The Land of Fire

Street circuits are exciting. They’re tough places to hold a Formula One race, and usually the instigation for a busy weekend in the garage but, undeniably, they ratchet up the thrill.

They have lumps, bumps, road paint, manholes, low grip and big, unyielding concrete walls waiting for the inevitable mistakes. It’s tough in the garage because even the cleanest weekend tends to see the car battered and bruised – but drivers who like it on the ragged edge tend to relish street circuits. Spectators who get closer to the action than anywhere else relish them too. 

The downside of street circuits is that they tend to be low-speed and/or narrow, which makes overtaking difficult. It’s just the nature of the beast: cities have intersections; intersections tend to make for 90° corners, and if there isn’t much width, you’re going through a succession of second gear turns, with no real opportunity to get a run on the guy in front.  It’s a wonderful feeling to show up on Sunday morning when your cars have locked-out the front row; not so good if you’re anywhere else. 

And then there’s the Baku City Circuit. If you were designing a street race for Formula One, Baku is what you’d want to work with. The circuit ticks all the street track boxes in the tight, twisty middle section around the Old City – but it also has the most glorious high-speed run down to Turn One. The drivers are full throttle on a broad avenue for over twenty seconds, going into a hard-braking zone. Baku, basically, takes the standard street circuit and adds speed and overtaking.

That changes the priorities. Baku’s all about braking. There’s a lot of big stops and, for the drivers, the challenge is leaving it as late as they dare. It’s a difficult thing: powering towards a concrete wall at 300km/h+, willing your left foot to stay off the pedal. Turn One gets the headlines but Turn Three is where the drivers find out how brave they really are.

Walking the track for the first time in 2016, everyone was predicting a barnstorming grand prix. That view was reinforced by some crazy racing in GP2, and not hindered by some extreme setup choices the teams tested in practice. Williams had Valtteri Bottas, fitted with a low downforce package, clocking 378km/h on the pit straight – that’s the fastest a Formula One car has ever gone on a race weekend. They, dialled it back a bit for the Saturday and Sunday – but make no mistake, Azerbaijan is a quick track.

Sadly, the great race didn’t materialise in 2016. For one reason or another what we got was quite processional, and our afternoon was quite miserable with Daniel and Max finishing seventh and eighth respectively. Last year, though, we got the race everyone had been expecting in 2016: crashes, safety cars, wheel-to-wheel racing. Daniel managed to slalom his way through it to win what’s probably (still) his least likely victory – which is why shots of him on the podium show a puzzled man still trying to figure out what happened.

Happily, there were plenty of people in the grandstand opposite to tell him. The crowd in 2016 was pretty sparse but doubled last year. It’s sometimes the way it goes: new venues with an element of the unknown about them tend to be slow-burners, until the word gets around. The word from Baku is that it’d be a pretty good race to go to: easy to get around; good airport; good tourist facilities; good grandstands and a race that’s right in the heart of a city that has a real buzz in the evening. There’s a lot to like.