|The new round will take place near Baku's sea-front|
By Elkhan Jafarov - My computer, CC BY 3.0,
Now we have Azerbaijan, debuting on the F1 itinerary this weekend. And beware judging a book by its cover. The image presented will be one of an oil-rich capital of Baku, all high-end boutiques, smart eateries and elegant architecture - classical and modern - next to the lapping Caspian Sea. Indeed there have been plenty of efforts already to project that image. But, as was the case in those other host countries mentioned, beneath the veneer things become rather less savoury.
While the country is nominally a democracy there are considerable wider doubts about its human rights record, such as via authoritarianism, political corruption, potentially fraudulent elections and oppression of the Government's opposition, doubts about the freedom of the press and the impartiality of the political media coverage, state-sanctioned violence, the detention of political prisoners - including human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers and activists - and forcible home evictions.
It's a tale not entirely new, F1's visits to apartheid South Africa back in the day share a strong family resemblance, yet these days this kind of cringe is especially common. Bernie has always followed the money but our age of increasing costs, declining investment from sponsors (particularly from tobacco) and growing gaps in spectator areas means that the sport is ever more reliant on income from hosting fees. Add too that latterly CVC has provided a pitchfork at F1's back to maintain its thick bottom line.
|Other races, such as that in Bahrain, |
have had attached controversy
By Hamel Alrayeh (February 14 Media Group) [CC BY-SA
via Wikimedia Commons
It's not even a coincidence that this one is titled the 'European Grand Prix', as the regime is keen to promote Baku as a European centre (though whether it's actually in Europe at all is a matter that can be debated). For these reasons the familiar line of defence at such moments, that 'sport and politics shouldn't mix', surely does not apply.
It was hardly unforeseen either as the country hosted the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest and exactly the same concerns and controversies were raised, as they were in its staging of the 2015 European Games in athletics. As Bloomer added, "Azerbaijan has got form".
You wonder where it might end too. I'm put in mind of the team principals' press conference that took place in Hungary in 2014, the very same weekend in which the Azerbaijan round was officially confirmed. After several minutes of ducking and weaving from the assembled head honchos on the matter of race hosts, someone asked 'Would you accept a Grand Prix in North Korea?' A good question, one that wasn't answered then. And it still hasn't been.
|The lack of sponsors in F1 is conspicuous|
Photo: Octane Photography
Sadly also there are reasons to think that we won't be compensated albeit partially by strong local enthusiasm this weekend in Baku. The circuit's grandstand capacity is rather limited at 28,000, and a recent report had even so less than 10% of the tickets being sold.
|The track takes in Baku's ancient city walls|
By Urek Meniashvili (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0
by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Set-up balancing grip in the tight twisty stuff and speed in the extended full-pelt section will be a challenge and those with good mechanical grip will be well set. Red Bull excels in this, as it does on traction. Yet the mile-plus full throttle zone will likely be more regrettable to the Milton Keynes squad, as seen in Canada when, despite looking reasonable through the speed traps, Max Verstappen admitted that the Bulls had to trim out their set-up so not to lose out on the long straights, and it seemed to show in competitiveness. The Renault unit even with its recent improvements doesn't have the acceleration nor top end urge of the Merc or Ferrari.
But in a variation from Canada temperatures are expected to be hot in Baku (in addition rain is thought less likely than in the Bahrain round) and therefore warm Friday practice in Montreal, rather than chilly Saturday and Sunday, may be our better guide to Baku pace, and again that may be bad news for the Bulls. As Daniel Ricciardo said prior to the Canada race: "Cooler temperatures will help us...On Friday, we struggled a bit with the hotter track temperature."
|Ferrari are likely to be Mercedes's closest|
challenger once again
Photo: Octane Photography
While Ferrari is likely to maintain its place reclaimed in Canada as Mercedes's most probable irritant. In Montreal's Friday running it was a clear best of the rest behind the Merc, with it getting particularly close on race runs. Its new turbo had a clear positive impact while, whisper it, it might have got to the bottom of its tyre warm-up problems for a qualifying lap. In Canada its quali out-laps were aggressive and Sebastian Vettel's final qualifying mark was within two tenths of Hamilton's pole time, which is the closest he's got to the silver cars on a Saturday since their mysterious off weekend in Singapore last year. It was pointed out though that doing it again in hot conditions - which it will get this time - will be the real acid test as to whether it has this matter licked.
Ferrari should also lose little to the Merc in the extended full throttle zone - many at Merc say their respective power units are pretty much neck and neck - and as we've seen it has a reasonable chance of getting a jump on the Mercs off the start. Then all bets are off, assuming of course Ferrari gets its strategy right...
Mercedes remains clear favourite though and if this one is indeed like Montreal then it may be good news for Lewis Hamilton. Hustling a car between walls on a low grip surface, as well as big braking zones, all are quite his thing. He has the unmistakable sense of things going his way right now too.
|The Williams will be worth watching|
Photo: Octane Photography
As for the rest, a Montreal esque layout could be good news for the fast-through-the-air Williams, and Valtteri Bottas indeed bagged third place in Canada. Then there is Force India which also tends to go well on such tracks, indeed Sergio Perez started P5 in Spa last year with its lengthy top speed section and P7 in Russia this, on its low grip surface. McLaren may struggle however with its low top end speed - it ceded plenty in Montreal's speed trap - and there's reason to think that this one, again like Montreal, could be tough on fuel consumption.
Even with the softest compounds available tyre degradation has been very low in the last two rounds, aside from when the temperature dropped in Canada causing the tyres to grain, and as outlined such ambient temperature is not likely to be replicated in Baku. This time we may add that new surfaces (the local cobbled streets have been covered especially for the race, then apparently the tarmac will be scraped off afterwards) tend to have bitumen close to the top, which means they are rather like a sheet of glass and therefore degradation drops further (see Sochi visits quintessentially). As ever at new circuits too Pirelli has erred on the side of caution by - unlike in Monaco and Montreal - bringing the medium rather than the ultra-soft. Easy one-stoppers with low degradation therefore are probable, and teams appear to agree given they've in large part shunned the medium and piled up on the super-soft.
|Tyre wear could be low in Baku|
Photo: Octane Photography
The biggest challenge of all may prove to be logistical. Time was that new venues were never put back-to-back with another as simply there were too many logistical unknowns. That is a practice waived now it seems, and with two stop-offs that hardly are neighbours, given there are mere days between dismantling of camp in Canada and setting the circus up in Baku. Let's hope the previous practice doesn't show itself this time to be a good practice. Tom Butcher, who is overseeing the circuit's construction, has described this timing as the "biggest problem" for F1 setting up and believes that "those last few days will be chaos".
But then again, perhaps as outlined such things are the least of this round's problems.