Baku, a 6-solution puzzle: it's the craziest race in the world

No one has ever won twice on the Azerbaijan circuit, which often had big surprises. From Leclerc to Verstappen, without forgetting their teammates and Hamilton: here are the chances of the protagonists

Luigi Perna

– Milan

No one has ever managed to win twice in Baku. And don’t think it’s a coincidence. The Azerbaijani GP is a real lottery, for many reasons, so much so that it was the scene of daring episodes. Think of Sebastian Vettel’s turn to Lewis Hamilton behind the safety car in 2017, the bumper car between Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bulls in 2018 or the tire exploded on Max’s car last year. It was in Baku that Lance Stroll took his first podium and Sergio Perez his first victory with Red Bull, obviously at the end of crazy races. The fast-paced city circuit with a thousand pitfalls, with the Castle curve where only one car passes at a time, is a trap. Accidents and neutralizations are omnipresent. Therefore uncertainty reigns supreme. In the roll of honor there are three successes for Mercedes and two for Red Bull. Ferrari is missing. Yet the red has often been competitive on the track next to the historic center of the Azerbaijani capital, and it should be even more so this year with an F1-75 that has so far proved fast on every track.

Leclerc is exalted

Charles Leclerc is among the drivers who are best in Baku, despite having obtained a fourth place with Ferrari as the best result (2021). The Monegasque really likes to drive between walls and barriers. Perhaps they remind him of his beloved Montecarlo. The city slopes enhance the man factor. Those who manage to find the limit, caressing the danger, can really make a difference. And Leclerc proved it last year, hitting a totally unexpected pole position in Azerbaijan, with a red (the SF21) that was certainly not today’s one, so much so that in the race he lost positions due to tire degradation. Also in Baku, the Principino also won the first championship points (sixth) with Alfa Romeo in 2018. Therefore he should be considered one of the favorites for Saturday’s qualifying and Sunday’s race. The desire for redemption is great, after having seen a victory that he already had in his hand in the home race fade due to the wrong strategy of the team, and returning to success would be an injection of horses on a psychological level, given that Leclerc and Ferrari they are stuck in early season triumphs in Bahrain and Australia. Charles has been a hammer so far, with 5 poles in 7 races, proving he can fight on par with Verstappen and beat the world champion. We just need to get things going again in the right direction, without mechanical failures or tactical errors to penalize him.

Verstappen among the favorites

Max Verstappen is on credit with luck in Baku. Last year he was on his way to victory when the left rear tire of his Red Bull exploded on the straight, sending him into the wall. In 2018 he was hit by teammate Ricciardo while trying to defend himself with a risky maneuver. On balance, the Azerbaijani one is the only track in the F1 World Championship (together with Monza) where the Dutch Phenomenon has never even been on the podium. However, he is the other big favorite of this edition, together with Leclerc. The eternal rivals who challenged each other on karts since childhood have shown a higher level than the rest of the competition so far, giving life to splendid duels in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Imola and Miami. The world champion is a complete and mature rider, very fast in every situation, capable of managing races with intelligence, taking advantage of all opportunities. The worst opponent to fight against (ask Hamilton). In the beginning he had an idiosyncrasy for street circuits, but then he overcame that too, triumphing in 2021 in Montecarlo, another bewitched track for him. There is no reason why he can’t do it even in Baku. Having reached the top of the standings, despite the two retirements due to technical problems in the first races, puts him in a strong position in the title race.

Perez feels at home

Sergio Perez is at home in Baku. On the shores of the Caspian Sea he feels at ease as if he were in a neighborhood of Guadalajara. Yet Mexico has little to do with Azerbaijan’s oil fields. The reason is that here Checo achieved some of the best results of his career: third in 2016 with Force India, when it was still called the European GP; still third in 2018; and finally the winner last year with Red Bull, thanks to Hamilton’s braking error at the restart of the race after the red flag (on the other steps of the podium finished Vettel with Aston Martin and Gasly with AlphaTauri). A series of performances which, combined with the victory two weeks ago in Montecarlo, make him a “king of the road” circuits. Given the precedents, the Mexican is expected among the protagonists also on Sunday. Red Bull in Spain has made the hierarchies very clear, making it clear that Verstappen is the undisputed team leader, but Checo can play as second striker, helping the team or seizing opportunities when they arise. Using him as an alternative pawn in strategies (as in the Principality) has so far been a weapon of Red Bull.

Sainz Dream

Carlos Sainz has never particularly impressed in Baku. But if he is strong in Monte Carlo, as he has shown in the last two seasons with Ferrari, there is no reason why he can’t do it in Azerbaijan as well. He is back from second place in the Principality, a mocking-flavored placing, which cannot heal the mess Ferrari made with Leclerc. But it was needed by the Spaniard, who returned to grind good performances after a period of fogging following the renewal of the contract with the red. The son of art has so far hit four podiums in 2022, but has not yet found the perfect weekend, the one in which he manages to put together the best from qualifying to the race. Among the reasons was the difficulty in adapting to the F1-75, a car that does not suit his style but instead exalts Leclerc, who is used to driving with a tendency to oversteer. But Sainz in Monte Carlo said he had “felt” the car the way he likes it for the first time. A good viaticum for Baku. As long as Ferrari does not establish the hierarchies, Carlos can dream of his first victory. And not only…

And Hamilton …

Lewis Hamilton conquered Baku in 2018, went close to success in 2019 and would have won last year too, without the error at the restart due to having inadvertently pushed the “brake magic” button on the steering wheel that changes the distribution of the braking. This is enough to understand how competitive the seven-time world champion is on the Azerbaijani circuit. The Mercedes 2022 is a blunt arrow compared to the past, and this complicates Lewis’s task tremendously. But the English champion, with his experience and racing vision, could be the surprise if another chaotic race happens. The incredible comeback he was capable of at Montmelò is proof that class and speed are still intact.

Russell, motivations and exams

George Russell has an important exam ahead of him in Baku. The Mercedes puppy, in his first season alongside Hamilton, is shining for consistency, performance and results. So far he has collected 34 points more than his teammate (he also precedes Ferrari driver Sainz in the championship) fighting like a lion, despite a car full of problems. He is super motivated and this determination could make the difference between the walls and the blind curves of Baku. If there is an opportunity in his life, rest assured that he will try to take it.



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