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Preview: Baku can win F1 appreciation second time around

Written by  Jun 22, 2017

This weekend Formula 1 returns to Baku for the second time at the renamed Azerbaijan Grand Prix and it has a score to settle.

It's safe to say the race that made its debut 12 months ago wasn't exactly a hit with many fans, most were confused why it was given the title of the European Grand Prix and the race around the streets of the Eurasian capital seemed to epitomise the main problem many had with the sport under Bernie Ecclestone, money over quality.

Then the action on the track itself turned out to be not-so-great. The GP2 races had been crazy but when the F1 boys went at it on Sunday, the most memorable aspect was Lewis Hamilton dealing with engine issues.

It wasn't a great start for a Grand Prix no-one really wanted in the first place, but it's back again and fans need to give Baku a chance to show what it can offer.

The street circuit does have potential to be entertaining as it combines so many track types into one. It has the tight confines of the castle section that will likely prove very tricky in this year's wider cars, high-speed kinks on the straights which most certainly catch your attention and then there's the two-kilometre sprint to the start/ finish line and if you don't like listening to F1 cars sing at over 340kph then you're not an F1 fan, sorry.

Last year, the circuit was very much suited to an already dominant Mercedes, this meant after Hamilton's crash in qualifying and problems during the race, only Nico Rosberg was ever going to cross the finish line first.

That will almost certainly be different this year with Mercedes and Ferrari still only separated by mere hundredths of a second. We didn't get to see the true state of play in Montreal after Sebastian Vettel's problems, but many did expect Ferrari to have the better race pace so who knows how it would have ended.

In Baku, the big decision will be which way to go on setup. Some teams, like McLaren and the Renault-powered outfits, have little choice but to try and maximise top speed down the main straight, but some, particularly Ferrari, may decide to try and optimise the technical parts of the circuit where they have been strongest all year.

Engines will be a key performance decider as the heavier, more draggy cars this year mean every last horsepower will translate into an extra two or three kilometres per hour before the drivers brake for Turn 1.

That also does likely give Mercedes the edge again over their Italian rivals, as tyres are not expected to be a major issue, but it will depend on which setup path the Scuderia chooses as to just how competitive they are in the high-speed section as a result.

The characteristics of the circuit should also lead to a repeat of the Force India/ Red Bull battle we saw in Canada with Williams in the mix too. Sergio Perez stood on the podium at this race last year and should there be an issue for either Mercedes or Ferrari, the Mexican and his team-mate Esteban Ocon may well be dark horses to do what one of them should have done two weeks ago.

The unknowns will be Haas, Toro Rosso and Renault. The midfield has remained very competitive throughout this season and it is likely these teams can also fight for the tail end of the top 10, whether they can find the final tenths to challenge for sixth, seventh or eighth will be an important question.

It will also depend on the performance of Lance Stroll, who will look to use his first points finish in F1 in Canada to push forward for the rest of the season. If the 18-year-old can start to close some of the speed gap to Felipe Massa, then Q3 and more points finishes could well become more common.

Finally, at the back, Sauber and McLaren are likely to have a somewhat private duel, as engine penalties are expected for both Stoffel Vandoorne and Fernando Alonso with Honda bringing a first step update to their troubled power unit.

The Swiss team also have their own problems, now without their team boss Monisha Kaltenborn, and with year-old Ferrari engine, despite car upgrades that are planned, moving higher than 16th is likely to be very difficult.

So there is then plenty of reasons to expect an action-packed weekend in Baku. Certainly, it shapes up to be more exciting than 2016 and you know what, if we judged every new race by its first year then many of the current circuits and events we consider to be among F1's best may have never reached the standard they have.

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