Azerbaijan Grand Prix: 'Fastest street circuit' could add to thrilling race for top spot in drivers' standings

It is a race weekend once again, and this Sunday the V6 machines are all set to race on the latest addition to the Formula One calendar — the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

The 2016 race being the first and only race to be held on the street circuit in the capital city of Baku, none of the present drivers have tasted pole success here yet. Former Mercedes driver and Formula One world champion Nico Rosberg started from pole position last year and went on to end the race on top of the podium.

 Azerbaijan Grand Prix: Fastest street circuit could add to thrilling race for top spot in drivers standings

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton steers his car during practice at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. AP

If one goes by Friday's practice sessions, a thrilling Sunday race is on the cards given that Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari have registered lap times separated by a 10th of a second.

Max Verstappen retained the top spot in Friday evening’s practice, despite crashing in the final minute of the session. The top five drivers — Verstappen followed by Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas, Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo and the Ferraris of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel — all finished within a quarter of a second.

“To stay there will be really difficult, but at least we have better pace than normal, but I felt really good in the car,” Verstappen said.

Teammate Ricciardo said after the race, “When you are able to put in a good lap, you cross the finish line and smile. Like always, we should not celebrate on a Friday, but we are in the ballpark, so hopefully tomorrow we can stay at the front.”

If Red Bull can capitalise on their new-found pace, it will make the present drivers' standings chart absolutely unpredictable. Currently, Ferrari's Vettel leads the chart with 141 points, followed by the two Mercedes cars, Raikkonen's Ferrari, and the two Red Bulls.

Lewis Hamilton reduced the gap between him and Sebastian Vettel to a mere 12 points after the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks ago. Image courtesy: Twitter/@Formula1

Lewis Hamilton reduced the gap between him and Sebastian Vettel to a mere 12 points after the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks ago. Image courtesy: Twitter/@Formula1

The scenic street circuit, which snakes through the historic Baku boulevard, is a six kilometer anti-clockwise track designed by popular F1 track architect Hermann Tilke. Among other tracks, Tilke has designed the Buddh International Circuit in India, Sepang International Circuit, Bahrain International Circuit, Shanghai International Circuit and Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina Circuit. He has also radically redesigned old tracks like the Hockenheimring and Circuit de Catalunya to make them safe to host modern races.

“Our brief to Tilke Engineering was simple — create a circuit that is unique, one that will help the Grand Prix in Baku quickly establish itself as one of the most exciting, thrilling venues on the F1 calendar, and one that the fans and teams alike are excited about,” said Azad Rahimov, Azerbaijan's Minister of Youth and Sport, according to the official Formula One website.

Tilke's edgy design appropriately reflects the character of the city that Baku has grown to be, with the circuit thriving on the city's attractive urban atmosphere and its combination of history and 21st century style. The historic city centre, the seaside promenade and the grand government house all come together to provide the perfect backdrop for the second-longest track of the season.

The tightest part of the circuit, and perhaps the slowest, is Turn 8, where the track goes uphill to the old part of town, drivers have to employ extreme precision and brake carefully to come out on the other side unhurt. "Today (Friday) I’ve probably passed that part 60 times – and 30 times you think that you won’t make it. You push it to the limit, of course, but this is the completely wrong spot to overdo it," Vettel said.

With very low grip levels recorded on the track so far, the numerous off-track excursions, the extremely narrow uphill section in the circuit and plenty of off-track drama in terms on intra-team rivalries all along the grid, the fastest street circuit in Formula One racing looks like it has a lot in store for fans this weekend.

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Updated Date: Jun 24, 2017 19:19:22 IST