2018 Azerbaijan GP Review – By Bob Constanduros
Wow. That’s two amazing Grands Prix in a row, two unpredictable Azerbaijani Grands Prix in a row. On the Saturday morning, I jokingly suggested to Bernie Ecclestone that he writes the scripts to these things – or used to – but I noticed that he didn’t have a script in his hand, so I guess he let the race take its course. And what a race we had.
I perhaps followed it less closely than I usually do because I wasn’t doing the track commentary in Baku. I missed the race last year and they used a colleague, Chris Medland, and stuck with him for this year as he also had other duties with the promotors.
As I understand it, he was involved in an educational programme surrounding Formula One for the locals. Here is a country which doesn’t have a history in Formula One – probably not even motor sport – so you are therefore educating an entire country as to the attractions, intricacies, demands, history and heritage of the sport – not an easy task. I didn’t really notice what sort of crowd witnessed the extraordinary race on Sunday but walking through the downtown area on Saturday and Sunday evenings, less than half a mile from the track, there was a noticeable lack of fans dressed in team gear. In fact everyone seems to wear dark, waist-length leather jackets and jeans. It’s all rather threatening.
So while the race is a success on the track, it’s an uphill struggle to promote it in its home country. And what makes it a success on the track? You can’t bottle that, either. Sure, being a street circuit – and a very quick one too – there’s a distinct lack of grip, and the interesting track variations of a narrow and wide track in this instance. There’s also the phenomenal two kilometre straight, 24s of full throttle and a top speed of around 330kph. It’s not a particularly bumpy track, and being earlier in the year than previously, it was a little colder, plus there was quite a wind on Sunday.
But did this have anything to do with the excitement of the race? Maybe the straight, because you could overtake with DRS and there was a lot of slipstreaming and overtaking. And at the end of that straight, you have hard braking: a full 200kph decrease in speed in just 50m, less than a couple of seconds on the brakes, being thrown forward at nearly five times your bodily weight, while pushing on the brakes with 140 kilos of force. Get your braking a millisecond out and you’re up the escape road. Ask Sebastian Vettel. Or Lewis Hamilton, a regular visitor.
And that’s not the only vital braking point; there were several other escape roads in fairly constant use. It’s a dramatic and demanding circuit; all pretty amazing given it is a street circuit and the second longest of all tracks at a fraction over 6kms. And while drivers didn’t necessarily mention that wind, it had to be dealt with, just another factor in getting around this track as quickly as possible.
In the end, there wasn’t much mention of the technical intricacies of sorting out your car for this track for the race. It was a matter of survival, of racing the guy in front or keeping the guy behind at bay. Of keeping up with the changes going on, the two safety cars, the changes in the order. There was a little bit of intrigue when it came to tyre choice and the lack of tyres available in some quarters but drivers just got on with what they had. It was a fascinating encounter.
And of course, there was a fair amount of controversy along the way. Kimi Raikkonen doesn’t often get involved in on-track incidents, but it certainly looked as if it was his fault that Esteban Ocon’s race came to an early end. Kimi even brushed the wall at high speed in the later stages and yet still finished second. And could you believe that that heap of junk that Fernando Alonso brought into the pits at the end of lap one actually went on to finish seventh? It looked as though it might just be repaired in time for the Spanish Grand Prix and yet a couple of new wheels and tyres and it went all the way to the chequered flag. What do they make those McLarens out of?!
As for the Red Bulls… What can we say? It would be a real shame if the team decided to stop their drivers racing one another, but it is a case for preventing drivers from doing just that, sadly. Or even having equal drivers in the same team. After all, Daniel Ricciardo had caught Max Verstappen twice before during that race. It was the third time the pair of them were disputing track space.
Others had made basic mistakes – Nico Hulkenberg, Romain Grosjean – which promoted Sergio Perez to his second third place at this circuit and a resurgence by Force India. Sebastian Vettel did what he could and tried that overtaking manoeuvre on Valtteri Bottas. Talking of whom, fastest lap for the Finnish driver and set on tyres that were 37 laps old. He really did deserve to win. The FIA said they didn’t see the debris on the circuit that he hit and maybe you couldn’t on TV but I was watching a monster screen in my announcing room behind the podium and pointed it out to the sound engineers present fractions before Valtteri hit it. Such bad luck.
Lewis was humble in victory, a rare occurrence in the world of Formula One while Carlos Sainz confirmed Renault’s performance. Charles Leclerc did a great job for Sauber, Lance Stroll swapped places several times with Alonso in the final laps and Stoffel Vandoorne made an intelligent late call for fresh tyres under the safety car which gave him a huge boost and allowed him to pick up five places in the last four laps – actually, Magnussen dropped back (and was penalised), he overtook Ericsson, Hartley and Gasly in one lap and then found himself ninth when Bottas retired.
All in all, a tremendous race and one witnessed by a number of out-of-towners. Sadly, it’s a really tough place to get to with at least six hours flying in most cases and long lay-overs in places like Istanbul, Kiev, Moscow or Frankfurt. So not the easiest place to get to, but worth it when you get there. Next stop, Barcelona. Looking forward to a short haul flight!