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  • Reese Mautone

Azerbaijan Grand Prix Preview

Round 8 of the 2022 Formula 1 season sees the F1 grid return to Baku for the highly anticipated Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix will be hosted at the Baku City Circuit, a complex street circuit similar to the likes of Monaco with its middle sector reminiscent of the last round’s tight corners and high downforce setup. In addition to the circuit’s 20 challenging corners, the track features a 2.22km long straight allowing cars to reach top speeds of around 350km/h before a hard braking zone ahead of the 90° Turn 1.

With 2 DRS zones featured down the main straight as well as on the Turn 2 to Turn 3 straight, overtaking is possible during the 51 laps and race distance of 306.049km at the Baku City Circuit. Occasionally, jeopardising race set up for a higher qualifying position can be favourable around these streets for the less competitive teams as the risky layout, evident in complexes like Turn 13-15, calls for differing aerodynamic demands.

The weekend’s sessions will see the new generation cars attempt to break Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc’s 2019 lap record of 1:43.009s across the lap distance of 6.003km. To aid in doing this, Pirelli will bring the C3, C4 and C5 tyre compounds to Baku this weekend.

Formula 1 first came to the streets of Baku in 2016 under the title of the European Grand Prix, then renamed the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in 2017. Since the first outing, each Grand Prix has produced a different race winner, pole sitter and fastest lap holder.

In Baku last year, fans saw Max Verstappen’s race end early on Lap 47 after holding a strong lead over the rest of the field. The World Champion suffered a tyre failure causing his car to crash into the wall on the main straight, resulting in his first DNF of the 2021 season. At the restart, Verstappen’s rival Lewis Hamilton made a rare mistake, with his finger accidentally pressing the ‘brake magic’ button, a device engineered by Mercedes to throw brake bias forward to heat their tyres, causing him to lock up when in P1 and drive straight into the runoff area at Turn 1. Hamilton was only able to recover to P15.

Looking back on the 2021 Championship fight, Baku proved to be a major missed opportunity for both drivers, and has the potential to pose the same threat this season for both Red Bull and Ferrari drivers.

After a chaotic final stint, Sergio Perez took the top step, followed by Sebastian Vettel in second place and Pierre Gasly in third.

As far as set-up goes, the potential lap time between a high downforce setting and a low downforce setting is marginal as seen in the past, however, with the new generation cars gaining a majority of their downforce from the floor, teams could take differing methods extracting time from the lap.

It is expected that the stronger teams will come into the weekend with high downforce set-ups, allowing them to focus on the race due to the inherent pace of their car in qualifying.

The less competitive cars are most likely to utilise a low downforce set-up benefiting them in Qualifying and giving them a better shot at a higher track position to start the race. However, this strategy does add an extra element of risk with increased tyre degradation and rear sliding increasing the risk of an incident occurring in an already unforgiving street circuit.

“The circuit is split into two elements – very fast and very twisty. We need to hit the sweet spot on the set-up,” Haas Team Principal Guenther Steiner said on the difficulty of finding the perfect set-up.

Not one wing setting is perfectly suited for the Baku City Circuit. The Monza-like characteristics of this track call for high downforce, contradicting its Monaco-Like characteristics. In 2021, both Ferrari and Mercedes ran a skinnier rear wing compared to Red Bull. This set-up proved to be quicker than Red Bull, who had the faster car last season.

This season, Red Bull has tended to run less wing than Ferrari, a development that results in the car being faster towards the end of the straight. Ferrari’s developments have, however, led to the F1-75 being faster when cornering with their cars being able to accelerate harder upon exit.

Ferrari is looking to bounce back from their strategy “mistakes” made in Monaco which ultimately cost the team, and home driver Charles Leclerc, a deserved win.

“Mistakes can happen, but it’s important to learn from them and take it as an opportunity to improve,” Mattia Binotto, Ferrari Team Principal said. “Over the next few days, we will analyse this race in detail, as part of our preparation for the upcoming back-to-back races in Azerbaijan and Canada,” Binotto said after the team’s nightmare outing.

As for Mercedes who still sits a step behind the Championship fight, the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona last month revealed the W13’s speed on the straights.

“I'm looking forward now to turning the page and heading to Baku. It's a different kind of track, even though there are some similarities to the slow corners here in Monaco, but hopefully, we can move forward and show a better level of performance like we saw in Barcelona,” Lewis Hamilton said.

A recurrence in that speed, in addition to a low wing set-up could bring them closer to the top teams in Saturday's Qualifying session.

Lights out at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix this weekend will see the fight in the 2022 World Drivers’ Championship heat up. New players have been brought into contention after Monaco, and the chance for unsuspected threats to rise up at the chequered flag on Sunday is ever-present. In addition to Baku’s unforgiving nature, Sunday’s Grand Prix is set to be a thriller.



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