Formula 1 makes its second visit to the historic city of Baku in Azerbaijan this weekend with the title race closing up between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.
The Baku City Circuit arrived on the F1 calendar in 2016 as host of the European Grand Prix, but the event has since been renamed the ‘Azerbaijan Grand Prix’.
The track itself received a lukewarm reception initially given its exceptionally tight nature, yet it ultimately proved to be an exciting mix of high-speed sections and tight, twisting challenges for drivers.
Nico Rosberg won last year’s race as part of his march to the F1 title, with Hamilton enduring a rare off weekend that saw him struggle for pace throughout.
The Briton will be keen to make up for the mistakes of last year as he looks to further cut the gap to championship leader Vettel, having sliced the difference to just 12 points with victory last time out in Canada.
As the season nears its midpoint, will Baku prove to be a decisive battleground in the championship fight as it did last year?
Here are the key talking points heading into this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Talking Points
Hamilton chasing redemption after 2016 struggles
Lewis Hamilton very rarely has an ‘off’ weekend where he is completely out of the loop with the front-runners, yet last year’s race in Baku ticked that box fully.
Throughout all of the sessions, Hamilton struggled to find his mojo, suffering two offs in qualifying and eventually finishing fifth, over a minute behind race winner Rosberg. Come the end of the season, it was a points swing that was decisive in the title race.
Hamilton and Mercedes appear more relaxed heading to Baku this time around, though, with both parties expressing confidence about what exactly caused such struggles last year, ensuring that the same mistakes won’t be made twice.
Hamilton is on a high after his emphatic win in Canada, cutting the gap to championship leader Vettel, and if a similar momentum swing takes place in Baku, the Briton could find himself at the top of the standings again.
Vettel, Raikkonen seek response for Ferrari
While Hamilton and Mercedes impressed in Canada, Ferrari had its toughest weekend of the season so far. Contact at the start left Vettel fighting back throughout, eventually recovering to P4, while an issue left Kimi Raikkonen limping home at the end to seventh.
The result saw Mercedes move back into the lead of the constructors’ championship thanks to its one-two finish, leaving Ferrari in need of a response if it wants to stop the momentum gained by the Silver Arrows as soon as possible.
The high temperatures and soft compound tires should play in Ferrari’s favor, as should the variable nature of the circuit. It requires a bit of everything – slippy on the straights, planted through fast corners, quick out of slow ones – and the SF70H appears to be the most well-rounded car on the grid. It bodes well for the Scuderia.
Another rough weekend in store for McLaren
If Fernando Alonso’s late retirement while running in the points was bad for McLaren, then things are only to get worse this weekend as power unit penalties put the British team on the back foot.
Ongoing problems with Honda have caused the relationship with McLaren to near breaking point, with the team currently considering its options for a power unit supply beyond 2018.
If Honda is hoping for a boost anytime soon, it won’t come in Azerbaijan. Power unit changes are set to send Alonso and Vandoorne to the back of the field regardless of their qualifying position. To make matters worse, there’s a lack of overtaking opportunities on part of the track, and down the main straight, engine power is crucial – something McLaren doesn’t have.
It doesn’t bode well for the British team, but if a race of attrition sets in, then an opportunity could yet arise.
Will Baku go bananas this time around?
The circuit in Baku has the ingredients for a pretty crazy race, as seen with the GP2 kids last year when all hell broke loose, allowing Antonio Giovinazzi to fight from the back to win the race.
Most expected at least some drama in the F1 event, only for a pretty straightforward race to unfold without a single safety car period or any major incidents.
So will things be different this time around? The wider cars will certainly add an extra dimension to things, particularly in the Turn 8 uphill section. The greater downforce will make the fast-flowing final sector all the more spectacular, though, even if the top speed of last year won’t be matched.
It may be a street course, but that’s no reason why this can’t be a memorable, spectacular event.
Sauber begins life without Kaltenborn
The big news heading into the Azerbaijan F1 weekend was the parting of ways between Sauber and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn, whose departure was confirmed on Wednesday.
The announcement came at a time when Sauber is continuing to rebuild and plan for the future, having negotiated some choppy waters in recent times amid financial struggles and difficulties, with Kaltenborn largely steering the ship.
The news came as a surprise to most of the F1 paddock, including Sauber drivers Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein, with things changing quickly in the space of 48 hours.
With no team leader now in place, it will be interesting to see how Sauber moves in the coming races and begins to change direction away from Kaltenborn’s vision.
2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Facts and Figures
Track: Baku City Circuit Corners: 20 Lap Record: Nico Rosberg 1:46.485 (2016 – as European Grand Prix) Tire Compounds: Super-Soft/Soft/Medium 2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 2016 Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:42.758 2016 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:46.485 DRS Zone: T20 to T1, T2 to T3
John Force may be 69 years old, but Sunday he proved he is still a major force to reckon with in NHRA Funny Car competition.
The winningest driver in NHRA history, the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion won his 149th national event Sunday, capturing the Dodge NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colorado (suburban Denver).
Force (4.075 seconds at 315.42 mph) defeated 2016 Funny Car champ Ron Capps (4.067 seconds at 308.71 mph) in the final round to earn his first win in over a year.
Force has now won at least one race in each of the last 31 seasons and qualifies for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
“The fire is back in me, I’m fighting,” Force said. “I got tired of hearing me snivel to myself. My wife doesn’t even want to talk to me. … I don’t know why I won this race but I have a lot more fight in my belly.”
Admittedly, before Sunday, he has struggled for much of the last year since his last win.
“I found myself with all the crashes and everything that happened probably at the lowest point in my career,” Force said. “It has been worse than when I crashed in 2007 (in the worst wreck of his career).
“I have been fighting to get back. I never let on to anyone but it showed that I just looked like a mess. I am fighting to get back. I had four crashes (this season) and after my last one I had John Bandimere (owner of Bandimere Speedway) call me and say, ‘We have to talk.’ I said ‘I know you love God and I know where you want to go.’ He told me to listen to him and he set me straight.
“I didn’t know if I would ever get back in position to win a race. Bandimere told me I could and I won’t stand here and preach the Gospel but he said when I get to Denver I will be fixed. He didn’t say I was going to win but that I would be fixed. He told me to go out there and show me who John Force is.”
It was Force’s eighth win (and first there since 2016) and 13th final round appearance at Denver in his career, making him the winningest Funny Car driver ever at Bandimere Speedway.
Force defeated daughter and No. 1 qualifier Courtney Force in the semifinals to set up the deciding run vs. Capps. Prior to defeating Courtney, Force beat Matt Hagan and Cruz Pedregon in the first two rounds of eliminations earlier in the day.
“I had to beat a lot of great racers today, Hagan, Cruz, Capps, I love them all,” Force said.
Here are more tidbits about Force’s day, which leaves him one win away from 150 career wins:
Force now has 1,303 round wins in his career. He has beaten 137 different drivers en route to that mark.
376 of those round wins came against 15 world champions including two-time champ Matt Hagan, against whom he improved his record to 21-17 with today’s first round victory.
Force claimed 152 round wins at the expense of the Pedregon brothers: Cruz, Tony and Frank.
He has beaten fathers and sons (Jim and Mike Dunn, Paul and Mike Smith, Tim and Dan Wilkerson) and brothers (Cruz, Tony and Frank Pedregon along with Ron and Jon Capps)
He has beaten Cruz Pedregon 70 times, more often than any other driver
He earned 21 round wins against daughters Ashley Force Hood and Courtney Force and 22 against Robert Hight, his protégé and the father of granddaughter Autumn Hight.
He has won rounds on 27 different tracks in 18 states and Canada
He has won 128 rounds in three different events at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, the most at any single track
He has won 76 rounds in the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, the most in any single event
Other winners in the first of the NHRA’s annual three-race “Western Swing” (Denver; Sonoma, California; and Seattle) included Leah Pritchett in Top Fuel, Greg Anderson won his first race of the season in Pro Stock and Hector Arana Jr. earned his first Pro Stock Motorcycle win since 2015.
The race was the 14th of the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.
In Top Fuel, Pritchett (3.831 seconds at 316.45 mph) earned her second win of 2018 and seventh of her career. She was No. 1 qualifier for the event (also for the second race in a row and 10th No. 1 of her career) and defeated Doug Kalitta (3.852 seconds at 319.82 mph) for the win.
Prior to facing Kalitta, Pritchett defeated Terry Totten, Scott Palmer and Clay Millican in the first three rounds.
“Our crew has really impressed, attitude of gratitude, as high as the altitude here,” Pritchett said. “They chipped away at it and didn’t let themselves get down earlier this year when we were in a slump and they didn’t let me get myself down in a slump either. I always have my confidence in them and they have their confidence in me and this weekend we pulled it all together.”
In Pro Stock, Anderson earned his first win of the season, his third at Bandimere and 91st triumph of his career.
Anderson (6.943 seconds at 196.53 mph) defeated Summit Racing Equipment teammate Jason Line (6.947 seconds at 196.19 mph). Also, the victory put Anderson back atop the Pro Stock points standings.
“We have had a heck of a battle this year, we have had great running cars but we have made mistakes on Sunday and haven’t been able to close the deal,” Anderson said. “The class is so tough right now, it is so hard to win. The bottom line is we haven’t put forth our best effort on Sunday, we haven’t lost giving it our best shot and today we did.”
Anderson defeated Joey Grose, Vincent Nobile, and Jeg Coughlin Jr. to advance to the finals showdown with Line.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Arana Jr. earned his first win since St. Louis in 2015 and his 12th career NHRA triumph.
In his first final round of the season, Arana (7.170 seconds at 185.89 mph), who earlier this year became the first rider to crack the 200 mph barrier, won easily when 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie fouled at the starting line.
“We have had a fast bike all the time, just been working on consistency and then when the bike was good I was making little errors,” Arana Jr. said. “Dedication, hard work, and practicing to bring it all together. Finally got over some hurdles over here and now we should be back on track.”
The Western Swing continues July 27-29 with the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.
FINAL FINISHING ORDER:
TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Clay Millican; 4. Blake Alexander; 5. Scott Palmer; 6. Steve Torrence; 7. Jim Maroney; 8. Richie Crampton; 9. Tony Schumacher; 10. Antron Brown; 11. Greg Carrillo; 12. Terry Totten; 13. Bill Litton; 14. Brittany Force; 15. Mike Salinas; 16. Terry McMillen.
FUNNY CAR: 1. John Force; 2. Ron Capps; 3. Robert Hight; 4. Courtney Force; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. Cruz Pedregon; 7. Tim Wilkerson; 8. Jack Beckman; 9. J.R. Todd; 10. Jonnie Lindberg; 11. Matt Hagan; 12. Jeff Diehl; 13. Terry Haddock; 14. Bob Tasca III; 15. Shawn Langdon; 16. Todd Simpson.
PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jason Line; 3. Chris McGaha; 4. Jeg Coughlin; 5. Deric Kramer; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Alex Laughlin; 8. Tanner Gray; 9. Bo Butner; 10. Drew Skillman; 11. Matt Hartford; 12. Fernando Cuadra; 13. Erica Enders; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Joey Grose; 16. Will Hatcher.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Hector Arana Jr.; 2. Jerry Savoie; 3. Andrew Hines; 4. Karen Stoffer; 5. Scotty Pollacheck; 6. LE Tonglet; 7. Steve Johnson; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Angie Smith; 11. Jim Underdahl; 12. Angelle Sampey; 13. Ryan Oehler; 14. Joey Gladstone; 15. Cory Reed; 16. Eddie Krawiec.
TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 1,132; 2. Clay Millican, 959; 3. Leah Pritchett, 949; 4. Tony Schumacher, 930; 5. Doug Kalitta, 893; 6. Antron Brown, 750; 7. Terry McMillen, 696; 8. Brittany Force, 658; 9. Richie Crampton, 576; 10. Scott Palmer, 544.
FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 1,156; 2. Matt Hagan, 946; 3. Ron Capps, 930; 4. Robert Hight, 911; 5. Jack Beckman, 906; 6. J.R. Todd, 832; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 746; 8. John Force, 735; 9. Shawn Langdon, 647; 10. Bob Tasca III, 596.
PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 1,044; 2. Tanner Gray, 976; 3. Erica Enders, 969; 4. Vincent Nobile, 947; 5. Chris McGaha, 875; 6. Drew Skillman, 842; 7. Jeg Coughlin, 838; 8. Bo Butner, 782; 9. Jason Line, 778; 10. Deric Kramer, 725.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 591; 2. Eddie Krawiec, 564; 3. Hector Arana Jr, 501; 4. LE Tonglet, 493; 5. Jerry Savoie, 481; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, 417; 7. Matt Smith, 411; 8. Angie Smith, 304; 9. (tie) Hector Arana, 289; Angelle Sampey, 289.