Another Azerbaijani GP down, another epic race.
Disclaimer: You might need a cup of coffee for this one. It’s pretty long.
With questionable passes, abrupt mechanical failures and pit strategies all contributing to another wild race; who could have predicted the final podium finishers (I certainly didn’t and my fantasy team suffered for it lol)? For the 2nd race in a row, the race in Baku has delivered unquestionably the best race on the F1 season thus far. Which begs the question: Why is this circuit the site of such racing, where the season thus far as been incredibly boring for on-track action? Does this perhaps mean that Baku is the best circuit on the calendar?
The answer is in the design of circuit layout (on top of being a street circuit). So let’s have a solid look at the Baku Circuit. For the purpose of comparing tracks, I am leaving out the historical and political context, prestige of the races themselves, and strictly looking at track design.
At 6km, (3.72mi for you Yanks) Baku circuit is the 2nd longest on the F1 calendar (with Spa being the longest, at 7km/4.34mi). Upon first inspection, one could look at the long front straight (which measures 1.3km/0.8mi) as being a key factor in providing some on track passes. Which is definitely true; Bottas passing Stroll for P2 at the end of last year’s race, and the numerous close calls into T1 (which saw the most critical and race altering moment this year, with the two Red Bulls crashing into each other) being excellent evidence of this.
The relatively short run into T2, especially on the first lap when everybody is tightly packed together, has seen a lot of bumping and retirements in each of the first 3 years. Why is that? With the straight between T2 and T3 being the next longest straight, coupled with the second DRS Zone stretching the entire length, drivers are always looking to extract the most speed out of the exit. Another huge factor, and perhaps the biggest, is the fact that it is a relatively narrow corner and there is 0 run off on exit. This is why we see a lot of passes go wrong here when they are being attempted.
Turn 3 provides some great action, as the DRS zone helps set up passing attempts and shares the same corner profile as turn 2.
The next quasi passing zone is T7; the tight right-hander that precedes the single file castle complex. As drivers come into this corner, there is little run off, but there is enough of a braking zone where if somebody had a run coming out of the turn 5/6 chicane, could potentially make a move.
Now, with the current era of F1 cars, there are no more real passing zones until the incredibly long front straight. I say “straight”, because turns 17-20 are completely flat out, which essentially lengthens the straight to ~2.16km (based on a google earth calculation). This puts the effective length at almost exactly the distance of the first Mulsanne Straight at Circuit de la Sarthe (Le Mans) (Between Tetre Rouge and Forza Motosport Chicane). I find it clever that these “corners” skirt around the FIA rules that a circuit cannot have a straight longer than 2km or 1.3mi. Regardless, it’s the defining feature of the circuit.
Finally, the last factor in which the Baku circuit has created some exciting racing (and makes it the best circuit of the F1 season), is the fact that it is a street circuit. Street circuits historically provide tight racing with no margin for error. I exclude “street” circuits like Albert Park and Montreal, as they are very finely tuned into semi-permanent circuits. These races tend to be punctuated by multiple safety car periods which spice up the races. Baku clearly fits this mold, as we saw multiple SC’s again this year, which played a critical role in Hamilton getting the win, (It really should have been Bottas’ win, but that’s neither here nor there).
So now I’m sure there will be people reading this thinking “WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT! MONACO/SPA/MONZA (or insert another circuit here) IS THE BEST”.
Monaco, Spa and Monza Circuit Layouts: Credit http://www.formula1.com
Historically, I would agree with you. However in this MODERN era of Formula 1 cars, that is simply not the case. These cars are so hard to pass with the long, sweeping corners that defined track design in the 60’s and 70’s, that we now see relatively better racing at the Tilke cookie cutters. Why? This is due to the fact that there are less sweeping corners and more stop/start corners to promote passes in braking zones.
Monaco is the only exception to this. I think nowadays, Monaco is too small, too tight and does not promote enough on-track passes to qualify as a “great circuit” anymore (I’m hearing the pitch-forks already). That being said, somebody who can master that track is still classified as one of the better drivers in the field. No if’s, and’s or but’s.
I will be writing an SRC soon about track design, so you’ll see my opinion about what a good track design for modern racing (especially Formula 1) should look like, but we’ll shelve that discussion for later.
Don’t think I’m right about Baku? Let’s look at the other great races from this year (so far); Bahrain and China.
Bahrain and China (both Tilke circuits) were interesting because of T1, 4 and 10 at Bahrain and T6, 9 and 14 at China. All 6 corners are the sharp, slow corners at the end of a significantly long straight (ie a deep braking zone). Which is basically the same as the corners I outlined earlier about Baku.
The only difference here, is that these are permanent circuits with oodles of run-off. That way, if somebody decides to stuff their car in the corner, there is ample opportunity to avoid collision with another car or the barrier. Basically, the difference between a retirement and finishing the race.
Time will only tell if my analysis is correct, but whether or not you agree with it, you can’t argue that it hasn’t provided consistently, the best racing in this era of Formula 1.
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