Think about street circuits, and Monaco immediately springs to mind. In other words, a series of switchback corners, tight racing lines, and an average speed that is generally quite low. Overtaking is generally impossible, apart from with a do-or-die manoeuvre on the run up to Casino Square, or perhaps exiting the tunnel towards the chicane. And then there’s Baku. Which is completely different.
Azerbaijan’s capital, which inaugurated its grand prix in 2016, is unique. The first part of the track consists of a series of left and right 90-degree corners, hemmed in by guardrails and fencing. The track here is wider than Monaco, but visibility is still limited – as are the prospects of overtaking. The middle part of the track snakes its way through the old city in a way that’s almost claustrophobic. Here, the asphalt narrows dramatically, meaning that the cars have to negotiate some parts in single file: especially the almost surreal uphill climb towards the castle. Finally, the track opens up again, and as the cars head down towards the seafront, there’s another notable shift in tempo.
This is where you’ll find an incredible straight that’s more than 2.2 kilometres long. It’s not exactly a straight in the strictest sense of the word, as it’s formed of two straight sections linked by a sweeping right-hander. However, in a modern F1 car, that’s still flat-out – with top speeds that have been measured at an incredible 378kph in the past as the cars flash by the pits. By way of comparison, at Monza, the pit straight is just over a kilometre long….
Epic straights have always played an important part in the history of Formula 1. One of the most famous was the Mistral Straight at Le Castellet in France, where massive top speeds were again reached – especially when the eponymous Mistral wind was helping to push the cars along. At the end of this straight was a challenging right-hander, which served as a useful barometer of who was braking latest and on course to join the pantheon of greats.
Following Baku’s 2.2-kilometre straight section, there’s Turn 1. It’s a 90-degree left that’s the first big test of the race as the cars charge towards it after the lights go out. But when approached at top speed, perhaps fighting with a rival, it takes on a different guise entirely.
One year ago, the warring Red Bull duo of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen finally collided there after a thrilling series of feints and counter-attacks. The result was two wrecked cars, a safe haul of points in the bin, and a storm of controversy around the Anglo-Austrian squad. But it didn’t go any better for Ferrari. A year ago, the red cars seemed unbeatable in Baku. Sebastian Vettel scurried off into the lead in the early stages, but then a safety car closed up the field and set up a sprint finale.
Whenever a safety car comes in, getting the best possible re-start is always a delicate art. The tyres have cooled down, so it’s a question of making the most effective getaway in the very moment – but not an instant before – the cars are officially allowed to go again. Get it wrong, and a draconian punishment awaits. Vettel had stopped to put on a set of soft tyres, giving him the best chance of a strong finish. But at the key moment, ducking out of the slipstream of Valtteri Bottas’s Mercedes to take the lead, he went wide on the exit of Turn 1, allowing the other Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton past. Up to that point, Hamilton had been resigned to playing catch-up. All it takes is one instant for everything to change.