For Lewis Hamilton, the scenario he faces entering Baku this weekend is almost identical to last year – he enters the weekend coming off a dominant Canadian GP display, whilst his title rival dropped points and finished off the podium in Montreal. If history was to repeat itself, then, we could well be seeing Sebastian Vettel emulate his countryman Nico Rosberg and become the second person to take victory around the (much-derided) Baku City Circuit.
Certainly, the form book would hint towards Ferrari holding the advantage over Mercedes heading into this weekend – at both Sochi and Monaco, the two street circuits F1 has visited so far in 2017, Ferrari scored front row lockouts. And but for Valtteri Bottas’ race day heroics in Sochi, it is not hard to see that Ferrari could have finished 1-2 in both of the races, too. Hamilton, meanwhile, has struggled on the street circuits this season, finishing off the podium in both Russia and Monaco.
Mercedes – and Hamilton in particular – have struggled with finding the sweet spot in the setup so far this season, and this issue seems to be compounded on the street tracks. It is important to consider the factor the tyre allocation may have for the race in Baku, however, as Pirelli have selected a more conservative approach of Super Soft, Soft and Medium compounds, opposed to the Ultra Soft, Super Soft and Soft tyres that appeared in both Sochi and Monaco. In a season that has the top two teams poised so closely, the choices made by Pirelli in their tyre allocation could well prove to be the difference.
With the Ferrari vs Mercedes battle taking centre stage, it is – amazingly, given the calibre of the two drivers – easy to forget the Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen. Verstappen showed an all-too brief reminder of what he is capable of in Montreal before his Red Bull failed him on the exit of Turn 2, whilst Ricciardo once again highlighted his tactical acumen as he ran a 1-stop strategy to claim an impressive 3rd podium in a row. In Baku, however, the power deficit of the Renault power unit could well see Red Bull come under threat from the Mercedes-powered Force Indias.
After the controversy in Montreal, where a clearly faster Esteban Ocon was left stuck behind his teammate, Sergio Perez, as they battled for 3rd, the team will be hoping for a much calmer weekend. Indeed, Baku could be just the tonic for Perez, who came under fire for not allowing his teammate past two weeks ago. Last year, Perez qualified a career-best 2nd on the grid, but a 5 place grid penalty following a crash in FP3 saw him start from 7th. Despite this, he drove a fantastic race and beat Kimi Raikkonen on the last lap for 3rd. Whilst it would be hard to envisage the ‘Pink Panthers’ outperforming Mercedes and Ferrari, if events go their way Force India could be returning to the podium once more in Baku.
Further down the grid, the big story – once again – revolves around McLaren and their ever-worsening relationship with Honda. The long straights of Baku won’t do much to soothe relations either, with the longest straight in the calendar set to embarrass Honda, and further frustrate all those connected with McLaren. A pointless season won’t get any easier this weekend.
For Honda’s future partners, Sauber, the weekend has already got off to a fairly chaotic start with the news that Team Principal Monisha Kaltenborn has stepped down with immediate effect, with rumours suggesting that the team’s owners did not agree with her handling of Sauber’s drivers, Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein, and instead wanted to give preferential treatment to Ericsson. The tense atmosphere within the team was illustrated when Wehrlein refused to deny the allegations, instead responding by saying “I can’t answer that.” It is therefore hard to see Sauber making much of an impact on the points this weekend, leaving the usual battle between Williams, Toro Rosso, Renault and Haas for the lower end of the points. The long straights of Baku should hand the advantage to Williams, who, despite Felipe Massa’s Lap 1 accident in Montreal, were given a boost as Lance Stroll scored his first points at his home race. However, with Haas and Roman Grosjean looking to make it four top 10 finishes on the bounce, Toro Rosso hoping for a better weekend after the disaster of Montreal, and Renault performing strongly with Nico Hulkenburg (the same can’t be said for Jolyon Palmer, however…), the battle in the midfield is likely to be hard-fought on the streets of Baku.