PREVIEW l Five things to watch in the Azerbaijan GP this weekend

The street circuit features the longest straight in the F1 calendar and brings good memories to the Canadian drivers

By Yuri Coghe
@yuricoghe
The Baku street circuit is back to the F1 calendar after not featuring last season due to the pandemic (Photo: F1/Twitter)

Just like Monaco, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix is back after not featuring in last year’s season due to the pandemic.

The unique street circuit is well-known for its 2.2 kilometres straight, the longest of the F1 calendar and one that requires speeds of over 370 km/h. But there’s way more to the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

F1total.ca brings you five things to watch ahead of the sixth race of the season this weekend.

Fight for the top

Max Verstappen has been leading the F1 drivers’ championship for the first time in his career since the Monaco GP. While it’s true that Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton had a rather unusual and lacklustre race, the first five races also showed it’s also undeniable that Red Bull has a car able to challenge the German team head-to-head for the first time in the hybrid era.

So, expect a tight battle for the championship on every round from now on, and Baku should be no exception.

Hamilton has a four-point gap to come back if he’s to leave Azerbaijan as the leader of the pack once again, so a victory will do it no matter what Verstappen’s finishing position is. But if the Dutchman can extend his lead, the seven-time world champion will have to work a lot harder and wait another two weeks to have that chance again at the French GP on the June 19-20 weekend.

As we’ve been saying since before the season even started, watch this space.

Further listening: PODCAST l The Chicane Crew Podcast reviews the Monaco Grand Prix

Is it time for Bottas to shine?

But if there’s a chance for Valtteri Bottas to make sure neither Verstappen nor Hamilton is the one stepping on the highest podium spot, it’s in the streets of Baku.

The Finn has shown great pace in the street circuit since it became part of the F1 calendar in 2017. He finished second in that race and was leading in 2018 until he suffered a puncture with three laps to go, eventually finishing 14th. Bottas finally won in Baku the following year.

Charles Leclerc surprised everyone by claiming pole in Monaco, and maybe Bottas can do the same this weekend to celebrate a tenth career win, despite a flight delay that kept him in Finland for longer than expected.

The 25 points would also improve his situation in the standings by a lot since he now sits fourth behind McLaren’s Lando Norris and sees Sergio Perez lurking just three points behind.

Further reading: Wolff casts partial blame on Bottas for catastrophic Monaco pit-stop: “He stopped a little too early”
Further reading: Bottas ‘not worried’ about ‘bull****’ rumours’; Hamilton asks people to give his teammate a break

Good memories for the Canadians

Both Lance Stroll and Nicholas Latifi have great memories when it comes to Azerbaijan.

Stroll became the youngest rookie to finish on the podium in the first race in Baku back in 2017, the last Williams top-3 finish to date. Fast forward to June 2021, the Aston Martin driver has a good opportunity to finish in the points for the fourth time in six races.

As for Latifi, he won the F2 sprint race in Baku in his 2019 runner-up campaign in the series. Not a bad retrospect at all for the Canadians.

Further reading: Latifi forgot to connect his drinks tube in Monaco: “I was very thirsty when I reached the chequered flag”

McLaren back as the third force?

Ferrari showed great pace in Monaco, claiming pole position with Charles Leclerc and a second-place finish with Carlos Sainz Jr. But the Italian team is ready for the fall-off.

They don’t expect to keep the momentum in Azerbaijan and also project some complicated races in the new few rounds. The ball is on McLaren’s court, therefore.

The British team started the season as a favourite to finish third in the constructors’ championship and needs to capitalize on this possible window of opportunity to stay clearer than the current two-point gap in the standings between themselves and Ferrari.

Further back in the grid

The third tier of Formula 1 teams when it comes to performance in the 2021 season is as tight as the first and the second. Just look at the constructors’ championship after five races. Aston Martin (19 points), Alpha Tauri (18) and Alpine (17) are ridiculously close.

Any of these teams might take off in the fight for fifth place if Vettel, Yuki Tsunoda and Fernando Alonso start to show up more consistently.

The German had a great race in Monaco but failed to score points in the first four races of the season. The Japanese driver went the other way around. He had a great maiden race in F1 in Bahrain, but had to endure terrible performances ever since and has been under pressure at Alpha Tauri. He has 2 points in the standings, 14 less than teammate Pierre Gasly.

As for the returning two-time world champion, Alonso has admitted he needs to improve and it’s way behind teammate Esteban Ocon at the moment. Can they begin to change the narrative in Baku?

The qualifying, on Saturday, and the race, on Sunday, both start at 8 AM Eastern Time, 5 AM Pacific Time.

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