After five rounds of the 2021 Formula 1 season, four points or less cover the top two in both titles. Baku looks set to be another Mercedes vs. Red Bull shootout, but after Ferrari’s pace in Monaco, nothing is certain.
Formula 1 returns to Baku for the first time since 2019 this weekend for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. The track is one of the most unusual on the Formula 1 calendar, with its tight, twisty, and tricky Old Town section, coupled with the massive flat-out section down the seafront with a lot of heavy braking in sector 1.
Historically it has been a Mercedes circuit, with the Silver Arrows winning three of the four rounds hosted in Baku, but no driver has won more than once. Nico Rosberg won the 2016 European Grand Prix in Baku, the first time the European round was held in Asia, while Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas won in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
The event is known to be unpredictable and exciting throughout the weekend. With the exception of 2016, where all excitement was left in F2, there has generally been a lot of chaos in qualifying and certainly the race. In 2017, Daniel Ricciardo took a brilliant win from 10th on the grid after crashing out of qualifying, with a weekend highlight being him outbraking three cars into turn 1. The 2018 race is well known for the two Red Bulls colliding, Romain Grosjean crashing behind the Safety Car, and Bottas cruelly being denied a win by a puncture in the later stages.
This weekend, Mercedes said they believe they have fixed what caused them troubles in Monaco, and want to right the wrongs from two weeks ago by taking a win. However, as we saw by the pace of Ferrari in Monaco, a team could throw a spanner in the works this weekend. With the highly unbalanced nature of the circuit, it requires a car good in the turns, while fast on the straights, something we know McLaren is good at. The Papaya cars will be one to watch this weekend.
This weekend should be a big confidence booster for Sergio Perez, off the back of his strongest performance yet at Red Bull. The Mexican driver has taken two podiums at the venue for Force India in 2016 and 2018, with a lowest finish of sixth in 2019. He retired from the 2017 round after coming to blows with his teammate Esteban Ocon.
One driver who will not be looking forward to Baku is Charles Leclerc. Though the Monegasque won the Formula 2 feature race here in 2017, he has mixed memories of the track. In 2018, he scored his first F1 points at the venue, before binning it in qualifying for Ferrari in 2019. He comes to Azerbaijan hoping to prove the pace of Ferrari is no fluke and to be in the top five come race day.
Further back in the field, the Mercedes power unit in the back of the Williams cars will be hoping to power the team to their first points in two years. The team is solidly ninth in the field but would want to pick up a few points to cement the position, as they do not want a repeat of last year when luck and good strategy propelled the equal slowest Haas team to points, while Williams picked up the donut. The team has historically run well in Baku, picking up points in 2018 and the famous podium with Lance Stroll a year earlier.
Of course, nothing is solidified until the checkered flag falls on Sunday afternoon, but one thing is certain, we are in for a great weekend of racing in Azerbaijan.