Formula 1 will visit Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, this weekend for the eighth round of the 2016 season.
While the European Grand Prix has been a long-standing fixture on the calendar, this weekend will be the first time that the race will take place in the Land of Fire, as Azerbaijan is often called.
The ever-shrinking gap at the top of the Driver’s Championship standings, coupled with a new circuit with new challenges to overcome should mean that there will be several things to keep an eye on this weekend in Baku…
Can Rosberg show his mettle?
Two races ago, Nico Rosberg was comfortably leading the title race and some questioned whether he was not already the champion-elect for 2016. However, an uninspired performance around the streets of Monaco, along with another less-than-ideal outing in Canada has piled the pressure on Rosberg going into this weekend’s race.
How the German responds will be interesting to see. It is true that he has won more races this year than any other driver. It is, however, also true that in several of those victories, reliability gremlins have conspired against his teammate and rival Lewis Hamilton, leaving the Briton on the back foot.
To become Formula 1 World Champion requires something more than just speed. It requires a certain steely edge that allows the driver to overcome adversity. Some of the best examples of this in recent years include Kimi Räikkönen’s against-all-odds title triumph in 2007, or Hamilton’s last-gasp success in the rain at Interlagos in 2008.
In short, if Rosberg wishes to win the 2016 title, nobody is going to hand it to him. Instead, he will have to prove that he can succeed under the pressure that he now faces.
Will Baku make a successful debut?
Formula 1 has made a noticeable effort in the 21st-century to go racing in exotic and unusual locations in order to turn the sport into a truly global spectacle. Some of these races have since found a secure home on the calendar, while some, such as Turkey, India and South Korea, have fallen by the wayside.
Azerbaijan aims to emulate the likes of Singapore and China and to earn its place on the calendar for years to come. Whether it succeeds in this goal will depend on the quality of the spectacle produced this weekend.
Azerbaijan is not the first name that springs to name when he word ‘motorsport’ is mentioned, but then again, neither is China or Singapore. One thing, however, is certain: if the sight of the best drivers in the world charging through the streets of the city at speeds in excess of 320 kilometres per hour doesn’t thrill the fans in Baku, little else will.
Will Red Bull really lose 1.2 seconds per lap down the main straight?
Renault has made a concerted effort to improve the performance of its hybrid power unit in 2016, which lagged behind those of Ferrari and Mercedes in 2015. A significant engine update that was made available to its customers in Canada earned the French manufacturer a fair amount of praise. Red Bull, who lead the charge of the Renault-powered teams, were particularly positive about the added performance produced by the new engine.
However, Red Bull Special Advisor Dr. Helmut Marko made clear earlier in the week that much work remains to be done by claiming that Red Bull (and by implication other Renault customers) would lose a mammoth 1.2 seconds in lap time down Baku’s 2.2 kilometre straight.
If this proves to be the case, this could be a weekend to forget for Renault and its customers. This would be a pity for Red Bull, who arguably have the best chassis on the grid. Of course, we could simply be witnessing mind games from Dr. Marko. (Lap) time will tell.
Can Williams build on Canada?
Williams have found themselves struggling to keep up with the front-runners so far in 2016, with Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull ahead of them in the pecking order at present. This has resulted in the Grove-based squad presently occupying fourth place in the Constructor’s standings with 81 points, 49 points of Red Bull in third place.
However, Williams enjoyed a strong outing in Montreal as Valtteri Bottas produced a sterling drive to third place, thus securing the team’s first podium finish of 2016. The Baku City Circuit, with its lengthy 2.2 kilometre straight, should play to the strengths of Williams’ FW38 challenger, which is known to enjoy strong straight-line pace.
While the FW38 is likely to lose time to its rivals through the corners given its relative lack of downforce, it should perform impressively down the straight. If this is the case, and if Red Bull really do struggle around the streets of Baku, Williams could look to pounce and secure another strong haul of points.
They will have to do so if they hope to keep in touch with Red Bull over the course of the season.
Can Räikkönen end his slump?
Räikkönen enjoyed a reasonably successful start to the 2016 season with three podiums to his name so far. The Finn, who is on a one-year contract with Ferrari, was performing sufficiently well for team boss Maurizio Arrivabene to suggest that he would offer Räikkönen another year at the Scuderia in 2017.
However, Räikkönen’s performances in Monaco and Canada left much to be desired. He crashed out near the start of the Monaco race and finished fifth in Canada while teammate Sebastian Vettel was battling the Mercedes Hamilton for victory. This unimpressive pair of results have cast the Finn’s future into fresh doubt, especially considering the rising stars of several of the sport’s younger drivers.
A key issue for Räikkönen is the ever-closing gap between Formula 1’s three front-running teams. In 2015, with Mercedes and Ferrari the only two teams to challenge for victory on a given weekend, he could endure a lacklustre weekend while still finishing in fourth place, or even on the podium if ill-fortune befell a rival.
However, now that the Red Bull pair of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo are regularly joining the fray, the margin for mistakes or less-than-stellar form are smaller than ever. In short, Räikkönen can no longer rely on the pure performance advantage that his Ferrari SF16-H used to hold over the majority of cars on the grid.
Of course, the fact that Räikkönen is one of the most successful drivers on the grid makes his slump all the more frustrating. Regardless of his reputation, however, the Finn could use a few strong results sooner rather than later.
Article by Adriaan Slabbert
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