Formula 1 will tick off another ‘first’ today when the city of Baku in Azerbaijan plays host to its maiden grand prix.
The Baku City Circuit has lived up to the considerable hype it was given, posing one of the most unique challenges that the sport has ever known.
Mistakes rarely go unpunished due to the tight confines of the track, catching out a number of drivers throughout qualifying on Saturday – including defending world champion Lewis Hamilton.
A crash for the Briton in Q3 means he will start from 10th on the grid, while Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg took pole position by the skin of his teeth ahead of Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo.
As F1 prepares the enter the unknown, here are a few things to watch for in today’s European Grand Prix, live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 8am ET.
2016 European Grand Prix – What to watch for
A race of attrition?
If qualifying was anything to go by, then the race should see a number of thrills and spills – and perhaps a high number of retirements. Just 10 cars finished the GP2 support race in Baku on Saturday, with a number of drivers paying for mistakes.
One thing worth noting is that Virtual Safety Cars and, perhaps more likely, safety cars will be frequent and last for long periods. Pirelli is predicting a simple one-stop race, but timing will be everything for drivers.
Unlike Monaco, Baku does offer some vast overtaking spaces, meaning track position is not as valuable as it may appear.
In short: be ready for anything.
Rosberg hopes to re-open gap
After seeing his drivers’ championship lead fall from 43 points to just nine in the space of two races, Nico Rosberg knows that he has a golden opportunity to re-open the gap from pole position in Baku.
Rosberg kept his cool while Hamilton lost his in qualifying to nab pole for Mercedes. Given the pace of the German marque in Baku and the fact that Hamilton is down in 10th, it seems to be Rosberg’s race to lose.
However, safety cars seem inevitable, meaning Rosberg will have to be canny with his strategy and try to make the most of the clean air he is afforded at the front – relying he makes a good start, that is.
Hamilton, Verstappen face fightbacks
Hamilton will enter Sunday’s race hopeful of rediscovering the pace that he displayed throughout practice. A small setup change affected his confidence heading into Saturday, but the Briton admitted that the errors were on him.
With Verstappen P9 and Hamilton P10, both will be fighting their way through the pack across the course of the race. They will know that they cannot win the race at the first corner, and for Hamilton especially, his laps will be more about setting up an overtake for the final sector from T16 to the finish line.
Just when the championship appeared to be swinging back in Hamilton’s favor, he now faces yet another test.
That said, seeing two of F1’s most exciting drivers picking their way through the pack should be fascinating.
Can Perez recover from his grid drop?
One of the biggest stories from qualifying was Sergio Perez’s charge to second place on the grid for Force India. Even taking part in qualifying was a major achievement given his crash at the end of FP3, yet the Mexican managed to harness the surprising pace of the VJM09 car brilliantly in Baku.
Had the stewards been quicker in reacting to Hamilton’s crash with the red flag, pole may have been Perez’s. Alas, with a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change, he drops to seventh on the grid.
Nevertheless, the pace that Force India possesses should set both Perez and teammate Nico Hulkenberg – P12 on the grid after a mix-up in Q2 – up very well indeed. Is a second podium of the season in reach?
Manor rockets to launch in Baku?
Kevin Magnussen noted in Bahrain that the Manor cars were “like a rocket” in a straight line as he toiled behind the perennial backmarkers. In Baku on Saturday, Rio Haryanto and Pascal Wehrlein put the pace of the MRT05 to good use, narrowly missing out on a Q2 berth in P17 and P18 respectively.
Although points will require a number of retirements further ahead, if points are going to come anywhere for Manor, it would surely be in Baku. Haryanto has impressed all weekend, while Wehrlein is keen to prove his worth to Mercedes.
Pirelli strategy prediction
The teams obviously have limited data regarding Baku, so there is less information than usual on which to base strategy calculations. However, a one-stop seems to be clearly the best option. The top 10 will all start on used super-soft, and we would expect them to move onto the soft on lap 22 (of 51). If starting on the soft, the time to switch to super-soft is lap 29. However, strategies will have to be flexible, as there appears to be a high likelihood of a safety car.
2016 European Grand Prix – Starting Grid
1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
4. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
5. Felipe Massa Williams
6. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
7. Sergio Perez Force India
8. Valtteri Bottas Williams
9. Max Verstappen Red Bull
10. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
11. Romain Grosjean Haas
12. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
13. Fernando Alonso McLaren
14. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
15. Felipe Nasr Sauber
16. Rio Haryanto Manor
17. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
18. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
19. Jenson Button McLaren
20. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
21. Jolyon Palmer Renault
PL. Kevin Magnussen Renault
The European Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 8am ET on Sunday.