We’re heading for the last of four season-opening flyaways, and after the temporary parkland track of Melbourne, the heat of the desert in Bahrain and the front-limited China, this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix might be the most challenging yet.
The fastest street track of the year, the Baku City Circuit fuses all that you’d expect of a city layout – winding streets, low-speed corners, perilously close walls and barriers – with a monumentally long and fast pit straight that at 2.1km is the longest we race on all season.
The difference in sector types in Baku means that there’s no easy route to the ideal car for the race weekend. On the one hand you need low drag on the massive straight to gain lap time, but on the other you want higher levels of downforce in the twisty bits to get the best from the Old Town streets. The demands are diametrically opposed and finding the right compromise is one of the season’s biggest engineering puzzles.
The weekend is no less taxing for drivers. Too little downforce and you’ve got a nervy car in the narrow streets, too much drag and you’re a sitting duck on the straights. Add in a track that at it’s narrowest point is just 7.6 metres wide and you’ve got a layout that demands the highest levels of commitment and focus. Make even the tiniest error and the barriers beckon – as the past two incident-packed races in the Land of Fire have demonstrated.
That’s how we see the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, but what’s it like from inside the cockpit? Max and Pierre give us the lowdown on bonkers Baku…
How tricky is the Baku City Circuit in terms of set-up?
This is quite an interesting race because on a street circuit, you usually want to run a lot of downforce. Because of the long straights between the corners in Baku, you have to find a bit of a compromise so that means you have quite low grip on the track and you slide around a bit.
Sliding around is not something you want to encourage on narrow city streets. Is it a circuit you can enjoy?
It’s a lot of fun to drive and especially the castle area, it’s very narrow but also it’s really cool for pictures to look back at. It’s a decent track for overtaking because of the long straight and especially with the DRS zone, so it’s always an exciting weekend and a lot of things can happen. It’s a big show and hopefully this year’s race will make for a good story.
Melbourne’s a temporary circuit, but in a parkland setting, and so Baku represents the first proper street circuit of the year. Do you enjoy racing in the streets?
It’s always more challenging as there’s a lot less margin for error, and this gives you more adrenaline which is a positive for us racing drivers. The track is really cool and quite technical from one corner to another. It has the longest straight of the season with a lot of opportunities to overtake, which makes the racing super exciting on Sunday.
You finished 12thin your first grand prix here last year after starting from P17, but you’ve been on a Baku podium before haven’t you?
When I raced in Formula 2, I started the race in Baku from last and had a good fight with Antonio Giovinazzi in the last couple of laps to finish P2.
Are you confident of good outing in F1 this time?
Things are progressively going in a better direction and it was good to get the fastest lap in China, so let’s see what we can do this weekend.