A small piece of history will be made this weekend as Azerbaijan plays host to F1 competition for the first time with the 2016 Formula 1 Grand Prix of Europe. The all-new Baku City Circuit promises to be the fastest street track the sport has ever seen, and while drivers have thus far only been able to walk and drive it on simulators, one thing is clear – it promises to be a race like no other…
First impressions count
At 6.003 kilometres, Baku City Circuit is the second longest track of the season, and drivers will be on full throttle for 56 percent of it. Packing such a long track into such a tight place has resulted in a design that places big demands on the drivers. Notably, the apex in Turn 8 is a medieval wall and the track is only two car widths’ wide, while the deceptively fast Turn 15 left-hander will demand similar precision due to the proximity of the walls and much higher speeds.
It will also be hard on the cars. While the brakes won’t take as much of a beating as they did in Canada, Baku will work the ERS systems hard, and, like the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve, fuel consumption will be high at 2.1 kg per lap.
As far as reconnoitring is concerned, teams have gathered a lot of simulator data, allowing the drivers a digital taste of what to expect.
“From the sim, the first thing that stands out when you look at the Baku circuit layout is the long straight that goes from Turn 16 to Turn 1,” is Daniil Kvyat’s appraisal. “The start of the lap consists of four 90-degree corners and after that it gets very exciting: we drive through the city’s historic centre, which looks like being a very tight section, where we will need to be very precise.
“There’s another fast section through Turns 13, 14 and 15 and I think the braking into Turn 15 will be quite tricky… We will see when we get there! After that you arrive at Turn 16, a medium-speed 90-degree turn, and you don’t brake again until you reach the first corner. This track reminds me a bit of the Valencia Street Circuit.”
And while other teams have even sent personnel out in advance, there will be no substitute for experiencing the real thing. Having a new circuit on the calendar always adds spice as it puts everyone on a more level playing field, at least to begin with.
The biggest deal about Baku is that it will be so quick. It will be the fastest street track in F1’s history, much of that due to the main straight which is expected to be the longest of the season. A maximum velocity of 340 km/h is expected there. That compares favourably with Monza, where the corresponding figure on a pure race track is 360 km/h.
That main straight features the first of the circuit’s two DRS zones, the second coming just a couple of corners later on the back straight. Both share a single detection point, just prior to the first zone, at Turn 20.
It should also be noted, however, that given the newness of everything, the asphalt will be oily and slippery initially before the grip levels improve as the surface rubbers in.
“The 30-degree heat will be a welcome contrast to the 12 degrees on the pit wall during Sunday’s race in Canada!” Mercedes’ executive director (technical) Paddy Lowe says. “Combine those high temperatures with a low-downforce circuit configuration, freshly laid tarmac and the unknown quantity of a new venue, and we’re set for an entertaining weekend ahead. The early sessions will see a lot of cars sliding around on track – which is great for the spectacle, even if the drivers will inevitably be complaining!
“Are Ferrari ready to win?
They might have potentially squandered victory in Canada, but Sebastian Vettel was in a great mood afterwards as he defended Ferrari in a major dig at the manner in which the Italian press covers the Scuderia’s exploits.
“I think Ferrari stands for great passion and a lot of values in Italy and sometimes it seems like the Italian press is our biggest opponent,” was his verdict after the race. “So, maybe you can write something nice, which would be a nice message for all the people in Maranello that are really working their arses off day in, day out to make a strong Ferrari car.
“I know this car is a big step up and I think we had a mixed-up start to the season which was difficult because we were never really in the position to show what the car can deliver. We had a great Saturday and great pace today. Just look at the opening laps of the race. I was pulling a gap to… maybe not so much to Lewis but to all the cars behind. The car felt great all weekend.
“I’m really happy with the progress. The team is on a great path, things are improving and I think we’re seeing results quicker than anyone else so far in the history of F1. So, I think we’re on the right track.”
On one where everyone starts from zero, watch out for the prancing horses.
Once more unto the breach for Mercedes
After taking each other out in Spain, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg touched again in Canada – with the latter forced to take to the run-off, ultimately sending him tumbling from third to ninth at the start.
“Canada unfortunately didn’t work out as planned,” Rosberg says, “but that’s how things go when you’re pushing the limits and I’m not going to change my approach or start backing down. I’m in this championship battle to win it – not to settle for second best.
“Now we head to Baku, which is going to be a massive challenge. It’s a completely new track and a street circuit too, which makes it even more difficult. I’ve done some work in the simulator, of course, to get a feel for what to expect and to learn the layout. Ferrari and Red Bull are very close to our pace now, so any tiny difference we can find this weekend could make the difference.”
Meanwhile, Hamilton is riding Cloud Nine, staggered by just how quickly circumstances have propelled him back into title contention after his difficult start to the season. The gap between him and Rosberg was once 43 points, now it’s only nine.
“I could never have predicted I’d be back at the sharp end of the title fight so soon,” he says. “But we’re starting to have cleaner weekends and are showing real strength as a unit – coming through with results even when things aren’t perfect. That’s a big confidence boost for everyone. Winning is our lives – it’s what we work all day for and go to bed dreaming of
.”Will the long main straight hurt Red Bull?
Red Bull’s Dr Helmut Marko has been pessimistic in the build-up to this weekend in Baku, believing that notwithstanding the progress Renault have made with their powertrain, his cars will be at a disadvantage on the long straight.
“The extremely long straight will not benefit us,” he says. “Our computer simulations showed we will lose 1.2s per lap there. This is almost impossible to make up in the corners, though we have an outstanding car.”
So outstanding, that he still believes that Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen will be racing on the same level as Mercedes and Ferrari this weekend.
McLaren braced for a tough weekend
Despite Fernando Alonso’s great performance in making Q3 in Canada, there was disappointment when the McLaren faded out of points contention in the race. Baku may not suit the car, either.
“The Canada weekend started relatively well, but in the race we were outpaced by stronger teams,” the Spaniard admits. “It was difficult to maintain heat in the tyres in cooler temperatures, which meant they didn’t perform as well, so we struggled.
“Some of Baku’s characteristics are similar, and despite being a street circuit will still be very demanding on power units and chassis. But we’ll attack the weekend in our usual way.”
Kvyat under pressure to shine
The last time Daniil Kvyat raced in front of his fellow countrymen, in Russia at the start of May, things didn’t work out so well. Now, at another track where a large number of Russian spectators are expected, he has a chance to put behind him difficult races in Spain, Monaco and Canada – which were not helped by super-strong showings by new team mate Carlos Sainz in the sister STR11 – following his enforced switch from Red Bull to Toro Rosso.
“As it’s a street circuit it will require plenty of work on the pedals and with the steering wheel, and that’s always exciting,” Kvyat says. “You are looking for new ‘tricks’ in your driving style on a street circuit, because the driver has more freedom in terms of how he approaches the corners, experimenting with different lines.
“It will definitely be an interesting challenge that I’m ready for! I expect there will be a lot of Russian fans making the trip to Baku and I will have plenty of support from the crowd. It’s going to be cool.”
The real question, however, is whether he will remain so.
One-stopping looks likely – but strategies are all guess work for now
Pirelli are bringing their medium, soft and supersoft tyres, last seen in Sochi, for this brand new track where grip evolution will be dramatic.
“We’ve heard lots of interesting things about the circuit, and it seems that its character, lap length, and speed will certainly make it stand out,” says their motorsport director, Paul Hembery. “Obviously it’s never easy when you go to a circuit for the first time, but the conditions and the tyres are of course as always the same for everyone. The selection of compounds we have nominated should cope with a wide range of potential conditions; now of course it is down to the teams to get the most out of their choices and to identify the best possible strategies.”
The more familiar the teams become with Baku City Circuit, the clearer the possible strategies will become, so expect plenty of running throughout practice. Given the tight nature of parts of the track, the expected high speeds and the proximity of the walls, strategists will be factoring in likely safety car deployments, too.
Given Pirelli’s relatively conservative tyre compound choices, one-stop strategies are likely.
The race starts at 1700 hours local time (1300 GMT), and runs over 51 laps.