April 25th, 2023

Danger by the water

Every track is special in its own way. Some of the circuits Formula One visits during the course of a season offer a unique technical challenge, requiring skill and pushing both drivers and machines to their limit. Others conspire with the climatic conditions to test those in the cockpit (and the garage) on a more physical level; some, still, like Monaco, are such unique venues that defy all characterisation, requiring mental strength and super-human focus just to make it to the chequered flag.

The Baku City Circuit is no exception: it’s a track that has quickly earnt a place in the calendar as a very peculiar challenge, helped without doubt by some epic, unpredictable races in the six events it hosted so far.

The circuit on the shores of the Caspian Sea is deceptively easy on paper. The 90-degree corners, typical of so many street tracks, are apparently manageable obstacles thrown in the way of the drivers as they negotiate the confines of the racing surface. Long straights, corners that are just kinks leading into stop-start sections – at first sight, there’s little besides the impossibly tight castle section to provide drivers with a real challenge. And yet, appearances should not fool – for Baku’s track is not one to be underestimated.

Much like a hippopotamus, placidly floating half-submerged in a river, this track hides its aggression under the tamest appearance. Just as the large mammal would do, this track can bite – hard. Over the years, its walls claimed famous scalps; uneventful races have been turned on their heads by incidents and safety cars; surprising results have emerged out of nowhere. Baku has an edge; it has a nasty side that is waiting in ambush for the unsuspecting ones.

Baku’s tagline is “the home of the street fighters” and those words ring true. Races here can turn into battles: every lap offers a risk, an opportunity, the potential of a reward. Coming home with a good result here takes grit and resilience – you need to fight for every inch of tarmac; you need to fight AGAINST every inch of tarmac, too.

For Valtteri and Zhou, this week is an opportunity to show their mettle. Valtteri is a Baku specialist: a winner here in 2019, he’s second among active drivers for laps led here and holds the all-time best lap around this track. Zhou has made close battles and daring moves into his signature: he’s perfect for this. Both will approach this event ready for the challenge ahead.

This weekend will also offer an added element of jeopardy. The new sprint format, introduced for this event, reduces the opportunity for practice to just one session: the onus is on the team to set up the car in such a quick time, with limited data; and on the drivers, to master the track from the first handful of laps.

All these elements make this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix a challenge not to be sniffed at. Just as with the hippo waiting in the water, the track stretching by the Caspian Sea is a danger one would be foolish to underestimate.