Bakue’s race has been re-dubbed the Azerbaijan Grand Prix but do F1’s new owners think the sport would be better off without it? Here are six talking points for this weekend’s race.
Are Mercedes back to their best?
After the disappointment of Monaco, where neither car finished on the podium, Mercedes hit back in the best way possible at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Following an intensive investigation the team appeared to get to the bottom of their recent set-up problems and they romped to a one-two victory.
They were somewhat flattered by circumstances, however. If Sebastian Vettel hadn’t been compromised from the start the team would have had a tougher fight on their hands.
In Baku they won’t have to worry about the ultra-soft ‘bogey’ tyre. Hamilton seemed to click with this circuit 12 months ago until he came a cropped in qualifying, but he should go into the weekend as the favourite.
Another tough weekend for Red Bull?
Baku’s long straights and short corners were tailor-made to expose the shortcomings of the Red Bull RB12 last year and the team struggled to one of their weakest results.
They’ve sought to minimise drag with their 2017 design which could make them more competitive this time around. But reliability could be a bigger question mark.
Seven races in and the team have already had four retirements due to technical problems. Max Verstappen was dejected after his latest breakdown in Canada having forced his way through to second at the start. Red Bull have neither the speed nor the reliability to compete at the front right now.
Is this an unwanted race?
This is the race Liberty Media president Greg Maffei used as an example of what was wrong with F1’s old business model after taking over the business earlier this year.
“Bernie’s attitude was, ‘How much can I extract from them?’,” said Maffei in March. “I heard him call them the victims – ‘How much can I extract, how much up front?'”
“So we end up with races in places like Baku in Azerbaijan, where they paid us a big race fee, but it does nothing to build the long-term brand and health of the business.”
Liberty’s F1 chief Chase Carey later smoothed over the quotes with Baku race promoter Arif Rahimov. But many would agree with Maffei’s diagnosis of where F1 went wrong before. F1’s new owners have talked about taking the sport into new markets which enhance its brand and create excitement around the race. Baku, which put just 26,000 tickets up for sale last year, is unlikely to fit that bill.
Trouble at the castle?
The narrow climb past the castle and Qosha gate was expected to be a trouble-spot last year. It wasn’t for the F1 drivers, but there’s one obvious difference this year: the cars are now wider.
That will be a problem at this section of the track and also the high-speed approach to the pit lane, where the circuit narrows from 18 metres wide to just 10m.
Can Stroll build on his breakthrough?
Williams’ much-criticised rookie driver Lance Stroll achieved a breakthrough with his first points finish at home in Canada.
Can he build on that this weekend? He’s got another tricky circuit to learn and a large performance deficit to his team mate to bridge. But this one of Williams’ stronger tracks last year.
Will we get a race to remember?
Last year a pair of eventful GP2 (now Formula Two) races raised expectations of a lively Formula One race. But the grand prix was a turgid affair: F1 Fanatic readers gave it the lowest score of the year in Rate the Race.
Will that change this time? Part of the problem last year was that Mercedes enjoyed a particularly large advantage over their rivals and Lewis Hamilton’s error in qualifying ended any contest for victory. That may be different this time.
However Pirelli has erred slightly on the conservative side with its tyre selection, preferring not to bring the ultra-soft tyres for this race. That could mean another race of very low degradation.
It’s important not to make too many assumptions based on last year’s race, however. This is still an unusual and somewhat unknown venue which could produce surprises.
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