Formula 1’s Baku race is still a young grand prix. It joined the calendar in 2016 and has only been held five times. Nonetheless, it’s quite impressive that it has never had a repeat winner. For example, other new or returning races like the French, Emilia Romagna and Portuguese GPs have all had repeat winners in recent years – and that’s spanning a shorter period, since 2018. So Baku has a special reputation. Nico Rosberg, Daniel Ricciardo, Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez have won in Azerbaijan. And as the favourites for victory this year are, unsurprisingly Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc, that amazing streak has a great chance of being extended.
Verstappen, of course, should have won the 2021 race but suffered a late tyre failure. Hamilton could then have won the grand prix but flew down the escape road at the restart, allowing Perez to score his first Red Bull win. Given it had been a straightforward run from Verstappen until that point it was a good example of how Baku, with the right ingredients for chaos, can suddenly turn a dull race into a spectacular one.
Perez is the best contender to become Baku’s first repeat winner. He’s in a great place at the moment, returning to the scene of his best weekend for Red Bull in 2021 off the back of winning Monaco where he was genuinely quicker than Verstappen, and signing a new two-year deal with the team. Again he had the edge on Verstappen, who seemed to have a day disrupted by more rear wing/DRS issues, and it seems as though the understeer-biased Red Bull RB18 is really playing in Perez’s favour. It would be silly to write off Verstappen, though. And as he has generally carried an advantage of 0.1-0.2s on Perez this season, Verstappen could potentially be a match for Leclerc if he becomes more comfortable.
A fight between Verstappen and Leclerc would play very nicely with the narrative of Azerbaijan having a tendency to produce good races. After Leclerc’s setbacks in Spain (engine failure) and Monaco (Ferrari’s strategic mess), there is big pressure on Ferrari to regain some momentum in the championship. This is a track Leclerc goes great on – dominant in Formula 2, excellent in his rookie season with Sauber, super-fast with Ferrari in 2019 (even though he crashed in qualifying) and then on pole last year as well. He has all the motivation to star this weekend and there is every reason to expect he can.
Ferrari and Red Bull are, once again, in a different league this weekend. They dominated Friday practice with almost a second to spare over the next-best car – Fernando Alonso’s Alpine. As in Monaco the Mercedes looks to be suffering on a low-grip, bumpy track. Its package is just too stiff and has too poor tyre warm-up to be effective here. That leaves it vulnerable in the midfield, especially over one lap. It would not be a surprise if George Russell or Lewis Hamilton find themselves behind Alonso or the AlphaTauris (which look quick again, like they were in Monaco, pointing to a decent mechanical platform on the AT03).
If so, it could put a midfield team in position to benefit should drama strike Ferrari and Red Bull. Stranger things have happened in Baku – last year two of the three podium places were taken by Aston Martin and AlphaTauri. Don’t bet against a similar upset in 2022.