F2: Baku Preview

After a month off, Formula 2 returns this weekend in Azerbaijan for the fourth round of the championship, which takes place at the Baku City Circuit. Despite only being on the calendar for a year, Baku has already earned itself an unpopular reputation, thanks to the less-than-enthralling F1 race that took place last year.

But its GP2 counterpart was anything but, with two chaotic and action-packed races. Out of the twenty-two cars that started both races last year, only twelve finished the feature race, and only fifteen in the sprint race. The high chance of crashing out, especially in the tight section of the track that runs through the older part of the city, adds an element of total unpredictability to this round.

2016 GP2 Series Round 3
Baku, Azerbaijan.
Saturday 18 June 2016.
Sean Gelael (INA, Pertamina Campos Racing)
Photo: Andy Hone/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _ONZ0910

As the second street circuit of the year, Baku presents a different challenge to Monaco. Though avoiding traffic and the walls will be difficult in parts, overtaking should be easier, thanks in part to the long start-finish straight—the longest of any track, at over two kilometres. Last year it was also the site of Antonio Giovinazzi’s double winning weekend, which well and truly launched his championship campaign. This suggests that if any driver’s performance has been underwhelming so far, there is still time to earn back those lost points.

The biggest change going into the weekend will be the absence of ART’s Alexander Albon, who is out for the weekend with a broken collarbone. He will be replaced by Sergey Sirotkin, Renault’s test driver, who drove for ART last year and finished third in the 2016 GP2 championship. It is definitely a blow for Albon, who was proving to be a consistent driver, having scored points in every race this season thus far, but the team seems confident that he will be able to drive at the Red Bull Ring in a few weeks’ time.

Bringing in a new driver for the weekend shouldn’t place ART at a disadvantage however. Sirotkin managed to score himself a double podium last year at Baku, so the team can feel confident when the Russian arrives, fresh from racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

(L to R): Mark Slade (GBR) Renault Sport F1 Team Race Engineer with Sergey Sirotkin (RUS) Renault Sport F1 Team Third Driver.
Russian Grand Prix, Friday 28th April 2017. Sochi Autodrom, Sochi, Russia.

By contrast, Matsushita had a nightmare weekend in Baku last year, despite having good pace and leading much of the sprint race. The Japanese driver struggled on the safety car restarts, and his driving was erratic enough to earn him a race ban. He will be looking to learn from the mistakes of last year, but with one win and a podium under his belt, he seems to be having a better season already.

Some drivers will be heading into this weekend with recovery at the forefront of their mind after disappointing results in Monte Carlo. Norman Nato is one such driver. The Frenchman started the year full of promise, and his potential is definitely that of a race winner, but after failing to score any points in Monaco, he needs a strong showing in Baku to get his season back on track. His teammate Sean Gelael, who has trailed Nato so far, had a solid qualifying performance in Monaco, but failed to convert that into race results.

Prema’s drivers will also be looking to bounce back from less than ideal results last time out. Leclerc, who does still lead the championship, will need to show that he can recover mentally from the double retirement in his home race, something which will prove essential if he is to carry his challenge for the duration of the season. Antonio Fuoco’s battle still remains one of proving he can measure up to his teammate, and increasingly, proving that he deserves his race seat and his place in the Ferrari Driver Academy. The track suited Prema last year, who managed to nail setup, earning them a pole position and a second place, as well as Giovinazzi’s two wins.

Rapax, after a slow start to the season, achieved a season’s best in Monte Carlo with a first and second place in the sprint race. Carrying that momentum to Baku may be difficult considering neither of their drivers have driven the street circuit before, but rookie Nyck de Vries seems to have gotten over his early season struggles with adjusting. If this race weekend is similar to last year’s then luck in staying out of trouble will probably be a large factor, so there is no counting the Rapax drivers out.

2017 FIA Formula 2 Round 3.
Monte Carlo, Monaco.
Saturday 27 May 2017.
Johnny Cecotto Jr. (VEN, Rapax)
Photo: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2.
ref: Digital Image _54I7139

Both DAMS and Racing Engineering had a mixed weekend in Monaco, with one of their drivers delivering promising results – with a win for Oliver Rowland (DAMS) and a third place for Gustav Malja (Racing Engineering) – and the other failing to score any points. Both teams have machinery that seems capable of delivering race winning results, and with mostly experienced drivers, they stand a good chance of performing well at Baku. DAMS’ Rowland will be particularly anxious to do so as he now sits only three points shy of championship leader Leclerc, and if he can outperform the Monegasque and avoid any incidents, then his chances of leaving Baku as the new leader of the drivers’ standings are high indeed.

Based on points alone, Russian Time were the top team out in Monaco, and succeeding in taking a fourteen-point lead in the teams’ standings from DAMS. Artem Markelov and Luca Ghiotto also occupy third and fourth in the driver’s standings, and if fortune plays into their favour, Baku presents them with the opportunity to close the gap to Rowland and Leclerc.

There is every chance that we will leave Baku with a new points leader—but more than that, the venue offers the chance for one of the most entertaining, and maybe a little crazy, races of the year. If you are yet to see last year’s GP2 races, I would recommend doing so. They’re carnage, but entertaining nonetheless.

Georgia Beith, F2 Correspondent

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