By Steve Aibel, Senior F1 Writer
The Formula 1 World Championship brings the country of Azerbaijan to the world, hosting the European Grand Prix on a brand new city circuit in the capital of Baku. Situated in a small corridor connecting Europe and the Middle East, racing in Azerbaijan has been hyped since it was announced as a new location and finalized on the 2016 F1 race schedule with many of the teams and drivers looking forward to the event for over a year now.
Azerbaijan is an oil rich country that was previously part of the USSR. It has been called the “City of Wind” which could potentially affect some of the drive-ability in the DRS zones.
The racetrack is described as the “fastest city circuit in the world” combining the speed of Monza with the tight, twisty feel of Monaco. That’s a delicate combination and we are starting the see the growing pains of this new venue.
The track is long! Only Spa in Belgium is longer on the F1 calendar. The circuit is generally split into a wider, faster section and a tighter portion filled with 90 degree turns and tight twisty corners navigating around a castle.
The Sabayil castle has been estimated to have been built between 1232 and 1233 and was reduced to rubble and submerged by a major earthquake in 1306. There is quite a bit of local lore surrounding the historical site and F1 will add to an already classic part of history. Plain and simple, the castle adds to the mystique of the circuit. It’s past can be explored at the following link: Castle on Baku F1 Circuit
Cool castles aside, the circuit will ultimately be judged by the quality of racing in Baku. After three practice sessions and qualifying, we have seen action all over the circuit. The narrow sections have shown their teeth with cars crashing into walls within the twisty bits. The long straight is magnificent, allowing F1 cars to stretch their formidable legs and reach top speeds over 220 mph through the speed traps.
The circuit starts with a long drag down to a series of four, 90 degree turns. The first turn will be a common overtaking zone, but with the straights being so long, many of the passes will occur before turn 1. Valtteri Bottas showed the passing potential of this turn, dive-bombing Max Verstappen twice during qualifying. This will be where the majority of the passing action happens.
Verstappen was not happy with Bottas, but this will probably be the prime overtaking area and Bottas got an idea of how it will work. With the drivers bottled up for most of the lap, they won’t wait if they have an opportunity to pass in 1.
Turns 8-12 are very, very narrow. They will showcase the precise and patient nature of an F1 drivers….NOT…this is where things will get infinitely interesting especially in the early stages of the race. The cars will need to be single file through the uphill section of the castle and any lack of concentration will probably result in a multiple car traffic jam.
Once through the castle, the track unwinds again with a series of high speed, left hand sweepers that will allow the cars to approach 200 mph again. Turns 15 and 16 will lead the cars downhill and back to the long straightaway which is so much wider than the rest of the track.
Expect to see drafting here which should provide for some interesting maneuvers and passing opportunities.
The straights are where Mercedes have reaffirmed the superiority of their power units. The works Mercedes cars were almost one full second faster than the other Mercedes powered teams. They were almost 1.5 seconds ahead of the Renault (TAG-Heuer) powered Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo who will start on the front row next to Nico Rosberg.
For this reason, don’t expect Lewis Hamilton to stay stuck in his 10th place qualifying position for very long. Expect Hamilton to pick off, easily, 1 or 2 cars per lap once DRS limits are lifted and the cars are at full sail.
It is the high speed and narrow confines in Baku that have the drivers most concerned and rightfully so. The track has speeds which approach Monza but there are sections of the track that represent inchworm tunnels in their width. Nico Rosberg expressed concerns with the high speed access to the pitlane and certain concrete walls that did not appear protected by Tecpro barriers.
Fortunately, the sections of track where light speed is the norm are the wider segments, hopefully Charlie Whiting and the FIA have done their jobs and the drivers will be safe.
If there is a track that looks to be able to showcase the Mercedes package, this is it! Mercedes, however, have experienced brake issues in the past on how speed circuits which could hinder their party. Hamilton will factor into the sharp end much earlier than expected even though he starts within the mid pack. Force India and Williams should also play a role in the race for podium. Sergio Perez was exceptionally strong taking second position in qualifying but will shift back 5 spots due to a gearbox change necessary after his collision with the wall in Practice 3.
Any dark horses here? Watch Manor! If there is a high rate of high attrition, and they take advantage of their Mercedes power unit, this could be a track where we see a strong result. Maybe even points!
Baku is sure to be interesting so it you’re ready..Let’s Baku…and did I mention they have a castle?!