Baku is back: Formula 1 returns to its fastest streets

Baku is back: Formula 1 returns to its fastest streets 01

High-speed street fighting

Q: What speeds can F1 cars reach in the Baku race?
A: Over 350 km/h

True city centre street circuits were missing entirely from the reshaped 2020 Formula 1 calendar. But rather like the popular saying about London buses, after a long wait we now have two such tracks back-to-back, with the return of the Monaco Grand Prix being followed directly by the comeback of Baku.

The two circuits do share some similar characteristics in places, in particular the tight confines. The famously narrow castle section of the Baku track can often be completely blocked during the race if one driver gets it wrong: rather like some places in Monaco. But looked at as a whole, the two tracks offer considerably different demands.

Monaco is the slowest circuit on the F1 calendar, with Lewis Hamilton’s new lap record in the 2021 race having an average speed of 164.769 km/h. Baku, on the other hand, features some way further up the list of the fastest F1 circuits, with Charles Leclerc achieving an average speed of 209.795 km/h during the 2019 race: faster than the lap records at tracks such as the Circuit of the Americas, the Hungaroring and Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi.

This is mostly thanks to the long pit straight, where drivers go flat-out for more than two kilometres. The slipstream effect here can raise speeds above 350 km/h: Alex Albon was clocked at 354 km/h in his Toro Rosso car across the start/finish line in the 2019 race. It can also make for some spectacular action in the race, with cars sometimes going three-wide into the first corner.

The unusually long straights have an impact on car setup as well, with engineers generally favouring low downforce configurations to maximise top speed. That reduces the amount of aerodynamic grip through the corners, increasing the reliance on the mechanical grip produced by the Pirelli tyres.

Baku is back: Formula 1 returns to its fastest streets 02

Taking turns

Q: Who is the only driver to have won two races in Baku?
A: Antonio Giovinazzi, in GP2

Baku has generally produced some unpredictable races since it was introduced to the calendar in 2016, and that is reflected in the fact that there has yet to be a repeat winner among the drivers.

Nico Rosberg won the inaugural race – which used the European Grand Prix title – for Mercedes, before Daniel Ricciardo triumphed for Red Bull in the first Azerbaijan Grand Prix in 2017. Mercedes won again in 2018 and 2019, but the spoils were shared between Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. Could one of the Mercedes pair break the deadlock and score a second win this time, or might Max Verstappen follow his maiden Monaco success with his first Baku win?

There is in fact one driver on the current Formula 1 grid who has won two races in Baku – and he did it in the same year. That’s Antonio Giovinazzi of Alfa Romeo, who won both GP2 races during the inaugural Baku event in 2016. In the second race he came from the back of the field, passing his then team-mate and current F1 rival Pierre Gasly for the lead on the final lap. A year later, Charles Leclerc was also first across the finish line in both Formula 2 races, but a penalty deprived him of the winner’s trophy in race two.

Baku is back: Formula 1 returns to its fastest streets 03

An opportunity for an upset

Q: Which driver achieved their maiden F1 podium finish in Baku?
A: Lance Stroll in 2017

Although it’s only proven race-winners who have stood on the top step of the podium in Baku so far, the sometimes chaotic nature of the races does provide an opportunity for some of the smaller teams to cause an upset.

One such occasion came in 2017 when Lance Stroll, during his rookie season with Williams, achieved his maiden podium finish in Baku’s eventful second grand prix. The race included numerous incidents, a red flag and drama behind the safety car between championship rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. When Hamilton had to pit to replace a loose headrest, Daniel Ricciardo picked up victory and Stroll almost took second – denied only by Valtteri Bottas right at the finish line.

Another driver to have capitalised in Baku is Sergio Perez, who claimed podium finishes for Force India in both 2016 and 2018. No driver has yet visited the podium three times in Azerbaijan, with Perez tied for two top-three finishes along with Hamilton, Bottas and Vettel.

When Hamilton had to pit to replace a loose headrest and Vettel earned a penalty, the way was clear for Daniel Ricciardo to take victory after a stunning ‘triple’ pass at the restart, slipstreaming his way ahead of both Stroll and Felipe Massa while also racing side-by-side with Nico Hulkenberg into Turn 1 – which was officially voted by the fans as the overtake of the season. Stroll almost held on to take second – denied only by Valtteri Bottas right at the finish line.

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