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Azerbaijan Grand Prix Preview: More Chaos in Baku?

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Over the last two years, Baku, Azerbaijan has given us everything we could ever want from a Formula 1 race. Chaos, heartbreak, excitement, drama - we’ve had it all, so it couldn't be coming at a better time. 

After a disappointing showing in Shanghai, this weekend should pick up the pace with a track known for its unpredictability. In the three F1 races held in Baku thus far, we’ve had three different winners with the pole sitter going on to take victory only once. Over the last two years alone, the full safety car has been called no less than six times, four of which came in 2017.  

 

Last year's race will be best remembered for the dramatic coming together of the two Red Bulls, Fernando Alonso’s heroic recovery drive to seventh after his two-wheeled opening lap, heartbreak for Valtteri Bottas after a last minute puncture cost him what was looking like a certain victory, and Lewis Hamilton inheriting the spoils to claim first place.

As a street circuit, Baku gives few opportunities for overtaking. The castle section, in particular, proves an impossibly tight complex to follow through. Even so, making moves is still doable provided that drivers pick their spot carefully. Turns one to three in particular yield some opportunities for overtaking in addition to, of course, the huge DRS-assisted straight that makes up the majority of the third sector.

The circuit in Baku/ Credit:Open Street Map via Wikimedia Commons

In terms of race strategy, last year's race was won by Lewis Hamilton with a two-stop. Of course, that was due to the safety car more than anything, so a one-stop is looking the most likely option for most teams. Given Baku's tendency for chaos, however, strategists will no doubt have to think on their feet.

Looking forward to this weekend, then, Honda has announced they will be bringing a power unit upgrade to Baku in attempts to provide a small power boost and improved reliability. Toyoharu Tanabe, Honda Racing’s F1 Technical Director, has confirmed that the Spec 2 version will run on all four cars from Friday through to Sunday.

Further down the grid, Antonio Giovinazzi is set for a ten place grid penalty this weekend for replacing the control electronics in his Alfa Romeo’s power unit. It’s the Italian’s third change in four races, surpassing the quota of two stipulated in the regulations.

Lewis Hamilton has also stated he will be targeting an improved personal display this weekend. Baku hasn’t been the happiest of hunting grounds for the five-time world champion in recent years, despite a fortuitous win in 2018. He stated:

“It's a really great track and it's one that I've honestly struggled at a little bit, particularly last year. It will be interesting, and I'm going there with a mindset that I've got to try and improve my previous years' performance.”

Hamilton currently leads the world championship from teammate Valtteri Bottas by a margin of six points. Max Verstappen remains in third place with 39 points, and Ferrari’s Leclerc and Vettel still languish in fourth and fifth. Casting an eye to the midfield, Kimi Raikkonen sits best of the rest on 12 points as the only midfield driver to score in every race thus far. He is closely followed by rookie Lando Norris and Kevin Magnussen, both with eight points apiece. 

Despite their poor start, this weekend should present some chance of a reprieve for Ferrari. The giant straight that closes the lap will surely play to their power advantage. Even so, this is Baku and anything could happen. Just check out the 2017 and 2018 highlights if you doubt it. If there was one race you wouldn’t want to miss this season, it’d be this one.

 

 
Lead Image Credit: Artes Max via Flickr




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