptive as it lists turns 17, 18, 19 and 20, however, all of these bends are taken flat out. The section is 2.2km-long and drivers can reach 350 km/h with the DRS activated.

The first four turns are very similar, with all being 90-degree corners and with drivers approaching all these bends after a heavy breaking zone. These section with straights and slow corners give the first sector a stop-and-go nature.

Turn 5 and 6 build the first chicane of the cirucit. With Turn 7, drivers arrive to the Old Town of Baku. The layout gets incredible und uncomfortably tight with daunting walls confining the middle sector. The next two turns build another chicane which is probably the tightest section on the entire F1 calendar. Rushing through the tight corners with huge speeds requires perfect concentration from drivers.

The following section between Turn 12 and 16 features straights and quicker corners. This part of the circuit is a bit wider, but, with the speed increasing, the unforgiving walls are still observing every movement of drivers and are ready to punish them for every tiny mistake. With Turn 16, the 2.2-km-long full-throttle section begins where drivers do not lift the throttle in search of the best top-speed on the never-ending start-finish straight.

Tyre selection

Pirelli will supply the teams with the C4, C3 and C2 compounds. Interestingly, Ferrari picked a the least amount from Pirelli's C4 soft tyres in the entire field. In contrast to the Scuderia's allocation of seven set of C4 compound for both its drivers, some team including Red Bull, McLaren and Force India ordered ten sets.