The Baku circuit has always produced plenty of drama if little in terms of actual racing but last Sunday, it stumped up neither, I counted around seven real (none DRS assisted) overtakes executed by the two Formula 1 masters during the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Five by Lewis Hamilton and one by Fernando Alonso. For me, the solitary overtake by Alonso was the best. Precision judgement and perfect reading of the driver in front. The final one was Lando Norris on Nico Hulkenberg towards the end of the race. However, the latter’s tires had been turned into concrete, and he was relatively easy pickings. There may have been others of course, but it was difficult to tell as the sleep-inducing procession kept sending me off to dream of WEC.
Jeopardy neutralises jeopardy
Unfortunately, this is the nature of street circuit racing in Formula 1, especially after six years of Red flag and Safety Car history. Consequently, with budget and component caps looming large in everyone’s mind, the game of tire change “chicken” became the best strategy option for gaining race position. That is of course, unless you could get a guaranteed “safe passage” pass under DRS.
Baku, Choo, Choo…
DRS has never proved to be the stimulant panacea for overtaking action that everyone hoped for. In fact, on street circuits, it acts more like a sedative. Faster cars are being impeded by slower ones in the prime overtaking zones, where DRS activation is targeted. As a consequence, we end up with our DRS “trains”. Baku proved that competent but slower drivers, e.g., Hulkenberg, can keep a gaggle of faster cars behind them for multiple laps. Just set your wings for low downforce and “Bob’s your uncle” (or should I say Thomas the Tank Engine).
Wasn’t the Azerbaijan Sprint good?
This was the contradiction of course. Most found it exciting, despite there being little overtaking. The difference, though, was that the order remained compact, all the way up to the chequered flag. However, the points yield, while useful, is still not significant enough to encourage a real risk in the team’s or driver’s approach. Imagine what would happen if there were the same points on offer for the sprint as for the feature race!
Qualifying at the OK Coral?
I’m not sure about the term “Shootout” being applied to the Sprint qualifying. It’s not the type of nomenclature normally associated with F1. However, making this the basis of the Sprint race grid is a distinct improvement. Both are welcome replacements FP “yawn” 1 & 2.
So why did people like it?
This a salient question, but one probably easier to answer than we think. When the wonks in charge of F1 think about how to improve and attract more fans, they appear to be obsessed with the PT Barnum School of huckstering and creating more faux overtaking. Whereas what they need to do is emulate life.
Human beings enjoy the thrill of the chase more than the conquering (or overtaking). The dopamine reward for the latter tends to be short-lived compared to the excitement of the pursuit. Close racing interspersed with a bit of overtaking that is hard-won, keeps us wanting more.
The current “push to pass” of DRS makes for an easy overtake for some teams and nigh-on impossible for others depending on the situation. A poor idea, badly executed is probably the best way to describe the deployment of DRS in Baku, and any other street circuit for that matter. Back to the drawing board, please.
Living the vida loca
Disappointingly, we are at another street circuit again this week, although Sergio Perez is one who won’t be complaining. Close to his home country, he should enjoy his best support outside of Mexico. His well-deserved victory in Baku should also give him a lift, and an excellent chance of taking the Championship lead from his teammate!
Well done, the Beaks!
Finally, I have to congratulate the Senior Officials who worked at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. They seemed to follow the maxim “seen but not heard” and appeared to discharge their duty appropriately, without any unnecessary, overt intervention in the racing. Yes, there was a crowd issue at the Pit Lane Entrance at the end of the race, but that is an issue for FOM.