By Bob Constanduros
Canada seems a long long time ago – well, it’s certainly 8,900 kilometers away. Apparently. But staring over the sunny Caspian sea at breakfast this morning, with a faintly ‘Turkish’ feeling, meant that the St Lawrence Seaway and the cool temperatures of Montreal were far from the 30 degrees we can expect here.
As I say, there’s a slight feeling of being back in Turkey again. There is some interesting architecture in Azerbaijan’s capital although arriving at 12.30 at night meant we didn’t see too much of it, particularly as some areas were totally dark while others were well-lit – perhaps a legacy of Azerbaijan’s financial problems following the collapse of the oil price.
Most of us had one night at home between Canada and here, some none at all. There were two Korean charters that came overnight from Montreal on Monday but for most people it was home, change suitcases and back to the airport to take a wide variety of flights to get here.
I was one of the lucky ones to have two nights at home, leaving directly after the Canadian Grand Prix. My dramas started post-race in Montreal. I knew it would be a rush to get to the airport, but it actually went very smoothly until about a mile from the airport where there was a traffic queue. That was slow moving; check-in was fine but then came a 30 minute queue through security. As Air Canada had twice moved its direct London flight forward, I had opted for a flight via Toronto and this was delayed due to high winds, leaving me just 30 minutes to make the connection. I made it but my case didn’t, eventually appearing on Tuesday afternoon.
Within 24 hours, I was at Gatwick for a cheap flight to Baku via Kiev, both new to me. Gatwick was heaving but once again, my flight was delayed. This was caused by the need for passengers boarding flights to cross the walkways of passengers arriving. They came off a Virgin Atlantic flight but then there was an hour delay while a wheelchair passenger was loaded into his complicated wheelchair and taken off the flight. One person delayed 250; second runway, Gatwick? Seems to you can’t run one runway so no chance.
So there wasn’t much time at Kiev but we made it after another 30 minute queue for security, and the plane pushed back absolutely on time. Eventually arrived at the media hotel at 2.30 in the morning, and up this morning seven hours later.
What awaits us? The last European Grand Prix was at Valencia of course, where there were more corners than at any other circuit on the calendar. At 20 corners, Baku is getting close to that count but they are all very much 90 degree jobs with the fastest at just over 100mph. There is a massive 2.1 kilometer straight here on what is the second longest circuit on the calendar behind Spa. No one is quite sure of the exact length but it is just over six kilometres. In 30 degree heat, I might not walk it today if you’ll excuse me although this City of Wind might be able to provide a cooling breeze if one that de-stabilises the cars at high speed. At least it’s not at altitude; it’s actually 28 meters below sea level.
So it is a bit twisty and turney and of course, being a street circuit, there are few run-offs, the apex here and there looking like Molecombe corner at Goodwood: solid wall. So no margin for error again, for the third race running. No doubt back at Renault they are on double time; I’m afraid their pair of drivers are getting through spare parts at a fair old rate. Only one race to go, chaps.
Just going back to that straight, remember that teams chose their gear ratios at the beginning of the year so the eighth gear used at Monaco – briefly – will be the same one used here and at Monza, for instance, so it’s going to be a bit like racing Formula BMW at Shanghai: sit on the straight at full revs and wait for the end. Sure, they’re going to be using skinny wings, but they’ll need downforce for the twisty bits so you can’t lose it all. It is going to be the most power-related circuit of the year, and Red Bull reckon their deficit could cost them over a second on that straight alone. It’s also tough on fuel consumption and even brakes, so it’s going to be the usual compromise.
Teams get pretty detailed GPS maps of circuits and they will have looked at this one closely, but it’s only when you actually walk the circuit that you find out where the bumps are and how high are the kerbs. Drivers have already done loads of laps on the simulator, so there shouldn’t be too many surprises in terms of layout, but one part of this anti-clockwise circuit – in Baku’s old city – is particularly narrow, with only two cars widths. That should make it interesting.
After seven races – one third of the championship – the series is finely poised after Lewis Hamilton’s back-to-back wins in Monaco and Montreal. But it’s quite obvious that it is no longer a Lewis versus Nico contest; Red Bull can be right in there as can Ferrari if only they would get their tactics right. Sure, Williams can star on occasions as they did in Montreal, and there are others in the mix as well such as Force India and Toro Rosso but basically we’re looking at a three-way battle between Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull. Of course, we’re still waiting for Mercedes to be actually beaten on the circuit but this race could be where it’s done. GP2 are also running here – just two events – so the marshals could be very busy with what is basically a very green track with new tarmac covering old cobbles in some sections.
Pirelli are bringing a conservative range of tyres, the same trio as in the first four Grands Prix of the year with supersoft, soft and medium but some drivers have completely rejected the harder compound. It could well be a one-stop race which is never ideal. It’s also a race that is later in the day, due to begin here at 17.00hrs – post Le Mans. Don’t miss a bit of it.