Formula Spy's Thomas Maher looks ahead to this Sunday's Formula 1 action in Azerbaijan
Mere days after the last thrilling instalment in F1 2016, the series moves onto the European Grand Prix. Set in the most European of cities, erm...Baku in Azerbaijan, it is an honorific title that has also been used for races in Valencia, Jerez, Donington Park and the Nurburgring in recent years.
The new circuit is set right in the heart of the city, and is certainly very picturesque as it winds its way past the old town walls that surround Baku. It's a track of very different characteristics too as, while it boasts the longest straight in F1 at 2.2 kilometres in length, the mid section of the track has drawn comment for its extremely narrow nature. In parts, the track is barely wider than the cars themselves.
This has led to some concerns being voiced by the drivers themselves. Speaking on media day on Thursday, Jenson Button expressed his doubts to reporters by saying: "We worked so hard on safety, improving circuits all the time, and then we come here and Turn 3, Turn 7 and Turn 14 don’t have any run-off at all.
"Turn 7 has got three TecPro barriers and then a concrete barrier at the edge of the circuit. But there is not much you can really do as there is a building in the way. It is a shame really. Hopefully they [FIA] have done their tests. Monaco has not got a lot of run-off, but this is a high speed street circuit. It is not like Monaco."
Sebastian Vettel was more dismissive of the suggestions that some areas of the new circuit are worringly narrow, saying that the challenge is welcome: "I walked the track and I was looking on the track, not so much on the runoffs. I think it looks exciting. Pit entry looks a challenge – but then again I think that’s why we’re here. And, as I say, I certainly have the plan to stay on track and not use the run-off or the off-track."
Safety isn't likely to be an area shirked upon by F1's organising bodies at the moment, with news coming in recent weeks that the family of the late Jules Bianchi is suing for what they feel were crucial errors made at the time of Bianchi's accident at Suzuka 2014. While the FIA report laid the blame for the accident on the French driver going too quickly under double waved yellow flags, the Bianchis disagree with the decision to use heavy machinery on a live circuit, particularly in such heavy rainy conditions.
On the commercial front, F1 has also just signed a long term deal with Heineken that will see the beer manufacturer display logos and branding heavily at events, as well as getting titling rights on several Grands Prix a year. This has already attracted the ire of several anti-alcohol advertising groups, who say that the link up of high profile motorsport with prominent alcohol brands is irresponsible. Certainly, the sight of Felipe Massa losing control of his Williams during Canadian practice before slamming into Heineken hoardings was one that would appear pretty ironic to a neutral observer.
Safety-wise, then, the new Azerbaijani circuit has already met with mixed views. While the scenery surrounding the track looks pretty nice, the layout appears fairly bland. Cookie cutter 90 degree left and rights make up the opening sector, but it's the huge straight that really catches the eye. Out of the 3.7 mile layout, 1.4 of it is taken up by one continuous straight line. It's almost like track designer Hermann Tilke ran out of ideas and decided to just put a straight bit in to buy him some time before coming up with another corner. Unfortunately, such a ridiculous straight is going to have a large effect on the competition.
Red Bull, who have been pretty strong in recent weeks, struggled a little in Canada, due to a mix of low temperatures and being a more power intensive circuit. Despite their recent step forward with Renault, RBR boss Helmut Marko says their drivers will lose 1.2 seconds of laptime compared to Mercedes on just that one straight. A huge deficit, and one that isn't likely to be overcome through the corners. Even if RBR managed to start ahead of the Mercs, the power advantage enjoyed by the German marque would easily see Lewis Hamilton & Nico Rosberg surge past.
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton during the first free practice session at the Baku circuit, in Azerbaijan. Image: Ivan Sekretarev / AP/Press Association Images
The most likely candidates to fight for the win this time out are the aforementioned Mercs, and the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel. The Ferrari man made Hamilton & Mercedes work hard for their Canadian win, and just a slight change in the timing of the first Virtual Safety Car could have made all the difference in the end result. Ferrari's latest engine upgrade has, supposedly, taken them on par power-wise with Mercedes, and should see them be able to closely shadow the Merc men.
While Lewis Hamilton enjoyed an advantage over his recently beleaguered teammate Nico Rosberg in Montreal, this performance gap should narrow in Azerbaijan. Hamilton has always been traditionally strong in Montreal, one of F1's older and 'classic' circuits, while Rosberg has usually performed far more strongly by comparison at the newer, smoother, Tilke tracks.
With the relationship between the two Merc teammates seemingly improving after Monaco, when the struggling Rosberg allowed Hamilton through to fight for the win, the pair were at it again in Canada. Running side by side into Turn 1, Hamilton pushed Rosberg out wide and forced Nico into the escape area. Losing time and places, the move compromised Nico's race, something that Mercedes let slide on that occasion.
Rosberg admitted to 'feeling pissed off' with the move afterwards, and vowed to not end up in the same position again. Does that mean the next time Lewis starts running Nico out of room, Rosberg won't lift? After the travails of Barcelona, it's difficult to see Rosberg having the ruthlessness necessary to make good on that vow.
F1 goes head to head with one of motorsport's most holy of grails this weekend in the Le Mans 24 Hours. Last year's most famous endurance race was won by a trio of drivers, including Force India's Nico Hulkenberg, driving for Porsche. Unable to take part this year due to F1's scheduling, there has been plenty of chat that this is no co-incidence. F1's TV audiences are dropping constantly, with the Canadian GP watched by just 1.4 million people peak over Sky Sports 1 & F1 HD, despite the British winner. A peak of 1.7 million watched the free-to-air highlights on Channel 4 on Sunday evening.
Compared to the average audience of 6.3 million people watching Germany vs. Ukraine on BBC at the same time, it's clear that F1's reach has suffered in recent years. The rise in popularity of the World Endurance Championship, to which the Le Mans race belongs, hasn't quite got F1 nervously looking over its shoulder, but it isn't taking its position as king of the motorsports for granted.
Preventing their drivers from being able to take part in other high profile races is one way to ensure momentum doesn't continue to shift. Running European rounds in Azerbaijan while countries like Italy or Germany, or even the now defunct French round, struggle to remain on the calendar is a good way to ensure it does.