Venue of the 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – the Baku City Circuit – provides teams with a test similar to that seen at Spa, where the first and third sectors place a great emphasis on top speed, whereas, the middle sector is much more dependent on downforce and mechanical grip.
Unlike both Monaco and Singapore, this street circuit features very high-speed stretches but has the similarity of requiring a good amount of running for the track to rubber in properly.
Downforce vs Drag
Low angle of attack rear wings are necessary for a high top speed in the first and last thirds of the lap, especially for the 24-second flat-out section that spans most of the final sector. This is the first opportunity for teams to introduce their 2018-spec low downforce kit, so expect a raft of modified wings, both front and rear. Extra devices such as monkey seats and t-wings will most likely be omitted, especially for those cars with a Renault/Honda power unit, who will have to compromise the middle sector more than others.
Car Strengths Needed
Good Aerodynamic efficiency is rewarded here, as those cars with this attribute will have to remove less downforce. Mercedes, with their lower rake set-up, are strong in this regard, whereas, Red Bull are at the other end of the spectrum. Mechanical grip is rewarded given the low downforce set-up required, with good traction also being of importance in the many acceleration zones from slow corners.
Turn 1 provides a good opportunity for overtaking and also rewards those confident on the brakes given the high entry speed. Strong exits from Turns 2 and 16 are also critical to allow the opportunity for passing moves. Between Turns 8 and 12 the track is very tight, and this is an area where the driver can make a significant difference to lap time.
Tyres and Strategy
This year, Pirelli is bringing the UltraSoft, SuperSoft and Soft, in contrast to the SuperSoft, Soft and Medium from 2017. Last season, the Medium was un-driveable, the Soft difficult to get in the correct working range, while the SuperSoft was a good race tyre, but difficult to heat up for qualifying.
Given the compound changes for 2018, the 2017 SuperSoft corresponds to the 2018 Soft, with the SuperSoft and UltraSoft a step softer respectively.
However, the big unknown for this year is how the different conditions, thanks to the race being held in April compared to June, will affect the compounds. In 2017, the track temperature was as high as 50 degrees Celsius, whereas, it could be as much as 25-30 degrees Celsius lower this year.
This could perhaps make the 2018 Soft, capable of at least 40 laps last year, a difficult tyre, especially given the UltraSoft and SuperSoft have a lower temperature working range. Even if this is the case, a one-stop using the two softest compounds will be the most likely strategy, safety cars aside.
DRS zones heading towards Turns 1 and 3 provide very good overtaking opportunities, while the long full throttle zone from Turn 16 to Turn 1 can result in good racing even without DRS, after safety car restarts, as seen in 2017. Due to the slow-speed, tight nature of the middle part of the track, decisive overtakes are key to avoid being stuck behind slower cars for much of the lap.
All three days are forecast to be dry, with Friday seeing sunny, light wind conditions. However, for the weekend, winds will pick up considerably, perhaps up to 40 mph on Sunday, when temperatures will plummet to around 15 degrees Celsius for the race. The benign Friday conditions will therefore be less useful than desired in terms of gathering transferrable data on car stability in the wind and on tyre temperatures.
Over the last two races, the top three teams have been closely matched on race pace, and that may again prove to be the case in Baku. However, it remains to be seen how much of a gain Ferrari have made in the energy deployment area along the main straight, as this was part of the reason for the one second gap to Mercedes in qualifying last year.
The midfield will most likely remain tight, although Renault’s chassis upgrades (in addition to their low downforce kit) could edge them clearly ahead. McLaren may experience a more challenging weekend, even in the race, given the long straights and slow corners are weaknesses for the MCL33. Williams and Force India will look to benefit from the strong Mercedes power unit to score points on Sunday.