Formula 1: Lights Out - What to look for at the Azerbaijan GP
The Formula 1 title race is starting to go as planned for Red Bull but if there's one race capable of throwing a spanner in the works, it's the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
The Baku City Circuit has only staged four races but Azerbaijan has quickly earned a reputation as a must-watch Grand Prix with the unique street track playing host to some of the more memorable races in recent seasons.
Red Bull's Sergio Perez dramatically won last year's encounter on the banks of the Caspian Sea and returns to Baku fresh from victory in Monaco. Perez's victory made it four straight wins for Red Bull this season but they'll need to have their wits about them if they are to have one of their drivers finish on top of the podium once more.
What: Azerbaijan Grand Prix
Where: Baku City Circuit, Baku
When: 12:00pm Sunday, 12th June, 2022
How to watch: Sky Sports F1
Odds: Max Verstappen 2.75, Charles Leclerc 2.50, Sergio Perez 3.50
Red Bull riding their luck?
Both Perez and Max Verstappen were thankful for Ferrari's strategic error in Monaco as the Italians bundled a golden chance at a much-needed victory, failing to convert a front-row lockout into a victory.
For the second race in a row, Ferrari were quicker than Red Bull but had little to show for their efforts, a power unit failure having denied Charles Leclerc victory in Spain, while human error was to blame for their Monte Carlo meltdown.
Red Bull have received these gifts with open arms with Max Verstappen now 1.083 to retain his world title after moving nine points clear of Leclerc in the drivers' standings, while they are 1.12 for the Constructors' title.
However, Red Bull can't continue to rely on Ferrari's mistakes if they are to stay ahead in the race for honours and Baku is a venue that offers them to chance to show they deserve to be ahead on merit.
The venue is a unique blend of high-speed, low downforce straights, most notably the longest straight in F1, the 2.2km Neftchilar Avenue, and a tight, technical section through the medieval part of the city.
The track is a headscratcher in terms of aerodynamics but Red Bull usually gets their car set-up right, while the straights are a chance to utilise their superior straight-line speed, a strength which kept Ferrari at arms' length at similar circuits in Imola and Miami.
Verstappen has never won at this track but had been on course for victory when a late puncture forced him out of the race last year. That led to a two-lap shootout for the chequered flag, which Perez won as he clinched a third-career podium finish in Azerbaijan.
After his excellent drive in Monaco and having claimed the fastest lap in Spain, the Mexican is certainly one to keep an eye on in Baku this weekend. He's 1.40 for podium finish number four in Azerbaijan as he seeks to overtake Leclerc in the drivers' standings.
Response needed from Ferrari
Leclerc is now only six points ahead of Perez after his string of misfortunes continued in his home race. A fourth place finish in Monte Carlo after starting on pole was hard to stomach for the Monegasque driver, who branded the race a "freaking disaster".
Having been 46 points clear at the top of the standings to now hanging on to second represents a dramatic downturn and one Ferrari need to arrest quickly. There have been positives to take from recent races for the Italians though, most notably their qualifying performances.
Leclerc has started the last three races from pole and is 1.66 to make it four in a row in Baku, where he started from the front of the grid last year. Leclerc lacked the race pace to convert pole last year but will be in a much better position should he repeat his qualifying trick in his current Ferrari, while a couple of improved races from Carlos Sainz suggest he's over his mini-blip and ready to support his team mate.
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Mercedes muscling in on title fight
The problem Ferrari, and Red Bull, now have is that their title duel is looking increasingly likely to become a triple threat contest as Mercedes look to make amends for their poor start.
Boss Toto Wolff had been quick to write off their chances in Monaco - where George Russell finished fifth and Lewis Hamilton eighth - due to their ongoing issues in qualifying but at a more power friendly track with opportunities to overtake, the Silver Arrows could make a telling impact.
Their race pace in Spain, where they introduced a series of major upgrades, was excellent, helping Russell secure third and Hamilton battle back from an early puncture to nab fifth. A similar performance to Barcelona at a track where Mercedes have won twice previously should put them in a strong position to challenge for the podium with Hamilton 7.00 for a first top three finish since Bahrain.
Beware Baku mishaps
On paper, the usual top three teams should be battling it out for the lion's share of the points once again, but the Azerbaijan Grand Prix does like to throw the odd curveball. Collisions and race incidents have become commonplace, leading to no more than 16 cars ever finishing in Baku and it's 3.25 there are under 16.5 classified drivers this time around.
Last year's race delivered plenty of thrills and spills, most notably Verstappen retiring and Hamilton making a mistake at the death which cost him points. It all conspired to give a podium made up of Perez, Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly, while the inaugural podium in Baku was topped by Daniel Ricciardo.
Ricciardo's form this season suggests he's nowhere near challenging at the front but his McLaren team mate Lando Norris is one to watch after a decent outing in Monaco. The Brit was sixth in the principality and claimed the extra point for the fastest lap. He's 3.50 for another top six finish.
Valterri Bottas is another heading to Baku with some strong form behind him. The Alfa Romeo driver has recorded five consecutive points finishes and won this race in 2019 when with Mercedes. The flying Finn has certainly proven he's not to be underestimated this year and at 2.50, is expected to be in the mix for points once more.
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