Paddock Diary: 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

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Formula 1’s 11th-hour changes to the format of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix did not produce the thriller many hoped for. Claire Cottingham reported from the paddock for RaceFans.


Kevin Magnussen, Haas, Baku City Circuit, 2023

Flying to Baku from the UK requires a lot of patience and time. After packing my bags and setting off for a four-hour stay in Istanbul before flying onwards to Azerbaijan, I was thankful to get to my hotel at 5am Wednesday morning, exhausted from a night of travel but buzzing about my third visit to Baku.

After getting a few hours’ kip I was invited to a karting event by the promoters. Despite finding eight seconds during my 10-minute stint, I remained dead last – exactly where I knew I was going to be. Despite being a competitive person, I know my limited karting experience left me on the back foot, so content with my performance I made my way back to the hotel for an early night.

Starting Thursday morning in the paddock with a trip to Williams, there was a slight state of confusion around after the FIA and Formula 1 decided to shake up the entire weekend format just days before the sprint event was due to take place. I held back a moment after having a chat with Logan Sargeant: I had interviewed him once before at a TOCA (Touring Cars) round, and I had been to the British Touring Cars round at Donington Park last weekend (the same one Lewis Hamilton attended incognito). He was happy to hear an update on how the championship was getting on.

After speaking to various other drivers I sprinted down to the media pen to chat with Charles Leclerc. The session had started as I arrived so I stuck my recorder in ready to hear what the Ferrari driver had to say. He seemed in relatively good spirits with a smile on his face and refreshed after a few weeks off. Conversion turned to his music and a new single he released. When asked, he admitted he’d love to do a collaboration with Hamilton, however, he may not like the “sad songs” he has been producing.

“If he’s happy to sing in a depression song, then I might be the one he goes to. My songs are not the happiest ones.”

Joking back to a comment about “singing a song about catching Red Bull,” he replied laughing: “Yeah, that could go well with my style of music!”

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Logan Sargeant, Williams, Baku City Circuit, 2023

A leisurely walk-in with a coffee in hand is beyond a luxury over a F1 weekend. Most tracks are suffering heavily with long queues and some bad management to get fans and F1 personnel in, but at the street circuit in the middle of Baku, everything is within walking distance.

The media centre, which is based in the Hilton hotel, has no view of the track at all and no windows. Heading back out to catch up with some people in the paddock I walked the short distance across from the hotel to the paddock. Walking through the turnstiles I spotted Kevin Magnussen who shared a quick smile before I bumped into his boss Gunther Steiner. I explained I had an exciting opportunity coming up soon and would love a pep talk “like the one you give your drivers”.

“I don’t give those fucking guys talks, they don’t listen,” he joked. “Just unleash your inner Guenther,” he said, as his eyes flashed towards me cheekily. I chuckled as I walked away but concluded it was actually very good advice.

The schedule change meant Saturday’s regular qualifying session took place on Friday, when written media ordinarily does not get a chance to speak to the drivers – our next opportunity coming after the sprint race on Saturday. Thankfully the FIA put on an extra press conference for the top three and a handful of PRs kindly stopped with their drivers to give us a few quotes, notably Carlos Sainz Jnr. We were all grateful for the extra opportunities teams offered us to hear from their drivers.

As I walked back towards the media centre I saw a small, furry thing on the floor by a big screen. As I got closer I realised a tiny cat had fallen asleep in the middle of the paddock, completely unfazed by what was going on around it, including Leclerc explaining his pole position lap to a television crew. I stopped for a moment to pet my newfound friend before letting it continue to catch up on its well-earned rest.

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Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Baku City Circuit, 2023


With the sun shining down on us, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by not one, but two Mercedes drivers as I walked through the paddock on sprint day. As we walked into the unknown, there were mixed thoughts in the paddock as to what the new format may bring. On the plus side, we had an extra race, on the downside, anyone below eighth place had absolutely nothing to fight for over the 17-lap contest.

The feeling only intensified as we watched a similar qualifying session – specifically for the sprint race – unfold before us with Leclerc once again on pole. With no chance to speak to any of the teams, we had a long wait before the race got underway later that afternoon.

The sprint race concluded with a widely expected Red Bull win. As the drivers filtered through the media pen one by one, I was struck by how sweaty they were. It wasn’t a particularly hot day, but every one of them was drenched. Say what you like about sprint races, it was clear the intense session had taken its toll, and many had very little to say.

The day ended with a trip to Mercedes to speak to Toto Wolff. I grabbed him after to ask how F1 Academy was going considering his partner Susie was heavily involved. “I haven’t heard from her much, which is usually a good thing,” he replied. “Race two was excellent, the drivers are very impressive. It should be a good year.”

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Verstappen's car in Red Bull the garage on Sunday morning

Waking up early for some technical chats with the teams, I was caught out by a long line of F1 personnel waiting to be checked by staff. The security team had decided to shut down the main gate, leaving teams and on-air staff desperate to get in before 10am. Flabbergasted, I asked if we could open more security queues as many of those in the line needed to get in ASAP. Thankfully we all got in on time and eventually, they reopened the gates, but it seemed quite a waste of time for those in a rush.

The race crept up on us quickly and I was (literally) the first person to head out onto the grid. The event schedule had changed ahead of the race and it seems that I had managed to get out before the teams had even clocked they could be on the grid.

As the gird began to fill I bumped into Mario Isola, the motorsport director for Pirelli. I became so engrossed in our conversation it soon became time for the race to start. Briefly bumping into Lance Stroll and apologising profusely I dashed back to the media centre.

The race was not a corker by any stretch of the imagination with another one-two for Red Bull, though with Sergio Perez leading the way home and tightening up the top of the points table. Far behind the Red Bulls was a DRS train and it became a game of attempting to keep your eyes open. We were shaken awake in the final moments of the race as Esteban Ocon entered the pit lane, which seemed full of marshals and some photographers. The FIA had made an error and allowed some people into the live pit lane, not realising that Ocon still had to make his mandatory pit stop.

I sat down with a photographer later who said the FIA had apologised to them and took responsibility for allowing people into the designated area. Lessons will be learned and I am personally grateful nothing more serious happened.

As we walked down the paddock, drops of rain began to fall out of the sky. “If only that had happened an hour ago,” I thought.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Baku City Circuit, 2023

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2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

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    Author information

    Claire Cottingham
    Claire has worked in motorsport for much of her career, covering a broad mix of championships including Formula One, Formula E, the BTCC, British...

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    3 comments on “Paddock Diary: 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix”

    1. It should be illegal to mention a cat and not include a photo of said cat.

      1. Seconded. :-)

    2. Thanks Claire for these insights. Always a welcome addition.

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