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
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
2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – TV/Stream Times