Monday, 23 April 2018

Baku Preview: Contrast and potential

In 2016 F1 rocked up to a new street circuit in Baku, Azerbaijan, told to expect something "not like anything we've seen before in F1".

The Baku street circuit's challenges are unique
Photo: Pirelli Media
A lot of things have been seen before in F1 of course, but in fairness this track's challenges are somewhat detached from the modern norm. Not least in their contrasts.

A real downtown circuit. Plenty of near-to-hand walls. Much of the track claustrophobic with a twisty narrow section around the old city walls redolent of Mirabeau-Station Hairpin-Portiers at Monaco. Yet there's also a 2.1 km straight longer than anything at Monza. Appropriate for a city that likes to say it blends old and new; east and west...

Appropriately also on the basis of the two F1 races here things can go either way. We expected frolics aplenty in the first visit - safety cars and trips down narrow escape roads. Also an ultra generous DRS zone leaving even quick cars vulnerable to being overtaken, particularly on restarts. The GP2 rounds indeed gave us all of that.

The F1 race though was soporific - no safety cars and scarcely even any contact with a wall or opponent. Yet a year on it made up for it and then some with a crazy race wherein Daniel Ricciardo came from 17th place to win. It really depends if something sets it all off - as they like to say in America cautions breed cautions...

Something more typical was that the race's existence owed more to political than sporting enthusiasm, including seeking to sweeten a highly iffy local human rights record. Even by usual standards attendances in the stands have been pitiful, reflected by the TV feed's concerted effort to keep cameras pointed elsewhere.

Mercedes was well on top in Baku last year
 until fate intervened
Photo: Pirelli Media
At least it's dropped the fatuous - and entirely political - European Grand Prix nomenclature of its first visit. With the new ownership more minded of organic existence one wonders about this race's longer term future.

The combination of the extended flat out blast and twisty stuff elsewhere rewards both a strong engine and good mechanical grip. The latter point may be bad news for Mercedes. As one internet wag had it if the 2017 Merc was a diva then this year's is Goldilocks - Bahrain's qualifying was too hot for its tyre handling and China's was too cold.

Baku - warm but not excessively so in April - may provide its eventual salvation. Yet a major factor for everyone in last year's race was tyres going too cold behind the safety car, which may further punish a Merc that struggles to get tyres into the 'window'. Mercedes has insisted however that other teams too, including Ferrari, are not always getting the full range of tyres to work either.

Mercedes - in Lewis Hamilton's hands at least - dominated this year's Melbourne round also run on a temporary circuit and was well on top in Baku last year (Lewis's pole time was more than a second clear of the nearest non-Merc) before fate took hand. While acrobatic dodging between walls is usually just Lewis's thing (he beat Valtteri Bottas last year by over four tenths in qualifying). He comes off two poor rounds but his troughs don't last forever.

Ferrari meanwhile has shown so far that it's strong on all types of track seemingly, including - in a crucial departure from last year - on a qualifying lap. It likely will be a formidable foe.

Daniel Ricciardo won last year's crazy
Baku race from the back
Photo: Pirelli Media
F1 in 2018 is a tough call between the big three teams of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull - to wit all three at some point had the Chinese Grand Prix in their apparent control.

The extended Baku straight likely is bad news for Red Bull and its still lacking Renault engine. Then again it won here last year; Ricciardo having dropped to the back after an early pitstop to clear debris made some thrilling overtakes into turn 1 after safety car periods thanks partly to his own skills and opportunism but partly too that the Red Bull was effective in heating its tyres up. In other words, if it all kicks off again in this year's race Red Bull will be one to watch.

And if quick thinking in a madcap race is required then that's good news for the Bulls too, see China. And it's bad news for the Mercs - you can make a case that it's lost all three race wins this year via strategy failures.

Then there is Max Verstappen, who has been scrappy this season. Baku isn't the first place you'd choose when needing a nice clean weekend, and certainly in some previous Monaco visits he's not been adept at keeping his car out of the barriers. Then again Max is another for whom bouncing back surely is a matter of time.

The effective B class in midfield is an even tougher call than up front, though it does have one perennial in Nico Hulkenberg in the Renault who has been consistent and superb this year. Kevin Magnussen in the Haas is encroaching similar status while we can expect Fernando Alonso to make the best of things as usual - he's often masterful at emerging ahead when frolics are all around him.

Sauber made hay last year after pitting under the safety car
Photo: Pirelli Media
Force India showed signs of a pulse in China and this sort of track usually suits it. It might even have got a one-two here last year had Esteban Ocon not wiped out his team-mate Sergio Perez, while Checo actually set the second quickest qualifying time in 2016, and recovered to finish third after a gearbox grid penalty. Toro Rosso's Honda is likely to be breathless on the long straight.

It may be worth looking further back too. As with the problems of cold tyres after safety car periods mentioned Sauber last year was able to pit for heated tyres under the caution as it wasn't going to lose track position in any case, and was thus able to attack cars ahead under green. It may be an option for whoever brings up the rear this time - most likely Sauber or Williams.

If the race is anything like last year's then strategy will be on the hoof in response to external events. Otherwise an easy one-stopper was expected in '17 but this year Pirelli's gone one softer and brought the ultra-soft, in its default aim of two-stoppers. All competitors have piled high on the compound too.

Then again given where we are - as well as how this season is going - things could turn out to be in contrast of what we thought. And as Carl Jung told us, the greater the contrast the greater the potential.

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