Baku’s big questions

Here’s five talking points ahead of the inaugural European Grand Prix in Azerbaijan.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

It’s been a whirlwind week for everyone associated with Formula One; seemingly minutes after the race at the Canadian Grand Prix finished last weekend, another one started as the teams frantically packed for the 9000km journey to Baku for the inaugural European Grand Prix to be held in Azerbaijan on Sunday.

A new circuit is hard enough to plan for, but add the travel time and the loss of eight hours in timezone changes, and it has been a tricky week even for the usual high-efficiency standards of F1. But the mad scramble will be forgotten when the cars take to the all-new track on Friday, with the Baku City Circuit becoming the sixth venue (after the Nurburgring, Valencia, Brands Hatch, Jerez and Donington Park) to host a European GP, and the first one since 2012.

What are the main talking points so soon after Montreal as we head into the great unknown this weekend? These.

1. What do we know about the track?
There are few combinations of words that cause F1 fans to bite their bottom lips in tension more than ‘designed by Hermann Tilke’, and while the Baku City Circuit lacks the awesomeness of Tilke’s sadly-missed Istanbul Park, it’s no Valencia Street Circuit, which had all the appeal of a race around a bunch of abandoned port-side warehouses. The 6.003km circuit in Baku is second only to the revered Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium for length on this year’s calendar, and the drivers will complete 51 laps of a track that looks to be two circuits in one.
Where the tight and twisty parts of the circuit take in the old city buildings and measure only 7.6 metres wide in some places (think the Anderson Bridge in Singapore for a comparison), the final sector features a 2.2km blast from Turns 16 through to Turn 1, the longest ‘straight’ of the season where the cars are expected to nudge 340km/h, unheard of on a street course. The slogan for the race? ‘The speed is higher in the land of fire’. It should be an exhilarating track to drive, but will it allow for much overtaking?

2. Is this a critical race for Rosberg?
It feels like it. Mercedes’ championship leader strolled to four wins from the opening quartet of races, but things have gone pear-shaped since; after a crash with teammate Lewis Hamilton on the first lap in Barcelona, Nico Rosberg floundered to seventh on the streets of Monte Carlo, and could only recover to fifth after dropping to 10th on lap one in Montreal. Even Hamilton, winner of those latter two races, expressed his surprise at just how fast he’s been able to slash a 43-point championship deficit to just nine points ahead of this weekend, and the season seems to have a familiar feel to it, Hamilton appearing to be in control even if the championship standings say otherwise. Rosberg again came off second-best in a wheel-to-wheel moment against his teammate, Hamilton edging him towards the grass on lap one in Canada and leaving Rosberg, in his own words, “pissed off”. Perhaps he can channel that anger to make his mark on the Baku city streets and stop the rot.

3. Can Ricciardo make his point?
He’ll certainly want to. Since Max Verstappen joined Red Bull Racing in Spain, the scorecard reads Verstappen 37 points, Daniel Ricciardo 36. The Australian felt he could have won in Barcelona and knows he should have in Monaco, while a message to the Dutchman to not hold Ricciardo up early in the race in Montreal wasn’t discussed as much as it could have been afterwards thanks to a virtual safety car period that turned the GP on its head. A compromised pit stop in Canada wouldn’t have helped Ricciardo’s already-sour mood any. Getting some reward on a Sunday for his blistering qualifying pace – he’s beaten Verstappen and, before him, Daniil Kvyat in all seven qualifying sessions this season – surely must come sooner rather than later. Street circuits are usually right up the 26-year-old’s alley, and he’ll be relishing the challenge posed by a new one this weekend.

4. Can Kimi keep his job?
If you’re looking to extend your Formula One career into a 15th season, Kimi Raikkonen’s Canadian GP – where he qualified in sixth, sixth-tenths of a second behind Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel, and then finished 58 seconds behind him in the same position in the race wasn’t exactly a case of putting your best foot forward. That his Montreal malaise came a race after Monaco, where he clumsily hit the wall and then dangerously attempted to drag his car back to the pits with a broken front wing pinned beneath it, made it even worse. “This race and the last race wasn’t ideal,” was his typically succinct comment after Montreal, while Vettel was more expansive on the topic of who his 2017 teammate might be with the Italian press after Monaco, saying “I am fine with Raikkonen, there is no teammate who could be less complicated, and he is not political. Between us there is respect, he is calm and I think it would be nice to continue together.” Which you would say when you’re undoubtedly the number one driver at the sport’s most famous team.

Raikkonen may end up being Ferrari’s least worst option for 2017, if not beyond. The team seems to have cooled on Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, perhaps looking at his results compared to Felipe Massa, a man the Scuderia know well, and while the Ricciardo/Ferrari rumours continue to do the rounds, Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner is adamant that Ricciardo and Verstappen will be together at Milton Keynes next year and “not just 2017”. Who else is there other than, say, Ferrari-powered Haas driver Romain Grosjean? Perhaps Kimi keeps his job by default.

5. Are Williams really back in the mix?
Third for Bottas in Montreal would seem to suggest yes, but there were some extenuating circumstances in Canada last weekend. The FW38 puts massive energy through its tyres which is usually its Achilles heel, but the atypically low temperatures of Canada (12 degrees air, 22 degrees track) on race day suited it down to the ground, allowing Bottas to one-stop and attack the circuit, in particular the long back straight where Williams could make devastating use of its Mercedes powerplant. Baku has the long straight, but will undoubtedly be hotter this weekend. Montreal was a nice start, but more evidence is needed before Williams can think about retaining the third-place finish in the constructors’ championship that it has enjoyed over the past two years; the popular British team sits in fourth place in the constructors’ race, 49 points behind Red Bull after seven races.

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