Azerbaijan Preview – By Bob Constanduros

Round eight of this year’s World Championship is the first Azerbaijan Grand Prix at Baku, now re-named after being the somewhat ambiguously named the 23rd European Grand Prix last year. It is a circuit with many attributes but one which has its unique demands – as every circuit does.

Not surprisingly, some of the safety measures have been tweaked since last year, but there are no major changes. In spite of being a street circuit – and actually below 24m below sea level – it is still the second longest circuit in the calendar, a full kilometre shorter than Spa but just 112m longer than Silverstone. And it still has the longest straight of the year at 2.1kms where last year Williams clocked Valtteri Bottas at 378kph, 234.8mph with a tow. In the race, Hamilton did 364kph but those sort of speeds are not expected this weekend thanks to the new regulations which cause more drag.

But the straight and two DRS zones allowed a remarkable amount of overtaking: 20 normal overtakes and 47 aided by DRS which meant that pole position or a top grid position wasn’t vital to top race order finish. Sergio Perez, for instance, qualifying second, had a five place gearbox penalty to start seventh and then fought back up to third. Lewis Hamilton had a miserable weekend – remember the rumours of his ‘paddy’? – started tenth and finished fifth, while Jenson Button started 19th and finished 11th.

After watching a lively GP2 race – there are two F2 races this year – everyone was pretty sure that there must surely be a safety car period during the Grand Prix itself but that actually never materialised. (There were only four retirements). Instead, it became a one stop race for the first six and is likely to be so again this year, with drivers chosing between red supersoft Pirellis and then moving to yellow softs; the white mediums are unlikely to be used much.

It is, therefore, the first of two low to medium downforce circuits ahead of Spielberg. It favours that straightline speed but then there are the more technical parts of the circuit. It is medium tough on brakes but fuel consumption is quite high as is energy recovery useage.

We’re now in the middle of the season, with the Austrian/British double-header coming up next, so things can change pretty rapidly for any team that’s not right on top of things. The battle between Ferrari and Mercedes has swung to and fro for the seven races up to now and there is still a long way to go. The pressure is relentless as are the demands for constant development.

It’s hard to say who will be on top in Baku of the two teams dominating the championship. As mentioned, Hamilton had a miserable weekend here last year, but his teammate at the time, Nico Rosberg, dominated with what is called the Grand Chelem: pole, fastest lap and leading every lap. We saw a remarkable comeback from Mercedes and Hamilton at the last race so there’s no reason to think that Lewis is not on top of his game, whatever happened last year. And don’t judge the team until after qualifying; Mercedes seem to have a remarkable talent for turning up the engine when they need to.

We would therefore expect to see Ferrari looking competitive throughout Friday and Saturday but with Mercedes gaining increasingly. Ferrari do seem to have a constantly competitive car but a year ago they were only fourth and fifth here in qualifying and beginning to drop the ball. They seem to be more competitive this year – if they can keep up the pressure and that’s what seems to have happened so far.

This was a good one for Force India last year and after their performance in Canada – whatever the politics – you would have to bet on them again, depending on Ferrari’s capabilities. This kind of low to medium downforce circuit is to Force India’s liking and also to Williams’s last year – but Red Bull don’t expect to be that competitive on this kind of circuit in spite of their recent improvements. It wasn’t a good one last year for Toro Rosso either, both of whose cars retired. There’s a bit of aggro there at the moment as well over who tows who and where; if one of the drivers needs a tow in Baku’s streets, they may not get one.

There are a few stories circulating at the moment which will need to be followed up. Principal among those are the departure of Monisha Kaltenborn. This is sad; she has proved to be capable and popular and she has been a good leader of the team. But the fly in the ointment seems to be someone called Pascal Picci, the chairman of the Sauber Group who is scarcely a regular sight around the Grand Prix paddocks and it seems a clash of personalities with him has cost the popular Austrian her job. There are lots of rumours of a potential replacement team principal, but an autocratic chairman won’t be an attractive job prospect to people who can run racing teams.

Elsewhere, we have heard the rumours of an eleventh team to enter the championship, not quite confirmed by FIA president Jean Todt, but this is something for 2019 and investors will have to appreciate that they won’t get anything back – apart from sponsorship – for five years after that. Buying or investing in an existing team would be a more efficient and economically attractive proposition.

Then there is the 2018 calendar of which a draft has been released. It features the first ever F1 triple-header, comprising the returning French GP, Austria and Great Britain. Personally, I thought France was looking for a date in late July but while they may be the same nationality as the president of the FIA, it is not he who chooses the calendar but the promoter and as the event is new to the calendar, I guess they gets what they’re given by FOM. The promoter is pretty happy with the rest of the calendar but there are still stand-alones around the world which it would be nice to see twinned with other events and interesting to see Russia and Japan twinned again, as they were a couple of years ago in the reverse order.

So we begin the countdown to Baku; the weather looks good as it did last year, so it should be a straightforward dry race. Looking forward to it.