Formula 1 is back, with a new-look race weekend, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix is the first of six F1 events this season with a sprint race, with a new twist and seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton is excited.
There’s a second qualifying session as part of rule changes to discourage teams and drivers from playing it safe, and practice time has been cut to a single session.
Mercedes driver Hamilton told reporters in Baku: “Particularly with the shake-up of the whole format of the weekend, it’s probably the most exciting weekend so far this year and I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out. I think it’s going to be tough for everybody, but we’re all in the same boat. What a track to be able to do it, where overtaking is possible. Great racing here.”
Hamilton has not added to his record 103 F1 victories since he triumphed at the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. thus enduring his longest winless spell since his debut in 2007.
F1 has been on a break since the last race in Australia on April 2, the result of the Chinese Grand Prix being cancelled, and several teams have brought upgraded cars to Azerbaijan. Whether any of those is enough to challenge Red Bull’s early dominance remains to be seen.
“When you’re in a strong position, you just want to keep going, and don’t let others close up the gap,” Red Bull driver Sergio Perez said. “We’re bringing some upgrades here and we hopefully are able to keep on top.”
At the top it’s a Red Bull fight between Verstappen and Perez
Perez is 15 points behind teammate Max Verstappen in the standings as the Mexican driver looks to recover from a qualifying accident that ruined his weekend in Australia. The highest-placed non-Red Bull is Fernando Alonso of Aston Martin, 24 points off the lead.
F1 ruled Tuesday that sprints will get their own, shorter qualifying session – the “sprint shootout” – on Saturday before the 17-lap sprint race, which no longer decides grid positions for the main Azerbaijan Grand Prix the following day. There will still be a traditional qualifying session for the main race, but that’s now on Friday, after the only practice.
The idea is to encourage drivers and teams to take more risks, but teams are worried about taking a financial hit. With strict caps on what teams can spend, extra racing close to the barriers on a street circuit is likely to mean more crashes and repair bills, and less money available to upgrade the cars through the year.
“None of us want to make any damage to our cars because that can be very penalizing on bringing on future upgrades,” Perez said. “It’s not like everyone is going to be taking silly risks for a few points.”
Expect bent metal and broken F1 cars in Baku
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner reportedly called the Baku street circuit a “ludicrous” choice for a sprint venue last month, even before the new rules were announced. Perez also questioned the choice of Baku on Thursday, indicating that sprints should be used to liven up duller tracks.
“Probably we need to be more selective with the races where we need to improve things,” Perez said.
After the initial novelty when the new, shorter races made their 2021 debut in F1, some drivers and teams seemed risk-averse in the events.
Part of the problem was the original idea of the format as “sprint qualifying,” a mini-race to set the grid for Sunday’s main event. That meant the sprint and main race essentially functioned as one extra-long race split over two days.
Baku is the first of five F1 races in six weeks after the early recess
A single mistake in the sprint, competing for relatively few points, could wreck a driver’s hopes of scoring far more on Sunday. The Azerbaijan Grand Prix kicks off a run of five races in the next six weeks as teams journey around the world from Baku to Miami, then to Imola in Italy.
That’s the kind of long-haul travel that has brought criticism of F1’s environmental record and prompted concern from teams about the burden on their staff. Other inter-continental trips on this year’s calendar include going from Spain to Canada to Austria in June, and from Japan to Qatar to Austin, Texas, in September and October.
F1’s annual report on sustainability in December said it was working with promoters “towards a more regional approach, over time” to cut down on travel distances. It’s not clear when that will be reflected in the schedule.