Mean Streets

Formula One heads into its first proper street race of the season. It represents a different challenge – and a different vibe – to racing on a permanent circuit.

F1 arrives in Baku for its first proper street race of the young season. While Albert Park, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and the Sochi Autodrom all use elements of the local road network, it is Baku, Monaco and Singapore where F1 really tests its mettle on the mean streets.  

Added to this, the showcar team, with David Coulthard and Jake Dennis at the wheel of the RB7s, spent last weekend in Hanoi, providing a foretaste of next year’s inaugural grand prix on a street circuit in Vietnam’s capital city. In many ways Hanoi is a template for the future, with F1’s commercial rights holder professing a preference for more races on temporary circuits. 

This isn’t so much based on the quality of the racing – which can lean towards the processional – but rather the accessibility of a race located in the heart of a city. While died-in-the-wool F1 fans may be prepared to trek to Silverstone, Spa or Spielberg, there’s a different vibe with a street race, which often attracts a very different sort of crowd. That tends to pervade the whole event, with F1 activity spilling off the track and into the rest of the city. Monaco is the classic template for this. For a week, the race becomes the town, with everything F1 themed and the party spilling out onto the circuit where, a few hours earlier, the cars were racing. 

It’s a different sort of race for fans – but also a different challenge for the drivers. The presence of concrete barriers surrounding the perimeter of a race track concentrates the mind. Practice sessions for street races tend to see the drivers really racking up the mileage – because the best setup change a team can do over the weekend of a street race is getting the driver comfortable. The more confident the driver is with braking and turn in, the faster they will be – but unlike a permanent circuit where the limit can usually be found by going over it and coming back, street circuits are rather less forgiving. The limit must be approached carefully – and that means lots of laps, because often there are no second chances after getting it wrong.

The challenge is intensified by the low-grip nature of street circuits. Host cities often get offended when race teams call their streets dirty. This is possibly a lack of racing education on their part and definitely a lack of sensitivity on the teams’ because it isn’t a commentary on street cleaning – but rather one of the nature of grip levels. On a permanent circuit pounded by race cars, grit and debris tend to be swept off the track, which also gets, by way of a bonus, a patina of grippy rubber laid down on the racing line. Street circuits, on the other hand, tend to be gritty things, suffering a high volume of traffic breaking up the surface but not the sweeping provided by a high downforce racing car blazing through at 200mph. It makes for a slippery surface and a bigger challenge for the drivers who have to contend with a car that’s moving around a lot. The very best tend to prefer this to a high grip surface where the car corners as if on rails…

In the pantheon of street circuits, Baku is something of an outlier. Others tend to be high-downforce, with the cars setup to maximise their low-speed capabilities to cope with the many 90° corners that city streets inevitably provide. Baku has plenty of these, but it also has a 2.1km straight, which encourages teams to take off wing, and run rather less downforce than is optimal for the rest of the track. It makes for high speeds and cars that are even more difficult to control – which has led to plenty of thrills and spills in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix to date. 

The corollary is that the Baku City Circuit also offers good overtaking potential. This really isn’t the case at other street tracks where the main focus of attention tends to be qualifying setup because grid position is all-important. Azerbaijan offers a path to redemption for those who qualify further down the order – though that doesn’t mean anyone trys less hard on Saturday.