25 April 2019 11:03
Despite the first Formula 1 race in Baku being a dull affair, the two most recent grands prix there have been full of fireworks. This is largely down to the city circuit's layout, which could have been completely different.
When Azerbaijan was added (originally as the European Grand Prix) to the Formula 1 calendar in 2016, many were sceptical about what Baku would bring to the championship.
After seeing several new race projects including Turkey, India and South Korea fall by the wayside as those venues failed to attract the fan or government support needed to keep them going, few were convinced that the Azerbaijan tale would be much different.
In the first year, many newspapers focused more on the country's human rights issues rather than the racing - and a pretty boring inaugural event left some suggesting that F1 might not even return for a second attempt.
Thankfully, though, it did. In the last two years Baku has delivered some real thrillers.
That dull first race has been put down to conservative high-downforce set-ups and the drivers all being so convinced that the race would turn into a crash fest that they decided to take a conservative approach to guarantee a decent finish.
They realised the errors of their ways after the first year (plus teams subsequently opted for a lower downforce approach), and Baku 2017 and '18 were two fantastic and unpredictable events that totally changed perceptions of the race.
Now nobody doubts Baku's place on the F1 calendar and it is a venue that the grand prix circus embraces and looks forward to attending.
But what has made Baku a success has nothing to do with the money thrown at the event, the attempts to showcase Azerbaijan that come with it, or the epic Baku city-scape backdrop. Instead, it has happened precisely because of the track layout.
The Baku circuit works because of the very same combination of characteristics that make the Macau street track so brilliant.
The tight and twisty street circuit part - especially up in the old town - is a challenge for the drivers, but it is made even more difficult by the ultra-long main straight meaning that, unlike Monaco and Singapore, downforce is taken off. And this leads to cars struggling for grip throughout.
The contrast between the long straight section and the city segment also makes it exceptionally difficult to get the brakes and tyres working in the right operating window.
The acceleration blast, city sections shrouded in shadow and without long corners to generate energy, plus late April weather, all conspire to leave the drivers having a headache with temperatures.
Things can get even more difficult if a safety car comes out; with tyres all too easily falling off a cliff temperature-wise. Again add in the long straight, where the way the safety car procedure ends produces immediate overtaking opportunities for all cars behind the leader, and restarts prove to be exceptionally tricky too.
This means incidents after green flags are common; which can then trigger more safety cars and more chaos.
Throw all these elements together and there is everything needed for a great race: a challenging circuit for the teams and drivers; set-up compromises that mean no one is ever totally comfortable; and an increased probability of incidents and safety cars that keeps them all on their toes.