In 2016, the Baku street circuit – which will host the eighth grand prix of the season on June 25 – gave us a top speed of 378kph during free practice. That’s very fast; a number more representative of a track like Monza, where the cars usually run with the least downforce of the year, ensuring very high top speeds. So, it would be logical to expect yet another lap record to crumble relatively easily in Azerbaijan. But that’s not necessarily the case.
The faster lap times this year are all down to increased cornering speeds. The increased downforce on the cars and extra mechanical grip through corners thanks to tyres that are 25% wider also allow drivers to brake later at the entry to corners and get on the power sooner as they accelerate out, leaving the cars cornering for a lot less time than they used to.
But the flip side is that the cars also create more drag, again due to the wider tyres, and this also affects top speed. That’s not always obvious as the total power output of the hybrid engines is considerably higher than it was in 2016.
So, Baku is likely to demonstrate the following phenomenon: there are 20 corners (12 left-handers and eight right-handers) but none of them – or hardly any – are fast, meaning that there’s nowhere for the drivers to let the cars go and benefit from the increased grip.
Then there’s a straight that’s nearly two kilometres long, opposite the pits, with a total of 72% of the lap nailed at full throttle. And last fact that could mean speeds are a little slower than last year, when the cars were more slippery on the straights.
As a result, we have the perfect oxymoron: massive top speeds at the end of the long straights, but less possibility to use that speed in the corners. It’s a slightly similar technical situation to that seen at the end of May in Monaco. The Principality’s famous street circuit also features mainly short corners, during which not a lot of speed can be built up. Nonetheless, lap times there still fell by three seconds and a tenth this year compared to 2016, with pole position nearly a second and a half faster.
In Monaco though, there aren’t any places that are super-fast, unlike the end of the 2.11-kilometre flat-out straight in Azerbaijan, where the greater frontal section of the cars could have a real negative effect when it comes to top speed.
Let’s not forget how the engines have evolved though. Along with downforce, power has increased too – and that’s going to be a key factor in the quest to reach ever-higher top speeds, as was the case in Canada in mid-June. With right foot planted for so long on the loud pedal, it’s going to be pure horsepower that probably makes the difference in Baku.
Fuel consumption permitting, of course. In that sense, Baku is one of the most demanding tracks of the entire championship, so excessive use of all those horses might not mean that everyone gets to the end of the 306.05-kilometre race distance. Power is nothing without control.