OK, not everything that has happened so far at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix has been particularly positive, but you can’t deny this race has a habit of delivering drama.
FP1 was only a few minutes old when Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari dislodged a manhole cover, and then the unlucky George Russell ran over it, instantly ending his day. Russell had missed commitments on Thursday to recover from an illness in time for first practice, but he then sat out the remainder of Friday, joined by the rest of the field as FP1 was cancelled.
Once the manhole cover issue was resolved and driver safety once again assured, we started to see its good side, why Baku is just such a dramatic venue.
Now, I’ll admit I do extra work for this circuit by carrying out the trackside commentary, so you could argue I’m a little biased; but it was actually a moment during today’s chat that highlighted just how unique a racetrack Baku has become. My co-commentator is a local celebrity with a limited knowledge of F1, and, understandably in a new market, has only really shown a strong interest in his home race. But he asked during qualifying, “Is every race this crazy? Or does all this weird stuff only happen in Baku?”
I wish I could have told him it was every race, but then I guess the exciting ones wouldn’t stand out.
Somehow, the race organizers and the FIA found a way to create a safe street circuit that features a number of unusual challenges. The closest thing elsewhere on the calendar to the 2.2-kilometer/1.4-mile flat-out section at the end of the lap has to be Spa, where drivers are full-throttle for a long period of time out of La Source and through Eau Rouge up to Les Combes.
Hardly a bad similarity.
Then, the extremely tight section around the Old City makes most of Monaco look like an airport runway, and although it doesn’t allow for wheel-to-wheel racing, it can bite hard — as both Charles Leclerc and Robert Kubica found out on Saturday.
Those two examples are also polar opposites when it comes to setup, with the narrow corners requiring maximum downforce, and the enormous straight (if we can call it a straight) crying out for low drag.
So no car is going to be ideally suited to the circuit, and no driver is ever going to feel completely happy. Either you’re down on top speed and need to make up for that deficit in the corners — a risky approach — or you’re rapid in a straight line but lacking the aerodynamic performance to provide the best grip when trying to thread the car between the walls. Also a risky approach.
There are enough run-off areas to keep the track safe, but enough close walls to punish the majority of mistakes. Lance Stroll and Daniil Kvyat found that out on Friday (before Leclerc and Kubica in qualifying), and you just know there are going to be more victims in the race.
With Liberty Media focusing more on destination cities since purchasing Formula 1, there has been a fear that such a move could result in circuits that are easily accessible to fans but not challenging to an F1 car or driver. In Bernie Ecclestone’s final new addition to the calendar, though, there’s a strong blueprint to follow.
The recently released simulated onboard lap of the Hanoi Street Circuit for next year’s grand prix in Vietnam drew a mixed reaction on social media, but it looks to have learned from Baku by incorporating a variety of tests for the car as well as a significant full-throttle section to open up overtaking opportunities.
The statistic that Sergio Perez is the only driver to have stood on the F1 podium more than once in Baku highlights just how unpredictable this race is, and it brings with it a refreshing excitement among all the teams that anything really could happen. Sure, a Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull is most likely to win on Sunday, but all bar Williams will go to bed tonight dreaming of the cards falling their way and handing them a shock result.
Even Leclerc will know that ninth on the grid still offers a decent chance of victory: Daniel Ricciardo won from 10th in 2017, and that was in a far less competitive car than the Ferrari youngster has available to him.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the awesome test of Suzuka or the majesty of Spa. But Baku has almost redefined what a street circuit can be in F1. When discussing Monaco, it is often suggested that it’s a race that would never have happened if the idea was pitched today. Baku has a similar feel, despite only joining the calendar in 2016.
A test for drivers, a test for teams, and delivering unpredictable racing. As Liberty look to shape the calendar in their own way — and continue to explore options for city races in Miami, Las Vegas and elsewhere in the United States — they need to make sure they give us more of that.