Baku's greatest hits: why the Azerbaijan GP is F1's most exciting street race


Few Azerbaijan GPs have passed without incident, so Damien Smith has run through every race in the 'Land of Fire' – will 2022 be similarly dramatic?

Max Verstappen kicks the tyre of his Red Bull after crashing out of the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Verstappen vents his frustration at the failed Pirelli that cost him both a Baku win and an extended points lead in 2021

Clive Rose/Getty Images

Delicately poised. The sentiment fits Azerbaijan’s tricky stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as much as the battle for the 2022 Formula 1 world championship. The oil-rich state has long-established close ties to both countries and while it chose not to vote at all in the UN resolution to condemn the war back in March, Baku has since reportedly sent significant humanitarian aid to Ukraine, as acknowledged with gratitude by President Zelensky.

So F1 arrives in this part of the world in particularly sensitive times. Should drivers and F1’s leading lights choose to show their opposition to Russia’s abhorrent actions this weekend, their actions would carry a particular potency.

But here, let’s turn to surer sporting ground, at a time when the world championship is itself in a precarious state of balance. Ferrari and Charles Leclerc should be in the ascendency, only for Maranello to have seriously undermined its own campaign in recent weeks, while at Red Bull Sergio Perez has loomed surprisingly into contention to give Max Verstappen an unexpected prod. Now ‘Checo’ heads for what has largely been a happy hunting ground for him in the five previous grands prix runs on the streets of Baku.

The race in Azerbaijan has yet to spring a repeat winner and by its nature lends itself to high drama. Picking through the main talking points from each race run so far supports the assertion that Baku is now established as F1’s most exciting street race and – uncomfortable real-world political sensitivities aside – should be approached this week with some relish.


2016: Rosberg’s ‘grand slam’


A superlative weekend from Rosberg in Azerbaijan 2016

Grand Prix Photo

The first visit to Baku, named the European Grand Prix even if Azerbaijan’s geographical location stretched the term to its regional limits, was something of a disappointment in the wake of expectations for street-track chaos. Instead, safety car pilot Bernd Mayländer was left unemployed for the afternoon. This was the season when Lewis Hamilton was taken aback to find Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg proving himself a genuine threat that aggravatingly wouldn’t go away – and the German marked Baku’s F1 debut with an all too comfortable ‘grand slam’: pole position, led every lap, fastest lap to boot.

Hamilton, in contrast, screwed up qualifying, hit the Turn 12 wall and started in P10 – rising only to fifth in the race when he found himself stuck in an engine mode he didn’t want and had to figure out how to fix alone because of a ‘restricted communications’ rule on radio information that had F1 with a bee in its bonnet at the time.

Sebastian Vettel was second for Ferrari, with Perez rising from seventh on the grid to his second third-place podium in three races. It was a decent recovery from Checo, who should have started his silver Force India second but for a gearbox-change grid penalty, a consequence of a crash in Saturday morning practice. Look at those 2016 cars through today’s eyes, with their narrow track and tall rear wings and they look like slightly over-sized Formula 3 cars. They haven’t aged well.


2017: When Ricciardo was majestic

Daniel Ricciardo on podium after winning 2017 Azerbaijan GP for Red Bull

Baku ’17: Ricciardo’s greatest win?

Grand Prix Photo

It was a different story for the first Azerbaijan GP, as Baku provided all the collisions, safety car dramas and a red flag interruption that had been expected the first time around. There was even a spot of unseemly road rage from Vettel – almost unthinkable from the zen-like, serene Aston Martin driver we know today.

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The star of the race was Daniel Ricciardo, who only started 10th in his Red Bull, dropped as low as 17th after stopping to clear debris from a brake scoop, then charged through the field to score his fifth grand prix win. The double pass on the Williams pair at Turn 1 was sublime and offers a timely reminder of what we’ve lost in the shadow he’s become at McLaren.

Vettel’s road rage followed what he believed was a Hamilton brake test under the safety car, after which he drove up alongside the Mercedes and jigged right tyre-to-tyre in an act of comedic red-mist petulance. Lewis only finished fifth, behind Vettel, in a race he surely would have won had his headrest not come loose. It’s up there among the daftest troubles to rob a driver of an F1 victory.

This was also the one where Valtteri Bottas, delayed by a first-lap clash with Kimi Räikkönen, came back to pip Lance Stroll to second place. The Canadian still celebrated his first podium, for a Williams team in dire need of such a result. Both would long for a repeat performance this weekend. It seems… unlikely.


2018: Ricciardo rear-ends Verstappen

The crash between RICCIARDO Daniel (aus), Aston Martin Red Bull Tag Heuer RB14, and VERSTAPPEN Max (ned), Aston Martin Red Bull Tag Heuer RB14, action during the 2018 Formula One World Championship, Grand Prix of Europe in Azerbaijan from April 26 to 29 in Baku - Photo Hasan Bratic / DPPI

’18 race ends with a bang for Red Bull

Hasan Bratic / DPPI

The third grand prix in Baku sealed the track’s reputation for crazy racing. This time Ricciardo engaged team-mate Verstappen in a bar-room brawl – until he slammed into the rear of his line-changing team-mate on the brakes into Turn 1. Adrian Newey’s look of disgust as he stepped away from the Red Bull prat perch said it all. But again, it’s a reminder of the feistiness we miss in Ricciardo today – and how he should never have left Red Bull.

Collisions scattering bits of sharp carbon-fibre and fantastic slip-streaming on the long start-finish blast meant you couldn’t take your eyes off this one – even during a safety car interlude when hapless Romain Grosjean dropped his Haas while weaving to get heat into his tyres. And poor old Bottas. He ran long to lead, kept ahead thanks to a fortuitous safety car, survived Vettel’s tyre-smoking lock-up lunge into Turn 1 – only to pick up a puncture on the debris from Ricciardo vs Verstappen. Thus Hamilton picked up a lucky win, his only one to date in Baku, to nab the points lead from fourth-placed Vettel.

Räikkönen survived a crunch with Esteban Ocon’s by-now pink Force India to finish second. And third? That man Perez, his second podium in three attempts in Baku.


2019: Retribution for Bottas

Valtteri Bottas Mercedes at 2019 Azerbaijan GP

Bottas savoured sweet redemption in 2019 at Baku


Three years ago, Bottas briefly looked like he might ‘do a Rosberg’ and fight Hamilton for the world title as Mercedes set another new record: this time for four consecutive 1-2s at the start of a season. The silver cars ran wheel to wheel through Turns 1 and 2, Bottas braving it out to lead. And he won too, Hamilton cracking with a small mistake as he hunted his team-mate in the closing stages.

If only the Finn could have produced such form week in, week out. This time he’ll be looking to pull off another plucky giant-killing act for Alfa Romeo – and might well have more fun than his former team-mate in doing so.

Back in 2019, Mattia Binotto had just taken over at Ferrari as the team showed its strategic naivety with a car that was at least a match for the Mercedes – with hindsight thanks to something trick in the powertrain that would be dialled back the following winter under clandestine FIA instruction. Charles Leclerc was beating himself up for a rookie qualifying mistake, but made full use of the powerful DRS effect on the straight before Ferrari’s indecision on strategy lost him track position. Not as much has changed as perhaps it should have done… This time Ferrari again should have the quickest car – and after two consecutive hapless races for the reds, Leclerc will expect a dose of redemption himself.


2021: Verstappen’s blow-out

Sergio Perez celebrates winning the 2021 Azerbaijan GP

Perez’s Baku brilliance peaked with a win last year

Xavi Bonilla / DPPI

Typical Baku drama when F1 returned last year after a Covid-enforced hiatus. The Red Bulls both jumped Hamilton in the pits and had this one under full control – until Pirelli tyre failures turned the race on its head. Lance Stroll’s high-speed blow-out in his Aston Martin was the first sign of vulnerability – and then on lap 46 of 51 it happened to Verstappen too. The tyre supplier will be mindful of such embarrassing failures as it returns a year on.

Perez picked up the victory 12 months ago, Hamilton screwing up the red-flag restart by spectacularly out-braking himself into Turn 1. Yes, his first Red Bull win owed heavily to luck – or at least bad luck for his team-mate – but Checo returns this weekend high on the back of a Monaco win and to a circuit at which he could almost be described as a specialist. Beating Verstappen around here, where the world champion will feel a debt is owed, will be a tall order. But ground-effect DRS slipstreaming, crash-derived debris and as-yet unknown Baku variables will likely play their part in the outcome. Chances are it’ll be a cracker.