The ingredients of a boring F1 race: Baku 2023 broken down


Baku has produced many memorable F1 moments, but not in the 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix. With the help of Project F1 race data, we examine the elements that combined to turn the race into a procession

Procession of cars in the Azerbaijan GP

Aston Martin

Where did it all go wrong? Baku has been the scene of dramatic battles and sensational overtakes since joining the F1 calendar in 2016, but the hopes of a repeat faded as the circuit produced a race weekend to forget.

With the help of race data, we can see how a range of elements in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix combined to remove layer upon layer of uncertainty and excitement: a textbook example of how to craft a boring race.


Illustrating the lack of drama

Chart 1 Race Lap View

Driver position chart for 2023 Azerbaijan GP

Chart 1 illustrates the position of each driver throughout the race and it doesn’t take a data analyst to figure out that there were very few changes of position.

On a circuit that has often featured some of the highest overtaking counts in F1, there were an astonishingly few passes during the Grand Prix. For much of the race, most of these lines stay parallel and rarely cross (outside of pitstops).

But while overtaking action generates headlines, it isn’t the be all and end all of racing. There could still have been close battles or strategy that drew intrigue.


Stalemate at the front of the grid

Chart 2 Red Bull vs the world

Cumulative Delta chart for 2023 Azerbaijan GP

Chart 2 illustrates the nature of the so called “battles” that emerged among the front of the field. The cumulative delta charts each driver’s average lap time, updated for every lap of the race, and set against an average 1min 47sec lap time.

Tightly-stacked lines illustrate where cars were running closely together but unable to pass; and the changes of position were rarely dramatic.

Charles Leclerc can work his magic over a single lap, as he showed by taking pole for the sprint race and grand prix. But expecting him to do that for 51 laps in a row was always going to be a stretch, particularly against the formidable combination of Red Bull and DRS. There was an inevitability to Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez’s overtakes: on the straight with DRS wide open.

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What makes the Red Bull challenge even more overpowering is the pace it extracts from its tyres that its peers cannot. One only needs to look at Chart 1 to see the impact: the purple lines of Perez and Verstappen stretching clear of the rest of the field.

With Red Bull leaving Leclerc in the dust, Fernando Alonso was the only other who had the potential to create action at the sharp end of the grid. But Leclerc was doing just enough to hold off the two-time champion.

Even Carlos Sainz, who had been having a weekend to forget, was doing enough to keep the draggy Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton at bay.

But why was the pace so lacklustre? Why was no one able to mix things up with strategy?


Limited data pointed to one strategy

Chart 3 Sprint race tyre degradation

Tyre degradation chart for 2023 Azerbaijan GP sprint race

The promise of sprint races is that they introduce more competitive action in place of uninspiring free practice sessions, and also increase unpredictability as a result, with teams having less time to hone set-up and strategy.

But that overlooks the reality of the sprint races offering a long-run simulation for the following day’s Grand Prix.

Not only can the teams harvest data from their own cars, they are also getting a sneak peek of other teams’ race pace and tyre degradation. It’s also worth remembering that with fixed set-up and similar fuel loads, the data gathered from the sprint race is likely to be more reliable than that from free practice which has many more degrees of freedom.

The result is that you have 20 different data traces that all pointed toward the same outcome: the soft and medium tyres are not very durable. Chart 3 reveals tyre wear from the sprint race, stripping out the effect of reducing fuel load to show how lap time degraded as the tyres did.

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This meant that everyone knew that soft tyre was next to useless and that running the medium tyre long into the race may prove to be risky. Relying on the hards was the safer bet. Now it was just a question of one-stop or two?

In a normal format race weekend, teams would be learning this during the actual race, requiring teams to think on their feet and adapt to the situation. It’s a totally different proposition when it’s known to the team the day before. This is rich information that can significantly narrow down the strategic possibilities.

It’s also worth remembering that reduced practice sessions and parc fermé conditions for more of the weekend means there’s a greater chance that teams and drivers haven’t found the optimal operating window. In theory this may bring more intrigue and volatility, but what you invite in practice is a sense of conservatism. At the end of the day, the risk of putting a car in the wall is not worth the incremental gain from taking a more aggressive tactic on poorer information.

Ironically, practice sessions create the space for drivers and engineers to find confidence in their findings and therefore be more willing to make gutsier calls in the race.

So, what about that one stop vs two stop?


Rush to the hard tyre

Chart 4 Tyre strategies summarised

Tyre strategy chart for 2023 Azerbaijan Grand prix

The answer to the one- or two-stop was not clear cut immediately, but it did become more apparent as the race went on.

Alex Albon’s early pitstop on the end of lap 7 had initiated an earlier pit window, compared with Pirelli’s recommended options, as shown at the top of Chart 4 above, which also shows each driver’s tyre strategy.

Then the safety car was deployed following the retirement of Nyck De Vries after a broken front steering arm marooned his car on the edge of Turn 6.

This gave almost half the field the invitation they needed to ditch the poor performing medium tyres for a set of reliable hards.

Esteban Ocon and Nico Hülkenberg started the race on the hard tyre, and so their performance provided all the teams some indication on longevity.


Tyre wear? What tyre wear?

Chart 5 Hard tyre degradation

Tyre degradation chart for hard compound in 2023 Azerbaijan GP

Chart 5 above shows the degradation profiles during the Grand Prix on the hard tyre for both Ocon and Hülkenberg as well as the faster-lapping Leclerc and Perez. For all drivers, the profile is reasonably stable, showing very little signs of wear.

It is only after 44 or so laps that Hülkenberg starts to see a rapid deterioration in performance on the hard tyre that sends him tumbling down the order.

But Ocon is able to go almost the entire race distance on his starting set of hard tyres, stopping only on the final lap to complete his obligatory pitstop.

Other teams would have seen the lap times during the first 20-30 laps of Ocon and Hulkenberg’s stint during the race and understand that the hard tyre would likely be able to make it to the end.

Providing additional information on tyre longevity isn’t the only thing that Ocon and Hulkenberg’s race did.


DRS Train killed the midfield battle

Chart 6 Midfield cumulative delta

Midfield cumulative delta chart for 2023 Azerbaijan GP

Knowing the poor performance of the medium tyre, Ocon and Hülkenberg were in it for the long haul having started on the hard tyres.

With everyone else seemingly locked in for a one-stop, the pair’s best bet was to hold out for a safety car for a cheap pitstop for a hope of nabbing a points finish.

But their long stint forced the formation of a train behind them, as the relatively unchanging performance of the hard tyre decreased overtaking opportunities.

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This endured for most of the race with the only relief coming from Hulkenberg’s tyres falling off a cliff and Ocon’s eventual pitstop. This is clearly evident in Chart 6 above, another cumulative delta covering most of the field.

It largely killed any potential intrigue or action in the midfield as the pack fell into a procession around the streets of Baku.

And so the Azerbaijan Grand Prix rolled to an end with barely any overtaking, minimal variation in pace or tyre degradation, and with the majority of the field on a uniform strategy.

Teams were operating from the same limited information they received over the weekend, with less time to experiment in practice: narrow windows that led to narrow outcomes.

Formula 1 may be after more thrilling racing. But more races may not mean better races. Practice creates the opportunity for more game theory and it is this that helps with more intriguing racing.

Future format changes should look to widen the spectrum for setup and decision making, not narrow it.

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