Stupidest Track In Baku Leads To Stupidest Formula One Race Ever


Formula One now races in Baku, Azerbaijan. Why? Because a few years ago, disgraced F1 impressario Flabbio Briatore went there on vacation, liked what he saw, and whispered in Bernie Ecclestone’s ear that it would be a great place for a motor race. In fact, it is a lousy place for one.

Formula One Baku 2017

The circuit includes portions of the the city where the streets are so narrow, they just barely meet Formula One’s technical standards for minimum width. The one and only reason the sport is there is because the corrupt government of Azerbaijan, which has a human rights record even worse than Bahrain, shoveled cubic meters of manats into Formula One coffers. In effect, it made the sport an offer it couldn’t refuse as a way of promoting its image on the world stage. (South Korea, India, and Turkey have done the same thing.)

Baku Is A Stupid Place For A Race

Baku sits on the edge of the Caspian Sea and is a hub for the production and transportation of oil. Its economy is based almost exclusively on oil. Its most prominent buildings are shaped to look like flames from burning oil fires. Formula One says it is striving to improve its “green” credentials. The current engine formula emphasizes efficiency over raw power. If that is the case, Baku stands for everything that is contrary to the sport’s carefully crafted public image.

But when the toxic troll, Bernie Ecclestone, was running the show, none of that mattered. The only thing Bernie ever cared about was how much money someone was willing to pay to get a Formula One race and how much of it would flow into his pocket. If the money was right, piddling little details like a repressive local government that locks up its most unruly citizens on race weekend caused Bernie not one moment’s pause.

The severely constricted race course through downtown means there is no way to get disabled race cars off the track in a reasonable amount of time. The narrowness of the track and the high walls that surround it virtually guarantee that crashes will occur. At this year’s race, the carnage started on lap one at the second corner.

Charlie Whiting As Dumb As A Box Of Rocks

Charlie Whiting, race director and technical delegate for the FIA, once again demonstrated his total incompetence. Time and time again, the track was littered with debris from broken carbon fiber, but Whiting refused to red flag the race so the track could be properly cleaned up. Instead, he instructed the drivers to drive through the pit lane for lap after lap after lap behind the pace car. His performance showed he is clearly incapable of managing a race.

Modern Formula One cars are totally dependent on their tires and brakes being at the correct operating temperature. If the tires are too cold, they have no grip and slide into the barriers. If the brakes are too cold, they do not stop the cars effectively and they slide into the barriers or each other.

The cars are unable to get their tires and brakes up to operating temperature behind the safety car, so again and again, as soon as the race was restarted, another collision would occur that littered the track with a fresh supply of carbon fiber shards. The debris filled up lots of brake cooling ducts, putting several cars out of the race through no fault of their own on a very hot day when brake cooling was critical.

Eventually, even the clueless Whiting had to stop the race while course marshals attacked the track with good old fashioned push brooms. Under modern F1 rules, teams are allowed to work on the cars during a red flag period. In effect, it is like giving them a free time out with no penalty in track position.

Vettel Slams Into Hamilton

Just before the second restart, Sebastien Vettel punted race leader Lewis Hamilton with his Ferrari. Vettel claimed Hamilton had done a “brake check” on him, even though telemetry from the car showed Hamilton has done nothing unusual. Infuriated, the German pulled alongside Hamilton to communicate with him in international sign language, then turned his car violently to the right, causing the two cars to collide.

Later, Vettel was given a ten second stop and go penalty for dangerous driving and assessed three penalty points against his FIA Superlicense. Hamilton complained the penalty was too lenient but no further action was taken by the stewards. “Driving alongside and deliberately driving into another driver and getting away pretty much scot-free as he still came fourth, I think that’s a disgrace. I think he disgraced himself today,” Hamilton said after the race.

Working On Cars Under Red Flag Is Absurd

Vettel damaged his front wing in that display of Teutonic tempestuousness but the team was able to replace it in the subsequent red flag period.  Not so long ago, teams were prohibited from working on the cars during a red flag period. Allowing teams essentially a free interlude in the middle of a race to tweak their cars is simply ridiculous and further evidence of how stupid the sport’s rules have become.

Hamilton was forced to make an extra pit stop while leading the race because his pit crew failed to properly reinstall the safety cell around the top of the cockpit when the cars went back on track at the end of the red flag period.

Drama At The Checkered Flag

In the end, Red Bull’s Daniel Riccardo navigated the various collisions, brake failures, safety car periods, and a red flag period to work his way into the lead. Lance Stroll, the talented Canadian rookie, put his Williams in second place at the end of the race but lost the position by a millimeter or two right at the finish line to a hard charging Valteri Bottas in his Mercedes. Bottas slammed into Ferrari’s Kimi Raikonnen in the second corner and was the last car on track and one lap down early in the race.

Baku 2017 was a stupid race on a stupid track. Hopefully, Liberty Media will decline to renew its place on the calendar once the original deal struck by Ecclestone expires. Azerbaijan does not deserve the favorable attention a place on the Formula One calendar brings to it.

About the Author

I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I’m interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.

  • Ed

    Agree with all of your comments, Steve. A silly venture, to be sure, and not much of a race. The one redeeming aspect was that the world – well…the racing world – got to see that Baku is a real place. Almost no one in The West has heard of Baku since WWII.

    • Steve Hanley

      Jeeze, not even my spouse agrees with all my comments! Thanks, Ed.

      I have nothing intrinsically against Baku, other than position as one of the primary links in the global oil industry, something that Formula One has no business promoting, and its repressive, Soviet style government — something else Formula One has no business promoting.

      The track itself is much like Monaco. which is to say it is Ill suited to hosting a race that involves modern race cars. Monaco gets a pass because of its tradition as one of the most picturesque racing venues. Baku now has a racing tradition that is all of two years long. If it never held another race it would be too soon for me!

      • Ed

        Of course your wife does not agree with you. That is her job….and you should respect that.

  • Andrea Devon Bertoli

    This seems like a Jo Borrás headline !

    • Steve Hanley

      I learned at the knee of the master!

    • HA!!

  • Thanks for highlighting the country’s human rights record, of which I was totally unaware. You also should be directing your ire at the commentators, who seem to be under orders not to discuss how money corrupts Formula 1 or how the wealthy can buy kids like Lance Stroll a spot on a team. Also, isn’t Azerbaijan a Muslim country? Why no mention of that?

    • Steve Hanley

      Frankly, I have no idea whether it is a Muslim country or not and I’m not sure that is relevant. And yes, I am quite certain the announcers are given their instructions by FOM and are expected to toe the party line.

  • GregS

    I don’t know why people don’t like Baku, at least there is overtaking, unlike Monaco the “Crown Jewel of F1” which should be renamed the “Snoozefest of F1”

    • Steve Hanley

      Monaco is an anachronism. Frankly, it shouldn’t even be on the calendar. It’s not a race. It’s a happening, a spectacle.

      • Except on that rare occasion when it *is* a race- then, it’s amazing!

  • The F1 DriveTribe and subreddit are lit up with people praising the Baku race, calling it a classic for the ages. I’m somewhere in the middle, but feel like this might be a “Get off my lawn!” moment for the old F1 fans. F1 is entertainment now, after all, and the days of Jim Clark and Gilles Villeneuve are well and truly gone.

    • Steve Hanley

      Well, I am stunned by that. Truly. I thought the race was a mess from beginning to end. Maybe I need to unpack my rose colored glasses. Wonder where I left them……

      • LOL!! I dunno, man. I’m on the fence. It was a thriller, but it also highlighted the craziness of the event, itself. I think it was just nice to have a victory that felt like it might be up for grabs, you know?

        • Steve Hanley

          I take your point. Any race that features Smilin” Dan on the podium is a good one. And Stroll on the podium was terrific. Valteri on the podium was a good thing too. He had a heckuva drive.

          I suppose part of my dislike for the event is the chaotic and semi-ridiculous rules structure. Despite all the chest thumping about the sport’s focus on safety, it chooses to race on a track that compromises safety by its narrowness and lack of run off areas simply because the government is shoveling bucket loads of dollars at the sport.

          I annoys me that the track makes the pace c too slow to keep brake and tire temperatures high enough to make restarts safe. As soon as one ends, another begins.

          These idiosyncracies are acceptable at Monaco because, you know, it’s Monaco. They are totally unacceptable at a venue that does not have nearly a century’s worth of racing lore to its credit.

          And finally, it really sticks in my craw that the sport is whoring for Azerbaijan, a corrupt autocracy that is the very embodiment of the world’s addiction to fossil fuels.

          Other than those minor quibbles, I thought the race was most entertaining!