The first back-to-back of the 2016 Formula 1 season is arguably one of the most brutal in the sport’s 66-year history.
Following an intriguing Canadian Grand Prix on Sunday in Montreal, the paddock had to swiftly jet across the Atlantic and over western Europe to get to Baku, Azerbaijan for this weekend’s European Grand Prix.
The intention to hold a grand prix in Baku was stated back in 2014, and it will finally become a reality on Sunday on a circuit comprising the streets in the heart of the city.
The Baku City Circuit is set to be the fastest street course on the F1 calendar, but also features one of the most challenging sections drivers have seen at Turns 8, 9 and 10 – tight, uphill and a blind exit could catch out many.
Lewis Hamilton arrives in Baku on a roll after two straight wins in Monaco and Canada, but can championship leader Nico Rosberg stop his streak and become Baku’s first winner?
Here are a few talking points ahead of the European Grand Prix weekend.
2016 European Grand Prix – Talking Points
There was a certain degree of scepticism surrounding the race in Baku when it was announced given the absence of racing history in Azerbaijan. The falling price of oil also raised concerns about the viability of the event, but the initial feedback from the paddock on Wednesday and Thursday has been overwhelmingly positive.
While it may seem like an injustice that nations such as France lack a grand prix despite having a rich racing heritage, new events can succeed without it. Abu Dhabi and Singapore are two examples, and Baku will hope to follow suit.
No margin for error
Since the first images of the planned layout in Baku were released earlier this year, the tight complex around the historic part of the city always seemed somewhat ambitious. The layout has been kept, meaning there will be zero margin for error.
“I think there’s a few people that are going to write off some chassis on Baku weekend – hopefully not me though!” quipped Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo.
“I can’t think of anything like Baku that’s currently on the calendar. It’s tough because there are a lot of third-gear corners, so you want a bit of downforce for those, but then you’ve got a 2.5 km straight, over 20 seconds of full throttle.”
Hamilton eyes the championship lead
In the space of two races and three weeks, Lewis Hamilton has gone from trailing Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg by 43 points in the drivers’ championship to being only nine away. The reversal in fortunes is one that the Briton himself finds hard to fathom, yet he appears to have rediscovered his mojo.
Rosberg needs to respond quickly. He admitted in Canada that he felt “massively pissed off” with Hamilton for his Turn 1 move in the heat of the moment, but knew there was little to complain about – it’s racing.
Even a second place finish would be something for Rosberg in Baku. He may have won the first four races, but without a podium since Russia, the German is in a make-or-break phase for his championship.
Ferrari hopes to keep up Canada pace
Ferrari’s long-awaited engine update in Canada offered a significant uptake in pace, allowing Sebastian Vettel to run Hamilton close for victory. The battle between them is one all too rare in F1 given they are the two defining drivers of this decade.
Vettel’s charge to second will have filled Ferrari with confidence, even if the results leading up to it left much to be desired. He and teammate Kimi Raikkonen will know that Baku presents another opportunity, even if Red Bull and Mercedes should both be strong.
A three-way fight at the front could be on the cards – and what a place for it to happen.
Opportunity knocks for lower-midfield and backmarkers
The tight nature of the Baku City Circuit means that retirements and safety cars are likely on Sunday. As a result, there is an opportunity to be had for the teams in the lower-midfield and the backmarkers.
The likes of Haas, Renault, Sauber and Manor will all be hopeful of captializing on any opportunities that come their way. In Sauber’s case, a breakthrough score is desperately needed, while Haas will want to end its scoreless run since Russia.
For Renault, the race of attrition poses another challenge given it is reportedly arriving in Baku short on parts and without a spare chassis for either of its drivers after shunts in Monaco and Montreal.
And Manor? Races like this always bring back memories of Jules Bianchi’s charge to the points in Monaco two years ago. Pascal Wehrlein’s pace thus far has been massively impressive, so it is not out of the question.
2016 European Grand Prix – Facts and Figures
Track: Baku City Circuit
Lap Record: N/A
Tire Compounds: Medium/Soft/Super-Soft
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T20 to T1); T2 to T3
2016 European Grand Prix – TV Times
Free Practice 1: NBC Sports Live Extra 5am ET 6/17
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 9am ET 6/17
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports Live Extra 6am ET 6/18
Qualifying: NBCSN 9am ET 6/18
Race: NBCSN 8am ET 6/19