F1/Round 4: Preview of 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix and Starting Positions

Race starts today at 4:10 pm in Baku/8:10 pm in Malaysia

After the early-season sequence of flyaway races, the 2018 Formula 1 World Championship begins its move westwards from the last round in China. This weekend, the fourth round will be held at the Baku City Circuit in Azerbaijan. The historically significant republic (there is evidence of human settlements in the region as far back as the Stone Age 3.4 million years ago) has had a F1 round every years since 2016 and is the only GP venue that is situated below sea-level.

It’s a street circuit but doesn’t follow the conventions of street circuit design. The surface has low grip with tight turns and unforgiving barriers that must provide sufficient protection to spectators (and also prevent damage to the old buildings!), but the track also encourages overtaking as well as ultra-high speeds. On the 2.1-km pit straight, drivers can spend over 20 seconds at full throttle.

“I think that in this place it is quite tricky to find the rhythm,” said Kimi Raikkonen. “This is a street circuit but not a traditional one. The grip is really limited, especially since low downforce settings are used here.”

Keeping brakes and tyres warm for the excellent passing opportunity into the Turn One left-hander has been problematic in the past – and this is likely to be more challenging because of the move from a late June race to the cooler temperatures of late April. “The fact that we’re here in Baku earlier than in previous years definitely affects the tyres, but the biggest concern is the wind. It’s supposed to be very windy on Sunday which makes a lot of a difference on a street circuit,” explained Valtteri Bottas.

Another major issue for teams to consider during practice is finding an acceptable compromise between performance on the fast start-finish section of track and on the low-speed middle sector of the lap. The race’s short history suggests there isn’t a one-size fits all solution.

Alfa Romeo is back in F1 again this year but only as a title sponsor for the Sauber F1 team.

The tyre allocation for this weekend is sequential, with the soft, supersoft and ultrasoft compounds available. After pre-season testing these three tyres were commonly held to have the smallest performance differentials in the range available, a belief confirmed by the time gaps in the season-opening race in Australia. The low-speed sections of the Baku City Circuit will, however, magnify the performance gap between the tyres.

In the Drivers’ Championship, Sebastian Vettel comes to Baku with a 9-point lead over Lewis Hamilton but things are still less certain in the Constructors’ Championship. After 3 rounds, Ferrari has claimed two victories, Red Bull the other but Mercedes-AMG may count themselves unlucky, given that Safety Cars fell unkindly for them while leading in both Australia and China. Nevertheless, consistent scoring means that the German team holds a 1-point lead over Ferrari. Incidentally, the Mercedes-AMG team has now gone 3 races without a victory for the first time in the turbo hybrid era.

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