Azerbaijan GP: Preview & five predictions for Baku

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Formula 1 is preparing for a rollercoaster ride as thrills and spills await at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Winding through the streets of Baku, this race didn't have an easy start when it first took place in 2016 as many saw its inclusion as another case of money beating tradition.

Since then, however, Azerbaijan has changed that perception and has proven worthy of its place on the calendar mostly because of the insanity that can take place.

The circuit is a unique layout which has been described as part-Monza, part-Monaco.

That is thanks to a 2.2km main straight which starts at the exit of Turn 16, flicks through a few kinks and then blasts down to the start/finish line in front of the main government building.

It is also one of three sections though where the cars will be nudging 200mph, meaning teams can opt for a low downforce setup - almost unheard of for a street track.

Compromise is required, however, because of a technical middle sector through old city which includes the narrowest stretch of track all year at just over seven metres wide as the cars climb past the castle.

All of this means an incident is never far away in Baku as drivers play do or die with the barriers and are encouraged to attempt overtakes which can often end in tears.

It has meant Azerbaijan holds the record as the only race where a midfield car has finished on the podium the past two seasons, with Lance Stroll in 2017 and Sergio Perez both in 2016 and 2018.

Teammates have come to blows too, with Perez and Esteban Ocon coming together two years ago, followed by Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen last year.

Perhaps the most notable incident though came behind the Safety Car in 2017 when Sebastian Vettel would intentionally hit Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes in a moment of rage after feeling he had brake tested by the Briton preparing for a restart.

Unsurprisingly then, everyone is keen to see what this year has in store and whether Ferrari can break Mercedes' grip at the front after three consecutive 1-2 finishes to start the season.

The Scuderia start the weekend as favourites because of their power advantage down the straights, but so far very little has gone by the form book in 2019. 

Here then are my five predictions for F1's most unpredictable race.

Leclerc vs. Hamilton for the win

To win in Baku you need two things, speed and patience, and two drivers that share those traits are Charles Leclerc and Lewis Hamilton.

The Monegasque was very strong around this circuit in F2 and finished sixth with Sauber last year, therefore, he could have an edge over Vettel at Ferrari.

His calm approach is also perfectly suited for what can be a mentally challenging race.

But Hamilton and Mercedes are still a combination that will find a way to fight as Bahrain proved and it is that quality that may well shine through.

Interestingly, Baku hasn't always been a great track for Hamilton, yet he still should have won in 2017 and did inherit the win 12 months later.

Max Verstappen in the podium fight

Red Bull remains the unpredictable threat having struggled to maintain the speed they showed in Melbourne while always being there or thereabouts in the case of Verstappen.

Usually, street circuits are considered the team's main strength, but the emphasis on engine power has always counted against them in Baku.

That could change this year with Honda as their engine supplier also bring an upgrade to the race.

If Red Bull can show their traditional strength in low-speed corners and offset the top speed gap with less downforce, then Max does have a chance to claim third place on Sunday.

Racing Point to shine

F1's midfield has been particularly tough to read this season, with three different teams finishing 'best of the rest' at the first three races.

And this weekend may see Racing Point rise to that position with a car which always performs on low downforce circuits and two drivers that have claimed podiums in the past three years.

It might appear less likely that another top-three finish is possible this year but in Azerbaijan, who knows!

McLaren back on form

After a bump in China, McLaren can head to the Land of Fire hopeful of a strong weekend.

It is a circuit that shares plenty in common with Bahrain, where both Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris made Q3 in qualifying and the Briton would finish P6 in the race.

The main question, however, is over the Renault engine which has been unreliable and will be put to the test on the long straights.

If the problems can be avoided then a good points haul is certainly possible.

Hope for Williams?

If one team is hoping for a crazy race it is Williams who might actually see a path to points in Baku.

The British team can be more competitive because of the emphasis on straight-line speed, and simply making the finish could be enough to score a result they otherwise wouldn't in their current circumstances.

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