With just 1 month to go until the Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix 2023, excitement is continuing to build ahead of the pinnacle of motorsport’s much anticipated return to the world’s most dramatic street race at the famous Baku City Circuit on the weekend of April 28th – 30th.
Having featured on the Formula 1 calendar since 2016, the Baku City Circuit is considered to be a favorite amongst fans thanks to its unpredictable racing and super-fast speeds. As F1 prepares to race through the Azerbaijani capital for the seventh time in just a few short weeks, it is worth reflecting on the aspects that make this event one of the highlights on the calendar. Whether it’s the close finishes, surprise podium results, on-track incidents, or the fact no driver has ever won the race more than once, the Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix is renowned for its spectacular and dramatic races.
We look back over the six races to have taken place since 2016 and highlight seven reasons why the Azerbaijan Grand Prix has become such a popular event amongst Formula 1 fans. And there could yet be even more drama in 2023 as the Baku City Circuit gears up to host a Sprint qualifying race – the first of six to take place this season -the day before the main event…so strap yourselves in for another wild ride!
- Unpredictable Races
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix has a reputation for being one of the most dramatic and unpredictable Formula 1 events of the year. In the half dozen races held so far on the Baku City Circuit there has never been a repeat winner, with six different drivers standing on the top step of the podium.
The streets of the Azerbaijan capital have seen plenty of action across the 306 racing laps to have been completed in Baku since 2016. Races have been won and lost through dramatic incidents, on-track clashes, punctures and even road-rage. The latter took place when Sebastian Vettel drove into Lewis Hamilton as the pair were battling for the lead in the 2017 edition of the race.
While running behind the Safety Car, Vettel crashed into the back of Hamilton’s Mercedes on the exit of Turn 15. Thinking he had been deliberately brake-tested, Vettel pulled his Ferrari alongside the British driver and turned into him. In one of the most extraordinary incidents to occur on the racetrack in recent times. Vettel was given a ten-second stop/go penalty for his driving which cost him a shot at the race win.
There was more drama a year later when the two Red Bull drivers, Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, took each other out of the race. Valtteri Bottas inherited the lead only for him to suffer a dramatic tire blow-out just three laps from the checkered flag.
And in 2021 it was Verstappen who lost the lead due to a late-race puncture. And following a subsequent red-flag stoppage, F1 fans were treated to a two-lap dash to the flag. In an attempt to take the lead, Hamilton out-braked himself into Turn 1 and dropped out of the points for the first time in 57 races… In Baku you can always expect the unexpected!
- Fast and Challenging Circuit
One of the reasons the F1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix always produces such exciting races is thanks to the layout of the Baku City Circuit. After Spa, Jeddah and Las Vegas, Baku is the fourth longest track on the Formula 1 calendar, measuring 6.003km (3.730 miles). Part of the fun of the track for the drivers is the high speeds that Formula 1 cars reach here, particularly along the 2.2km (1.4 mile) straight that runs parallel to the Caspian Sea.
From the left-hander at Turn 16 through to Turn 20 and onto the start/finish line it’s a flat-out blast featuring a Drag Reduction System (DRS) zone which propels the cars to maximum velocity. Speeds as high as 378km/h (235mph) have been recorded in the past leading to some intense overtaking battles into the braking zone for Turn 1.
But while the final section of the lap benefits from outright engine power, it’s the middle sector which requires a car to have high levels of downforce and where a driver must ensure maximum focus to avoid making a mistake.
The sequence through Turns 8-10 takes the course past the old castle wall which is one of the narrowest parts of any track on the entire F1 calendar. The width at the tightest section measures a mere 7.6 meters in which drivers must precisely thread their cars. A mistake here and with no-run off, competitors can easily find themselves in the wall… In 2021 there were four red-flag stoppages in qualifying thanks to driver errors.
- Great Location
Situated on a promontory that is located on the edge of the land-locked Caspian Sea, the Azerbaijan capital is the perfect location to host a Formula 1 race. In terms of altitude it ranks as the lowest venue on the calendar, as Baku is positioned 28 meters (92 feet) below sea level.
In the six races held here since 2016, none have been impacted by rain as temperate conditions have prevailed, although the city is known for its strong winds thanks to the lack of natural defenses from the sea.
Baku is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city featuring modern architecture including the remarkable Heydar Aliyev Center museum, the Azersu Tower and iconic Flame Towers — which is a nod to the Land of Fire slogan of the country, thanks to the natural gas fire (Yanar Dag) that burns on the Absheron Peninsula near to the capital.
There are historic monuments which are protected as UNESCO World Heritage sites in the old city that include Shirvanshah’s Palace and the beautiful Maiden Tower. Meanwhile, the Formula 1 pit and paddock buildings are located next to Government House in Azadliq Square.
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix is the annual highlight of Baku’s rich sporting heritage. The capital was a host city for the UEFA Euro 2020 football tournament and also held the final of the 2019 UEFA Europa League, besides many other international events.
Formula 1 enjoys a warm welcome each year and visiting fans get the chance to sample the food and culture of the Azeri capital city. And for 2023, there will be an even greater action-packed weekend as the event has been chosen as one of the six races that will host an extra Sprint qualifying race on Saturday afternoon. The result of that dash-to-the-flag will decide the grid for the main event on Sunday, April 30.
- Close Finishes
In the six races held in Baku, four of them have finished with just a handful of seconds separating the winner from second place. The closest winning margin was in the 2021 edition of the race when 1.385 seconds separated Sergio Pérez’s Red Bull from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. It was fractionally closer than the previous year when 1.524s split Valtteri Bottas from his Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton.
But none of these come close to the dramatic moment when Bottas gained a slipstream from behind Lance Stroll and pipped the Williams driver at the finish line in a remarkable photo finish back in 2017. Stroll was beaten into third place by just 0.105 seconds. It was the Canadian’s first of his three podiums in his career to date — and would have been his highest-ever finish in Formula 1.
Mick Schumacher repeated the feat on his Haas team-mate back in 2021, as he beat Nikita Mazepin in a drag race to the line by just 0.074 seconds, although on that occasion it was a battle for 13th place.
For whatever reason, Baku seems to generate drama between team-mates. As well as the two Red Bull drivers taking each other out in 2018, the Force India (now Aston Martin) racers famously made contact here at Turn 2 in 2017. Esteban Ocon dived to the inside of Sergio Pérez as they battled for fourth place and their ensuing contact immediately dropped them to the tail of the field. The Force India pit wall was not amused…
- Brilliant Overtaking
The margin between making contact with a rival driver and successfully passing them without incident can be a slim one at the Baku City Circuit. When Ricciardo and Verstappen came to blows in 2018 it had followed a number of laps where the pair had passed and re-passed each other in a brilliant duel around the city’s streets. The art of overtaking, whether it’s around the outside of Turn 1, or getting the switchback on the exit of Turn 2 can make racing in Azerbaijan thrilling to watch.
But perhaps the greatest passing move to occur here was Ricciardo’s incredible three-car overtake along the main straight as he hit the brakes into Turn 1. Following a race restart in 2017, Ricciardo enjoyed an incredible slipstream to go from sixth to third — passing Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault and the two Williams of Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll in the process.
This pass set up an epic win for the Australian driver who at one stage was as low as 17th (on lap six). His charge from the back of the field proves that overtaking is a regular occurrence at the Baku track.
There were a total of 42 recorded overtaking moves in that race, which was down on the 62 recorded in the inaugural year. In total 247 passes have been made since 2016 — that’s an average of over 40 per race: and another reason why F1 fans enjoy Baku so much.
- Unusual — and Comical — Incidents
Not only has Baku enjoyed six different winners in six years — but to highlight the race’s unpredictability — six different drivers have also set the fastest lap. As we’ve seen in the half dozen races so far, there have been road rage incidents, punctures, multiple red flags, and Safety Cars. In addition only one of the races has had one driver lead every lap. On average, the F1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix has had three different race leaders each time — but in 2021 there were five different drivers at the head of the field.
There have also been odd and occasionally comical incidents too. The most notable was in 2018 when Romain Grosjean crashed his Haas while the field was running slowly behind the Safety Car. He was weaving from side-to-side to warm his tires up when he suddenly speared into the wall and into retirement. Even more bizarrely, his race engineer appeared to blame fellow racer Marcus Ericsson for the incident when he was nowhere near him on the race track…
The sight of Grosjean coming into his Haas garage and hurling his gloves at an unsuspecting mechanic was regularly featured on TV highlight reels.
On another occasion, Daniel Ricciardo attempted to pass Russian racer Daniil Kvyat in the 2019 race, but the pair out-braked each other — avoided contact — and ended up parked in the Turn 3 run-off. In his desperation to get back into the race, the Australian then selected reverse gear and promptly drove straight into the hapless Kvyat. Crunch!
- Surprise Podiums
There are a handful of Formula 1 drivers who have a natural affinity with street circuits. Throughout his career, Sergio Pérez has excelled on city courses. When he won the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in 2021, it was the first in his tally of street circuit victories that have since included Monaco and Singapore.
Even before ’21, the Mexican racer has always shown good form in Baku. At the inaugural race in 2016 (which was known as the European Grand Prix), he qualified his under-funded Force India on the front row of the grid.
Unfortunately, he had to take a five-place grid penalty for a replacement gearbox after damaging his car in the final practice session. That didn’t halt his progress — and he remarkably finished on the podium in third place. He and his Force India team didn’t score another podium for two years — and that also came in Baku in 2018…
Although he was beaten into third place on the line by just a tenth of a second, Lance Stroll’s podium here for Williams was another feel good story. It was the team’s first top three finish for over a year, and since the 2017 race, the team have only achieved a rostrum placing on one other occasion.
Baku continues to throw-up surprise podium finishers as Pierre Gasly qualified fourth and finished third in the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix. It was only the fourth podium in the long history of the Italian-based Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri team dating back to 2006.
So the question now is what surprises will Baku have in store for Formula 1 fans this year?