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Featured Image by the Press Team of the President of Azerbaijan (released under CC-BY SA 4.0)

The Monaco Grand Prix, held a fortnight ago, saw Max Verstappen & Red Bull emerge victorious, while Carlos Sainz Jr finished second, and Lando Norris rounded off the podium. Verstappen’s victory propelled him to first in the driver standings, marking the first time the Dutchman has led the standings.

This weekend, we return to the streets of Baku, after a year’s absence, for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Coming into this weekend, the top 3 in the Drivers’ Championship are: Verstappen (105 points), Hamilton (101 points) and Bottas (56 points). The top 3 in the Constructors’ are: Red Bull (149 points), Mercedes (148 points) and McLaren (80 points).

For today’s race, the first 3 rows on the starting grid are as follows: Charles Leclerc starts from pole, with Lewis Hamilton alongside him. Row 2 sees Max Verstappen & Pierre Gasly in 3rd & 4th, while Row 3 has Carlos Sainz Jnr & Sergio Perez in 5th and 6th. Perez qualified 7th, but has been promoted due to a grid penalty for Lando Norris, who originally qualified 6th.

Ahead of today’s race, here are the potential storylines to watch….

The Circuit – Baku City Circuit

The Baku City Circuit serves as the venue for this weekend’s race. The 6.005km long track is the third longest on the calendar, just behind Spa and Jeddah. Charles Leclerc holds the lap record for the race, with a 1:43.009 set in the 2019 edition.

Laid out across parts of the old town and city centre, 20 turn track stands out among street circuits for it’s high speeds. Cars can hit close to 350km/h at the finish line, which comes after a 2.2km long straight; the longest on the calendar. The highest speed ever recorded on the circuit was 378km/h, set by Valtteri Bottas in 2016.

While Baku may have the high-speed characteristics of a permanent racing circuit, it still retains the narrow characteristics of a street circuit. Besides the longest straight, Baku also features the narrowest section of track in Formula One. Located in Sector 2, the castle section (Turns 8-11) is just 7.6 metres wide. For comparison, the track width at Monaco is between 9-10 metres wide in most sections.

2 DRS Zones are available on the track, located on the 2.2km straight, and the straight between Turns 2 and 3.

With long straights in Sectors 1 & 3, and the tight corners in Sector 2, teams will need to make compromises between top speed and downforce. As with Monaco, driver concentration and skill is crucial. With the unforgiving walls lining the track, any mistake can bring the session to an end for a driver.

Things to Watch:

Overtaking

For the fans who want to see some overtaking and wheel to wheel action, you’re in luck. For a street circuit, Baku features a large number of overtaking opportunities. With the most well-known being the start-finish straight. Expect to see close battles for track position, given the 2 way fights in the Constructors’ for first, third, and three way fights for 5th.

Can Leclerc cling on to win?

Yesterday, Charles Leclerc scored yet another shock pole, after teammate Carlos Sainz Jr brought out a late Red Flag. Ahead of the weekend, nobody had expected the prancing horses to be fighting for poles. At Monaco, it could still be argued that Ferrari had the potential to perform. The track was by no means a “power track”.

The opposite of Baku, which is an “all rounder power track”. With long straights that put high emphasis on engine power and top speed, alongside a tight and twisty sector 2. But Leclerc did basically the impossible to score pole. And even then the drivers both felt that the Ferrari could have scored pole on merit without the flag.

In subsequent interviews with The Race, Ferrari’s secret emerged. Carlos Sainz stated that Ferrari were running a compromised setup. Relying on the mechanical grip of the car, allowing the team to run reduced wing angles. Combined with tows from other cars on the track, this allowed the SF21s to reach the high trap speeds recorded.

Now that Leclerc has secured pole with the compromised setup, the larger question looms. Can Leclerc extract the same amount of pace from the car in the race?

It is highly debate. While the Ferraris should have no issue in the first 2 sectors, it is the third sector that poses a problem. On his pole lap, Leclerc was second fastest in the first and second sectors. But it was only due to a tow from Lewis Hamilton, that Leclerc came third fastest in Sector 3.

And this should concern Ferrari. Both Ferraris are at risk of losing ground in this sector, which is largely a flat-out run to the finish line. Given this, a win, or even a podium for Leclerc is not set in stone. Both Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen will be happy to snatch the lead from the Monegasque driver to assist in their title campaigns…

Can Bottas turn things around?

Valtteri Bottas has had a poor 2021 season thus far. And at Baku, things still look grim. While teammate Lewis Hamilton qualified 2nd, Bottas qualified in 10th. Needless to say, this poor qualifying has done the Finn no favours. With rumours swirling of his impending axing at Mercedes at the end of the year, the Finn needs to perform today if he wishes to stay on.

Below is a summary of the Finn’s dismal season thus far:

5 rounds into the 2021 season, Bottas has scored less than half the points of Lewis Hamilton. In all fairness to the Finn, Bottas failed to finish 2 races, by no fault of his own. However, the bigger issue looming is his driving. In the 3 races Bottas finished, he has only come 3rd. While teammate Hamilton won all 3 races.

In addition, Bottas’s first retirement, the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix needs to be analysed further in depth. Bottas retired after a collision with the Williams of George Russell. But Bottas wasn’t lapping Russell. Russell had attempted to overtake Bottas.

In the damp conditions, the slowest car on the grid, was overtaking the fastest car on the grid. A result that was simply unacceptable in any way. Clearly, Bottas has not been pushing his machinery in the races as he should. Pointing to an issue with himself.

Currently, Bottas sits behind the McLaren of Lando Norris in the standings. McLaren sits 3rd in the standings, with just over half the points scored by Mercedes. With the car Bottas is driving, he should be far ahead in the points of Norris. Not sitting behind Norris in the points.

Red Bull v Mercedes

Following a disastrous weekend for the Silver Arrows in Monaco, Red Bull have snatched the lead by a slim margin. Leading by a single point in the constructors. While Monaco was by no means a “clean weekend” for the Milton Keynes squad, things look to be on the up for it’s drivers. Max Verstappen won his second race of the year, while Sergio Perez managed to cut his way through the streets of Monaco from 9th at the start, to 4th at the flag. While Perez still failed to score his first podium with the team, such a performance on the unforgiving circuit is a good sign.

A sign that Perez is slowly acclimatising to the characteristics of the RB16B. Which will bring Red Bull closer to that “clean weekend” it needs, to put up a fight in the Championship. Without a doubt, Red Bull will be seeking to build upon it’s Monaco form.

For the Silver Arrows, Baku will be about vanquishing the struggles of Monaco, and bouncing back. Fortunately for the Silver Arrows, Baku suits the characteristics of the W12. Baku is considered to be an “all rounder track”. The RB16B’s achilles heel. Demonstrated by Portugal and Spain.

For today’s race, Lewis Hamilton starts 2nd for Mercedes, with Max Verstappen in 3rd for Red Bull. Sergio Perez starts in 6th for Red Bull, while Valtteri Bottas starts in 10th for Mercedes. With no front row lockout for either team, expect to see Verstappen battle it out with Hamilton against Leclerc for the lead.

McLaren v Ferrari

Following the Monaco Grand Prix, McLaren and Ferrari sit just 2 points apart in the battle for third. With both teams having a frustrating weekend in the principality. For Ferrari, it was a self-inflicted loss of a potential win, while McLaren effectively had only 1 competitive car.

Ferrari were a surprise package in Monaco, with Leclerc on Pole, and Sainz in 3rd after a shortened Q3. While Ferrari looked potentially set for a race win, alas it was not to be. Leclerc crashed near the end of Q3, shortening the session. While there were initial concerns that Leclerc would lose pole due to a gearbox change, inspections revealed the gearbox was undamaged. As such, Leclerc was expected to start from Pole, and looked set for a win. Until Leclerc started driving to the grid…

A gap in Ferrari’s inspection protocol meant a driveshaft problem was not noticed until Leclerc reported issues while driving to the grid. Pulling into the garage, Ferrari inspected the car, and discovered the problem. However, it was too late, and race control was informed that Leclerc would not start the race.

For McLaren, things weren’t much better, as Daniel Ricciardo struggled both in the race, and in Qualifying. Highlighting the severity of the situation, Ricciardo was even lapped by Norris in the race.

For both teams, this weekend will be about recovery. Ahead of the race, McLaren was expected to have an edge over Ferrari. With the long straights, the extra power from the Mercedes powerplant was thought to give McLaren a boost, though Ferrari is expected to have the edge in the tight and twisty Sector 2. However, it is not the case.

Astonishingly, Charles Leclerc scored yet another pole, while Sainz came 5th. The fastest McLaren of Norris came 6th, but Norris will start from 9th following a 3 place grid drop penalty. The other McLaren of Ricciardo will start further back, from 13th.

The Battle for P5

Behind Ferrari and McLaren, a three-way scrap is forming for P5 in the Constructors. Aston Martin leads the way, with 19 points, followed by AlphaTauri and Alpine, who have 18 and 17 respectively.

Between the three teams, their seasons have progressed differently. AlphaTauri started off relatively strong, with a car capable of fighting for third in the constructors. However, the team lost ground to Ferrari and McLaren, due to a lack of double points finishes. Aston Martin started off strongly in testing, but consistently failed to deliver the expected results. Alpine started off slow, but began showing consistency and pace after Bahrain.

Given how close they are in the points, all 3 teams need to produce “clean weekends” if they are to secure 5th.

For today’s race, only Aston Martin is unrepresented in the top 10 of the starting grid. Pierre Gasly starts in 4th for AlphaTauri, with teammate Yuki Tsunoda in 7th. Fernando Alonso starts in 8th for Alpine, while Sebastian Vettel takes 11th for Aston Martin. Behind Vettel sits the Alpine of Esteban Ocon, while Stroll will start his Aston Martin from 19th.

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