Formula 1 made its first-ever visit to the city of Baku, Azerbaijan, for the 2016 European Grand Prix last weekend. The Baku City Circuit presents a mix of slow, technical sections and a sweeping, high-speed end to the lap. This unique combination, coupled with the little margin for error allowed by the presence of unforgiving walls and barriers, gave the drivers a variety of interesting challenges to adapt to.
While on the surface it may appear that Mercedes once again cruised their way to victory, there were several things worth noting that were going on around the 6.0 kilometre street circuit…
Baku provides a driving challenge, but little atmosphere
The Baku City Circuit earned praise from the majority of drivers for its difficulty and the unique challenge it provides.
The layout of the circuit required the drivers to do the best that they could with a compromised setup, designed to balance the need for downforce through the slower corners with the need for straight-line space. In terms of the challenge provided by the circuit, there can be no complaints. It is undoubtedly a circuit that requires precision, courage and full-time concentration if a quick lap time is to be achieved.
In terms of atmosphere, however, there was something missing. Azerbaijan is hardly known for its motorsport history, and unfortunately it showed as the best racing drivers in the world duelled in front of stands that were sparsely filled with spectators.
It is important to remember that this was the first grand prix to ever take place around the streets of Baku, which provides the possibility of stronger attendance figures in future. For 2016, however, it was not to be.
Rosberg restores the balance just in time
The general feeling before F1’s visit to Baku was that Nico Rosberg was under pressure following two poor races in Monaco and Canada, with teammate and championship rival Lewis Hamilton producing a pair of clinical performances to take victory on both occasions.
With his lead in the Driver’s Championship cut to only 9 points after Canada, Rosberg needed to stamp his authority on the title race again around the Baku City Circuit, which crucially held no prior history for him, Hamilton, or any other driver.
His lights-to-flag victory, coupled with Hamilton’s ho-hum run to fifth place leaves the German a far more comfortable 24 point margin over his teammate and relieves some of the pressure that was clearly mounting on him.
There is further good news for Rosberg: the next stop on the calendar is the Austrian Grand Prix, a venue where the German has triumphed on both occasions since it was re-instated to the calendar in 2014. His undoubted ability around the Austrian circuit gives him a golden opportunity to stretch his lead over Hamilton past the psychologically-crucial 25 point mark, which would certainly allow him to feel that his title bid is truly back on track.
The continuing story of the all-conquering Mercedes
The Baku City Circuit was always likely to be a strong circuit for Mercedes, thanks in no small part to its 2.2 kilometre straight giving the German manufacturer’s engine the opportunity to strut its stuff.
Of course, Mercedes have been strong on all circuits so far this year, which makes Nico Rosberg’s victory in Baku relatively unsurprising. What is perhaps a little surprising, however, was the ease with which Rosberg dominated when it mattered.
After teammate Lewis Hamilton crashed before setting a representative time in qualifying on Saturday, Rosberg cruised to pole by an astronomical margin of just under 0.8 tenths over the Force India of Sergio Perez. On Sunday, Rosberg never looked troubled and had matters firmly in hand from lights to flag.
For all the optimism about the progress made by rivals such as Ferrari and Red Bull, the Mercedes W07 remains the car to beat. The Silver Arrows’ rivals may have the ability to apply sporadic pressure to them in some aspects, but in terms of the overall package, there is, at present, no team that can consistently challenge their dominance.
Ferrari and Red Bull will undoubtedly make more progress as the season goes by, but by the time they catch up, it will probably be time to focus on the rule shake-up for 2017.
Perez is knocking on the big teams’ doors
Sergio Perez has generally found himself overlooked for a second opportunity in top-tier machinery after his single season at McLaren in 2013 saw him comfortably beaten by teammate Jenson Button.
Many had felt that the Mexican seemed to lack the crucial edge required to achieve consistent success, even in a front-running car. In fairness to Perez, however, the 2013 McLaren was hardly the Woking-based squad’s finest effort. Since then, the Mexican has undoubtedly made a step up in performance.
He has developed into a far more mature driver, one that makes few mistakes and produces measured and consistent performances. As a result, he is currently well ahead of teammate Nico Hülkenberg, who was himself once tipped for big things. With Perez making headlines thanks to his second podium of 2016 in Baku, he is sure to feature in the thoughts of the likes of Williams and Ferrari when the time for sorting out driving duties for 2017 comes.
Long hours ahead for Renault’s power unit department
Renault-powered teams, and in particular Red Bull, took a clear step forward in Monaco and Canada as the French manufacturer introduced an update to its hybrid power unit.
The upgraded engine drew praise from both drivers and key personnel, leading to hopes that Red Bull would soon consistently challenge the duo of Mercedes and Ferrari.
In Baku, however, Red Bull advisor Dr Helmut Marko predicted that Red Bull would lose a mammoth 1.2 seconds in lap time down the circuit’s lengthy straight. Such a statement turned out to be more than mere pessimism as both Red Bull drivers struggled for sheer straight-line grunt during the race compared to the Mercedes-powered teams in particular.
Towards the back of the grid, the works Renault drivers found themselves out-raced by Felipe Nasr in a Sauber car that has little going for it other than the Ferrari engine it uses. Simply put, even though progress is clearly being made, many hours of work will have to be put in before the Renault power unit causes any sleepless nights at either Maranello or Brackley.
Fortunately for Red Bull, the chassis of their RB12 challenger is arguably the best on the grid, which should keep them competitive in the meantime.
Has the radio ban gone too far?
The FIA, Formula 1’s governing body, has clamped down strictly on what drivers can and cannot be told by their teams over the radio this season amidst fears that too much driver “coaching” was going on.
In short, it was felt that drivers should adapt to any challenges to that may arise while the car is out on circuit. In Baku, this resulted in Lewis Hamilton struggling for pace as his Mercedes W07 somehow entered an incorrect engine mode, which he did not know how to adjust in order to unleash his car’s full performance.
Despite the Briton’s frustrated pleadings, race engineer Peter Bonnington was forced to repeat the phrase “I can’t tell you that” several times. Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen experienced a similar dilemma as he asked a question pertaining to his SF16-H challenger, only to receive a similarly unhelpful answer.
This brings into question where the line is between the pitwall coaching a driver and allowing them to compete on a fair footing with their rivals. While it could be reasonably expected that the world’s leading racing drivers should be able to adapt to problems pertaining to tyres, brakes, fuel or damage to the car, it is less clear how much they should know about the workings of the car from a software viewpoint.
Formula 1 cars are immensely complex beasts, particularly in the “new” era, which makes use of hybrid power. Perhaps it would be wise for the FIA to reconsider where the driver’s job ends and where their engineer’s begins.
By Adriaan Slabbert
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