Formula 1 returns after a three-week hiatus. This weekend sees the Azerbaijan Grand Prix and the season’s first sprint race at the tricky and fast street circuit.
The World Motorsport Council announced a few changes to the sprint race format after feedback from fans, broadcasters, and promoters, according to The Race.
Free practice one and qualifying for the grand prix take place on Friday. The following day is dedicated to the ‘sprint’, with a sprint qualifying shootout followed by the sprint race.
The weekend culminates, as always, with the grand prix on Sunday.
Another change to the sprint race is the activation of DRS from the opening lap.
Turning our attention to Sunday’s race, it’s Red Bull and Max Verstappen who start as favourites. The RB19 has delivered three consecutive wins and blown away its rivals with unmatched pace.
The two-time world champion has already stretched out a 17-point lead over teammate Sergio Perez. The Mexican driver arguably has the best opportunity to beat his teammate, by being in the fastest car.
Perez showed mettle last time out in Australia by finishing fifth after starting in 20th position. Perez and Verstappen have tasted victory in Azerbaijan, with the former claiming the win in 2021 and Verstappen last season.
There have been no repeat winners in Azerbaijan, however, there’s a high chance that could change this weekend.
Incredibly, five different drivers have won in the Eastern European country. Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton are the only other winners still competing in the sport.
The TrackUnlike many street circuits on the calendar, except Jeddah, the Baku track is ferociously fast.
The drivers will go flat out for over two kilometres from Turn 16 to the end of the pit straight.
The six-kilometre-long track features 20 turns with a maximum speed of over 350km/h from Turn 20 to the first corner.
The drivers will be fully aware of the tight section past the castle that is only 7.6 metres wide. Just ask Charles Leclerc.
Mercifully, there are overtaking spots at the end of 2.2-kilometre (almost) straight as well at Turn 3 and 4, where the track is wider.
Can Verstappen Be Stopped?Verstappen’s closest rival is likely to be Perez, however, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton will look to pounce on any mistake or opportunity over the weekend.
Alonso, another double world champion, currently sits third in the drivers’ standings after three consecutive third-place finishes.
The Aston Martin has been ludicrously fast in the hands of the Spaniard. The 41-year-old is relishing having a fast car to battle with the front-runners and recently notched up his 101st podium.
Alonso has cemented his place in the early part of the season as a dark horse. His experience coupled with the AMR21 seemingly being a sharp tool has made him a strong pick for a podium finish.
High Chance Of Red Flag And Safety CarThe likelihood of a red flag and a safety car is high, due to there being no run-off areas and only a handful of escape roads if drivers overcook it into a corner.
In 2021 qualifying for the Azerbaijan GP saw four red flags. For 2023, Bet.co.za is offering 1.14 if you bet on a race with a safety car.
A race with no Safety Car could see you make 5.00 your stake back, but the chances of that are unlikely given what has happened previously.
A crash during qualifying could hinder one of the top drivers from landing a pole position lap time.
The smart money may be on Hamilton and Mercedes teammate George Russell to be fighting for the podium position. The duo has admitted the Red Bulls are searingly quick in a straight line, but it can all go wrong into the 90-degree Turn 1.
The favourites for the win are Max Verstappen at 1.60, Sergio Perez at 4.30,
Fernando Alonso 5.50 and interestingly Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc 21.00.
We think Perez, Alonso, and even Hamilton could make things difficult for the reigning champion, provided they have some interventions in Baku.
Listen to Sean Parker and Doha-based motorsport official Pierre Arries preview the Azerbaijan GP in the latest episode of the F1 podcast show: