Baku GP: What to know about the new F1 race

Azerbaijan's track will be the fastest ever street circuit, with the 12th century Old City just inches from the track.

Neil Churchill June 16, 2016

This weekend Formula 1 will introduce a new track, a new city and a new country onto its globe-circumnavigating roster.

Azerbaijan and its capital Baku will host the eighth race of the season, the European Grand Prix.

Rather than get drawn into a debate on how a country that borders Iran and the Caspian Sea can be classified as part of Europe, let’s take a look at what F1’s newest city and circuit bring to the sport.

The Land of Fire

Azerbaijan has the fiery nickname thanks to its natural phenomena of ‘burning hillsides’, caused by gas seeping through fractures in the earth. By way of example just outside of Baku is the tourist attraction Yanar Dag, meaning Burning Mountain, which is literally just that; an eternally burning fire fuelled by a pocket of natural gas. 

Street circuit

Baku is not just a new circuit to F1 but also a new street circuit, and at over six kilometers long is the second longest track on the calendar. 

With a 2.2km home straight it also means that unusually high speeds for a street circuit should be achievable, probably making it the fastest street grid the sport has seen.

Designed by Hermann Tilke, the man behind most new circuits in F1 these days, it is a track of opposing sectors. The long straights in sector one are juxtaposed by a sequence of twisty and narrow corners in sector two, before sector three introduces long fast bends.

Watch out for the castle

Starting parallel with the city’s Caspian Sea promenade, the cars will race anti-clockwise leading towards Icheri Sheher, the UNESCO-protected Old City, which dates back to the 12th century.

Turns eight to twelve are where it gets really interesting as the cars will come within inches of the ancient walls, as the track reduces to just 7.6 metres wide. 

While it is a street circuit, a special and temporary layer of asphalt has been laid over the cobbled streets of the old city and other uneven parts of the track, but there will still be a few bumps and dips left for the drivers to negotiate, as they do on Monaco’s street circuit.

A test for the drivers

They say that street tracks separate the good drivers from the great, as traditionally they are more technically difficult than race circuits, and a car’s superior engine power (in the case of this era, Mercedes) has less of an advantage. But as it is a brand new track to all the drivers, you can expect even the world champions of Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel to be tested.

As race ambassador to the European Grand Prix, Alonso has spent some time in Baku studying the course, and therefore probably has a slight advantage over the other drivers, at least on the first day of practice. Speaking about the track, he said: “The circuit is very, very fast. I think we will reach an impressive top speed in Baku, around 340km/h. This is a very unique feeling in a street circuit.” 

Sebastian Vettel, the four-time World Champion, has been practicing for the unknown track on his Ferrari team’s simulator, specifically trying to understand its unique characteristics.

“I’ve heard that the track is very exciting, with parts leading through the whole town and narrow in places. So, I think it should be exciting,” the German driver said.

“I am a big fan of street circuits. Usually, they are very tricky, bumpy, rough, very narrow places. So, hopefully Baku fulfills these expectations and goes in line with other street circuit classics.”

Judging by what we know so far, it certainly seems that Baku will do just that. As the city’s marketing machine has been churning out in the lead up to this weekend, ‘the speed is higher in the land of fire’.