F1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix Preview

F1 teams are revving up for the Baku City Circuit, a challenging street circuit in Azerbaijan, on April 30. Columnist James Minor ’23 looks forward to the excitement that the Sprint Race format promises and the unfolding drama between Mercedes and Red Bull.

F1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix Preview
F1 returns after a long break this weekend in Azerbaijan. Photo courtesy of SOPA Images.

Formula 1 (F1) returns from nearly a month off this weekend when the sport travels to the streets of Baku, Azerbaijan. There was originally a race scheduled for the middle of April near Shanghai, China; however, the nation’s Covid restrictions prevented the event from happening and no suitable replacement was found. As a result, teams have had plenty of time to make small changes to their cars, both for long term performance gains and track specific demands for Baku.

Baku is a special circuit because it is what is known as a street circuit, a circuit that literally runs on streets. Other such tracks are in Monaco and Singapore. Albert Park, the scene of the most recent race, is also technically a street circuit, but it mostly runs through a park (as the name implies) and it offers substantial space between the track and walls at many points. Baku is more of a pure street circuit as the race is run on the streets of downtown Baku and the walls are right up against the track for 90% of each lap. Monaco and Singapore are much more like Baku. These unique characteristics of street circuits leave little room for error, creating a high risk of damage for the teams and a lot of excitement for the fans as the drivers must get as close to the limit as possible to extract the performance they need.

The Baku City Circuit itself can be separated into two distinct sections; one with long straights and 90° angles, and another with a mix of low and medium speed corners. The run up to the start line is a 1.4 mi (2.2 km) straight that leads into a sharp left turn. The track then goes along a shorter straight that turns onto a 0.62 mi (1 km) straight. Then comes two left-right chicanes (a chicane is one corner in one direction quickly followed by another in the opposite direction) separated by a short straight. After the second chicane, the track flows into the more technical section that circles the old city. The most notable set of corners runs alongside an old castle and is aptly known as the “castle section.” The corners could theoretically fit two and a half cars, but with the racing line resembling more of a straight line through the two corners, it can only fit one — and barely so. After a couple of left corners, the track runs along the start/finish straight to start another lap.

This weekend is also special because it is a Sprint Race Weekend. At the time of writing, there is still some uncertainty as to what this weekend in particular will look like. However, it is likely to follow the usual sprint format. The sprint race is borrowed from the junior categories (F2, F3, etc.) where there’s a shorter race on Saturday to increase the amount of racing and gives teams towards the back the chance to improve their starting spot for the race. Sprint weekends in F1 used to have a similar effect, but on Tuesday the sport’s governing body announced changes to the Sprint format. A typical F1 weekend consists of two practices on Friday, a practice and qualifying on Saturday, and the race on Sunday. After the changes, a sprint weekend will consist of a practice and qualifying determining the starting order of the Sunday race) on Friday, a sprint qualifying (determining the starting order of the Sprint Race) and sprint race on Saturday, and the race on Sunday. The idea behind the changes is that with the sprint race results no longer tied to the race, teams will have more incentives to take risks and make the sprint more exciting for fans.

As for news that came up during the april break, not much substance came out. A German journalist was fired after using AI to conduct a fake interview with 7-time world champion Michael Schumacher. The German F1 legend is not dead, however, he is in poor physical condition after a skiing accident in 2013. His family maintains strict privacy around the incident so the whole incident generated much controversy. In more lighthearted news, rumors came out of nowhere that Aston Martin driver and 2-time world champion Fernando Alonso may be in a relationship with Taylor Swift. This is pure speculation, but the Spanish driver did post a video to social media with a Taylor Swift song in the background, so who knows.

In a departure from tabloid ramblings, Mercedes has been quoted throughout the month about the progress they have been making. George Russell has said the team made greater gains over the past month than over the entire winter offseason. Mercedes has also made some changes at the top of the team, shuffling current personnel around for the purpose of optimizing the organization of the team and development of the car. It is unclear when these changes will show results on track, but there are some planned upgrades for this weekend and the race three weeks later. After that race (race 6, Imola) the development plan becomes less clear. However, the sport desperately needs someone to challenge Red Bull, and Mercedes are hoping to be that team.