Race start, Baku Street Circuit, 2022

Will sprint race tweaks produce a change in winner? Azerbaijan GP talking points

2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

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Formula 1 returns from its originally unscheduled spring break to kick the 2023 season well and truly into swing.

The notoriously fast and challenging Baku City Circuit has produced plenty of chaotic and memorable races during its relatively short tenure as a host venue of the world championship. This weekend will be the first time it has held a sprint race, five more of which will be held during the season.

But will anyone be able to challenge the two Red Bull drivers who dominated the opening rounds of the championship?

Sprint race shake-up expected

To say the sprint race format has been controversial since it was inserted into the 2021 regulations is a major understatement. Formula 1 and its 10 teams love the addition of the 100 kilometre-race on Saturdays, which has the added impact of making Fridays more meaningful due to qualifying taking place in the afternoon following just a single hour of practice. Reception from fans and even drivers, however, has been far more mixed.

But with sprint weekends apparently here to stay, it’s possible that the format will look slightly different this weekend. While subject to official confirmation by the FIA at a meeting later this week, it appears likely that Saturdays will be changed to feature a second qualifying session – exclusively for the sprint race – rather than a second hour of practice in the morning. That condensed three-stage qualifying session would set the grid for that afternoon’s sprint race, which would then no longer decide the grid for Sunday’s grand prix.

If those changes are indeed ratified, that would likely address what has been one of the biggest complaints around sprint races, that they determine the starting order for the grand prix. By the team’s own admission, many have simply been treating the Saturday sprint race as simply the first 100km of a 400km grand prix that just happens to be red flagged and then resumed the following day.

Drivers such as Max Verstappen have also admitted that rather than go on the attack in sprint races, they prefer instead to drive more cautiously to avoid suffering any problems that could compromise their chances of Sunday. Now, what happens on Saturday may no longer have any influence over the grand prix itself, with the grid order remaining what it was from Friday’s initial qualifying session.

One change that has been confirmed is that drivers will have more opportunities to use DRS during the sprint race. It will be activated at the end of the opening lap, or the end of the first green flag lap after a Safety Car period, rather than the start of the second lap. Whether that and the other potential tweaks will create more action and excitement for viewers remains to be seen.

The battle for the ‘King of Baku’ crown

Last year Verstappen became the sixth different F1 driver to win on the Baku street circuit in as many races. He followed Nico Rosberg, Daniel Ricciardo, Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez.

Verstappen beat Perez here last year
No driver has ever won around Baku multiple times. But given the impressive performance advantage that Red Bull have held over their rivals through the opening three rounds, it seems highly likely this unusual record could be broken this weekend.

Last season, a power unit failure for Ferrari put Charles Leclerc out of contention and allowed Verstappen and Perez to cruise to an easy one-two. Unless the likes of Aston Martin, Mercedes or Ferrari have managed to come up with a miraculous update for this weekend, it’s almost certainly going to be a straight fight between Verstappen and Perez for the victory.

Verstappen took the opening round in Bahrain in what was perhaps the only true head-to-head battle between the pair so far this season. In Saudi Arabia, a driveshaft problem in qualifying forced Verstappen to start well down the field while Perez took pole and won. In Australia, Perez started from the pit lane after a Q1 mishap and recovered to finish fifth, while Verstappen went on to win.

Whichever of the two Red Bull drivers comes out on top this weekend, it will also affect the dynamic of the world championship. Verstappen sits on 15 points ahead of his team mate and could build a healthy early lead if he takes another win. While Perez could put himself right back into contention if – and it is a big ‘if’ – he can beat his world champion team mate this weekend.

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Leclerc stares down his worst ever start

When Mattia Binotto announced his surprise abdication as Ferrari’s team principal at the end of a disappointing 2022 campaign, there was a sense that the arrival of Frederic Vasseur could signal a fresh start for the team and a chance to put the errors and frustrations of the past behind them. However, Vasseur’s tenure has not started how he – or his drivers – would have hoped.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Albert Park, 2023
Leclerc sits on just six points
After three rounds, Ferrari sits fourth in the constructors’ championship, behind Red Bull, Aston Martin and Mercedes. Carlos Sainz Jnr lost 15 points from what would have been a fourth place finish in Australia after being handed a five second time penalty for hitting Fernando Alonso, but Charles Leclerc arguably has ever more reason to feel frustrated than his team mate.

Leclerc retired with a power unit failure from third place in Bahrain, then managed only a seventh place finish the next round in Saudi Arabia. Making matters even worse, his Australian GP lasted just three corners before he spun into the gravel trap after contact with Lance Stroll. Remarkably, if Leclerc fails to score a point this weekend, it will officially be his worst start to a season in his Formula 1 career – even compared to his rookie year at Sauber.

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Red flag risks

Fernando Alonso, Alpine, Baku City Circuit, 2022
Baku’s tight corners make red flags likely
The Australian Grand Prix certainly left fans with plenty to discuss over the four weeks between it and the following round of the championship in Azerbaijan this weekend. The biggest controversy to come out of Melbourne was the arguably liberal use of red flags to stop the race, followed by standing grid restarts, even with only two laps remaining.

Baku has already seen a similar late-race standing restart, back in 2021. The risk of a race-suspending accident is far higher in Baku than most other tracks, as a tight but fast street circuit. Racing through the city streets means that run-off is limited – it only takes one driver to lock up and disappear down an escape road (accidentally or otherwise) to cause a major hazard which would prompt a Safety Car or Virtual Safety Car. In especially narrow sections of the track, such as the infamous castle chicane, any kind of clash or collision could block the circuit, leading to an immediate red flag.

But perhaps the bigger concern is during qualifying. Many a qualifying session in Baku has been affected by driver errors resulting in crashes or cars getting stuck down escape roads, bringing out yellow or even red flags that ruin the laps of others. Last season, Alonso aroused suspicion among his rivals after progressing to Q2 when he locked up and ran off the circuit on the approach to turn 15, denying many behind him the opportunity to improve on their final efforts of the session.

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Cooler conditions

Typically the Azerbaijan Grand Prix has been held in June. The race has taken place in April on two previous occasions – in 2018 and 2019 – and has returned to a similar time slot this year.

That two-month difference translates to a major difference in terms of track temperature. Last year’s race in June saw the hottest surface temperatures to date, ranging from 48C to 54C. Across both rounds previously held in Baku in April, track temperatures have averaged between 28.5C and 35C – a considerable variation.

That difference in temperature will have a significant impact on performance – whether that is between tyre compounds or between teams. Generating heat in the tyres will be a crucial concern for all teams this weekend.

Can Sargeant break his Q1 curse?

Sargeant is the only driver not to get out of Q1
Heading into his rookie season, Williams driver Logan Sargeant was supremely confident in his qualifying abilities, describing his one-lap skills as “his bread and butter.” However that confidence has not translated into results in F1 yet, as he remains the only driver in the field not to have progressed beyond Q1 in any of the three qualifying sessions this season.

He technically should have progressed in Jeddah, but his time that would have been good enough for Q2 was deleted due to running into a prohibited area on the pit straight at the very end of the lap. With Baku’s long main straight lending itself well to Williams’ car and its high straight-line speed, this could well be the best chance Sargeant has had to earn his first Q2 berth of his career – just in time for his first race in front of his home crowd two weeks later.

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    Will Wood
    Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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    12 comments on “Will sprint race tweaks produce a change in winner? Azerbaijan GP talking points”

    1. Now, what happens on Saturday may no longer have any influence over the grand prix itself, with the grid order remaining what it was from Friday’s initial qualifying session.

      Unless you crash, of course, which might result in a pit lane start or worse. So the drivers and teams will still have a heavy incentive to take it steady during the sprint race.

      1. Alternatively, I assume you can get a penalty in sprint that results in a grid drop on Sunday, as well.

      2. I agree. If the result of the Sprint Race doesn’t influence a driver’s starting position for the Race, and if they aren’t going to be awarded any points for completing the Sprint Race, then maybe it is better to your losses, take a nice cruise at the back of the field for several laps, then return to the pits and retire from the Sprint Race.

        1. And that’s exactly why there needs to be decent points awarded for the sprint.
          There’s certainly much more incentive to take the sprint seriously when it directly affects the grid – but even if it doesn’t, there needs to be a good reason for teams to take risks. 3 points, and only for 3 positions obviously wasn’t enough – especially in a series where two thirds of the field are unlikely to get a podium at the best of times.
          But that’s a points system problem (and a typical F1 regulations problem) – not an event format problem. All finishers should get points during every competitive session IMO, as points are supposed to reflect results. Finishing 11th or lower shouldn’t, in any way, be the same as retiring on lap 1 or not even starting at all.

          We can look at it both ways… The risks in the sprint suggest drivers should take it easy – however those same risks can be exploited to make gains while others are avoiding risk.
          It’s really no different to, say, the GP. A position is a position, and you never know if you’ll be able to get it later. The sprint may be your only chance – is it wise to waste it?

          Either way, they won’t retire unless it is necessary – F1 cars are mobile billboards these days. They usually stay out now even for lowly positions simply to be visible. You can’t see all the brands and sponsors on a car when it’s sitting in the garage…

          1. Yes, and the “Battle For 16th” or whatever gets a load of TV coverage now if there’s nothing going on up front.
            Teams down the back could use it as their long run, in place of second practice – bit of extra data on tyres etc might make the difference to nab some points in the Grand Prix.

        2. @drycrust Yes, a grid-drop penalty is another possible impact on the race itself, although sprints still do award points & the same amounts for positions 1-8 as last season.

      3. I also agree.

        Can someone please remind me what the point of the sprint race is?

        1. To have 3 (three) days of entertainment for the public and not much testing.

    2. What’s the incentive for running in the sprint race for anyone outside the top 5 of the sprint?

      1. Top 8, but good point, considering the finishing order won’t impact the starting order anymore.

    3. Well.. unless Max’s car breaks down on Sunday. It’s pretty much a guaranteed win for him this weekend. The sprint format will only make it easier for him to seal the deal. This should be one of the easiest Red Bull one twos on the calendar. Will be interesting to see if Ferrari gets the upper hand on Mercedes this weekend.. I reckon Leclerc will be fighting the Mercs and Alonso for that last podium spot.

    4. Not having any pointless practice session under parc ferme restrictions anymore is good, although DRS becoming available a lap sooner in sprints (all six or two of them) for experimental purposes is risky as the whole point of allowing DRS use from lap three onwards ever since 2011 has been to minimize the risks involved when the field is bunched up.
      I think you mean at the start of third lap being the standard rather than second, which is precisely how this experiment goes.

      Hopefully, Wittich would’ve realized the excessiveness of red-flagging for the sake of red-flagging & thus would only resort to this neutralization option if truly necessary, not only this weekend but moving on generally.

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