(Baku) Time for recovery has come! The Formula 1 world championship returns to Azerbaijan after a four-week break for a revamped sprint weekend, with the teams hoping to undermine Red Bull’s unchallenged dominance since the start of the season.
After three races and as many poles and victories, Red Bull arrives on the shores of the Caspian Sea as the undisputed master of the discipline.
Proof of its form, the Austrian team was the big beneficiary of the Australian weekend at the beginning of April since the double defending champion Max Verstappen won after a chaotic race. Teammate Sergio Perez finished 5th — the worst Red Bull finish of 2023 — starting from last place.
On the eve of the fourth round of the season, Verstappen, the last winner in Azerbaijan, is 15 points ahead of the championship (69 points) over Pérez (54 points).
But on the streets of Baku, where the outcome is often unpredictable (six different winners in six contested races), Aston Martin and Fernando Alonso could be the first to reverse the dynamic.
The 41-year-old Spaniard, who has never been closer to victory since his return to F1 in 2021, knows that the Azerbaijani track, a clever mix of speed and driving in the old town, represents “a unique challenge which creates many opportunities for risk, but also for reward”.
The veteran of the grid, 3rd in the championship, is not mistaken, because very often, the GPs have given rise to spectacular races.
Drivers and teams took advantage of a four-week spring break – a consequence of the cancellation of the Chinese GP scheduled for mid-April due to COVID-19 – to adjust their single-seaters.
While Alpine will arrive in Baku “with a new floor as well as other aerodynamic and mechanical elements”, Ferrari will wait a bit longer before making any changes.
“We have been working hard at Maranello on the development of the SF-23, both in terms of improving the current car and the planned updates that will be phased in over the next few races,” starting with Miami in early May, assured Ferrari boss Frédéric Vasseur.
The stakes are crucial for the Scuderia, which is having its worst start to the season since 2009. Only 4th force on the field for the moment, the defending vice-champion team among the constructors finds themselves relegated behind Red Bull, Aston Martin and Mercedes. , whose W14 is still struggling to meet the victory ambitions of the eight-time world champion.
“We have tried to make the most of the break, bringing planned developments and making the most of what we have learned so far,” said German team boss Toto Wolff.
First encouraging sign, Mercedes signed its first podium of the season in Australia thanks to the second place of Lewis Hamilton. However, cautions Wolff, “you have to be careful not to rely too much on one result.”
The fourth round of the season also marks the return on Saturday of a sprint race which will be contested for the first time on an urban circuit since the introduction of the format in 2021.
But unlike what has been done so far, F1 announced earlier this week to review its format to ensure the show.
Thus, drivers will run only one free practice session during the weekend (on Friday), followed by “classic” qualifying during the day, which will determine the starting grid for the GP on Sunday.
Saturday will be dedicated to the sprint. The drivers will take to the track for a second qualifying session on the same model as that of Friday, but shorter, which will determine the starting order for the sprint race contested on the same day.
The sprint always gives more points to the championship: from eight for the first up to one for the 8th. A boon for the best performers who can pocket up to 34 points in the event of a double victory and fastest lap in the race. The opportunity for Red Bull to take off?