Our F1 writer takes a look at this Sunday’s Grand Prix of Europe taking place in Azerbaijan
This weekend we travel from the great ‘White North’ to slightly warmer climes in Azerbaijan, Baku for the European leg of this year’s Grand Prix.
Azerbaijan is the latest addition to the race calendar with a brand spanking new circuit that claims to be “the fastest street circuit of the season” with a layout designed by renowned F1 track architect Hermann Tilke.
Hamilton looks to be back on top after Canada, but just barely. His luck held because of his tires staying true and not taking a performance nosedive, which meant he had to pit less than Ferrari contender Vettel, who started the race off well but bad luck and an unfortunate pit strategy brought him down.
The first surprise in the Canadian Formula 1 Grand Prix happened before the first turn was even taken. Lewis Hamilton sat smiling and probably very happy with himself on pole in the Mercedes-AMG Petronas, with Sebastian Vettel plotting his race strategy behind the Brit. That order changed as soon as the lights went out. Hamilton and his teammate Nico Rosberg started just fine, but Vettel flew off the line like a man possessed and he passed Hamilton in just a couple of meters.
Vettel led through Turn 1 with his demon possessed machine while Hamilton desperately defended against teammate Rosberg who was trying to pass on the outside by using the entire track. Hamilton bumped his teammate, sending Rosberg into the concrete runoff with a rage-inducing but fair game manoeuvre. The Brit stayed in second, while his teammate fell to a distant ninth by the time he rejoined the circuit.
The Ferrari finally looked like it was living up to its potential and provided an even match for the Mercedes. Vettel was working on slowly building a gap out front. On Lap 11 the engine in Jenson Button’s McLaren self-ignited just after the hairpin, forcing Button to pull over on the Casino Straight – probably turning the air blue with curses.
A Virtual Safety Car slowed the field, convincing Ferrari to pit its drivers just in case. Vettel came in disappointed because, by pitting, he was handing the lead to Hamilton. Button’s car was cleared more quickly than expected, so the Scuderia didn’t get the full advantage it expected, sending Vettel back onto the track a full seven seconds behind the Mercedes.
Button’s and Ferrari’s unplanned stops decided the race. Ferraris’ race strategy entailed them to run a two-stopper anyway, but the early pit they were forced into didn’t give the team a chance to gauge the ultra-soft Pirelli tyres, an advantage hamilton had which paid off big time. The ultra-softs lasted longer than anyone expected, with Hamilton only pitting once, while Vettel had to pit again, losing more precious time. After this second pit, Ferrari lost its chance at closing the gap with Mercedes even with their newer tires.
Although Ferrari started off very strong, they had two blunders which cost them the race one was giving up track position (and early at that), and not taking advantage of Mercedes’ only known weakness of not being nearly as good in dirty air.
If the ultra-softs had not lasted as long as they did, Ferrari’s play would have been considered absolutely brilliant, but unfortunately, history is written by the victors and so Ferrari’s play is just considered ill-advised. Hamilton then snatched the win, with Vettel screeching into second 5 seconds later.
We got a surprising third from Valtteri Bottas and Williams, who in this race truly got everything right, Bottas, like Hamilton, had a one-stop strategy which turned into a perfectly-timed pit stop, and lucky for him regular the third place contending constructor, Red Bull, had issues to contend with.
Max Verstappen claimed a disappointing fourth after his last few races, however, he must have felt better than an incredibly frustrated Rosberg who had to make an unscheduled stop to remedy a slow puncture.
Kimi Räikkönen’s turn-in issues relegated him to sixth, while another pit stop issue knocked Daniel Ricciardo’s back to seventh. Force India scored another double points finish with Nico Hülkenberg in eighth and Sergio Perez in tenth, split by Carlos Sainz in the Toro Rosso who gets an A for effort after his recovery having startied right at the back of the grid.
With this track being brand new this next race is guaranteed to be an exciting one. With a total of 20 turns. The standout features of this track is the long straight that goes from Turn 16 to Turn 1. The start of the lap consists of four 90-degree corners, making a box like pattern.
After that it gets nerve-wracking: the drivers will go through the city’s scenic historic centre, which looks like it will be a very tight section, where the drivers will need to be very precise with many little turns happening until turn 13 where there will be another fast section through turns 13, 14 and a big corner at turn 15.
The braking into Turn 15 after the previous fast section looks like it can get quite tricky, so if any accidents or spin outs were to happen it will most likely be on this turn. After that, the drivers will arrive at Turn 16, which is a medium-speed 90-degree turn, and then they don’t brake again until they reach the first corner.
The weather for this weekend is looking to be sweltering. With full cloud cover on Friday, but a high humidity index bringing the temperature up to 28 degrees Celcius. Saturday we will see those clouds roll out and the sun make an appearance, giving the drivers a temperature of a blistering 31 degrees Celcius to qualify in.
Race day on Sunday will see both clouds and Sun, but be the hottest day of the weekend rising up to 33 degrees celsius.
Grand Prix Of Europe | Sunday 19 June | Azerbaijan Street Circuit | 14:30
To Win Outright
Lewis Hamilton: 1/1 | Nico Rosberg 5/2 | Sebastian Vettel 11/2 | Daniel Ricciardo 12/1 | Max Verstappen 14/1
Fastest Qualifier: Nico Rosberg 2/1
Rosberg, after his last few races in which strategic blunders have cost him victory, must be fuming by now and not just wanting but needing some kind of win. Looking at how he blasted past Hamilton in Canada from his position, I don’t think he will have a problem getting ahead in this race, but getting the best starting grid position he can is definitely going to be in his best interests as that might be the turning point that will get him out of this streak of bad luck and poor strategic decisions he has been having.
To Win Outright: Lewis Hamilton 1/1
Lewis will want to continue his latest winning streak and being a very talented driver with a (relatively) reliable car he should have this in the bag. Also with Ferraris’ blunders over the last couple of races must have given his confidence a great boost.
Podium Finish: Max Verstappen 16/10
I think we will see Red Bull come back ( barring any unfortunate accidents) to claim third this coming weekend in Baku. Judging from Verstappen’s track record these last few races, barring Canada, he is really on a roll here and I think he is going to try even harder now to get back on top. Also, because this is a new circuit and there are no records or previous wins on this track anything can happen.