Racing around the Baku City Circuit is usually a guarantee of drama. Since its introduction to the Formula 1 calendar, the tight and twisty uncompromising layout has claimed numerous victims, while the long straight has allowed for plenty of overtaking.
However, the 2023 edition of the Azerbaijan GP was notable only for its lack of action. Red Bull once again underlined their dominance as Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen jetted off into the distance, while those behind were stuck, largely, in a procession to the line following the early safety car.
It was a far cry from what was hoped would happen when the new ground-effect regulations were introduced for the 2022 season, and led to increased criticism from fans and senior figures within the sport.
Mercedes chief Toto Wolff said what everyone was thinking when he labelled the Baku showdown “boring”, adding that he hoped F1 bosses would analyse the reasons behind the drab affair.
“There was no overtaking, even with a big pace difference,” Wolff said. “It made it not great entertainment.
“We have to analyse the weekend with the sprint format, whether there’s positives we can take out.
“We need to really at it and how we can make it better. Not how we can make it better, we need to look at how we can avoid just a boring race.”
Why were there so few overtakes?
With only one crash – Nyck de Vries on Lap 10 – and therefore one safety car, the spotlight was shone on the lack of wheel-to-wheel racing.
There were only 13 overtakes completed during the 51-lap GP, five less than the 17-lap Sprint, and far fewer than the previous events in Baku. But why was this?
The timing of the safety car played a part. De Vries clipped the barrier early on and was left stranded in his AlphaTauri, bringing out the safety car and sparking a mass of pit stops onto the hard tyres.
When racing resumed on Lap 14, this left most of the drivers the task of doing a lengthy stint to the finish, and therefore spending periods managing tyre wear and temperatures.
Coupled with that, the DRS zone at the end of the lap was shortened by 100 metres in order to create more of a challenge under braking into Turn 1 when going for a move, which made a huge difference and left many drivers stuck in a DRS train.
And now that we are into the second year of the new regulations, designers have found ways to generate more downforce, again increasing the challenge of following a car in front.
All these factors contributed to what happened – or didn’t happen – but shouldn’t be used as an excuse. It was a stark reminder that the sport remains reliant on incidents, inclement weather and DRS to create the kind of spectacle fans want to see.
At races notorious for limited overtaking, this wouldn’t have caused such cause for alarm, but at the home of the longest straight in F1, it’s little wonder the new regulations are under fire.
What the top two said
Perez and Verstappen were asked about the lack of entertainment in the aftermath; in particular, if they thought the shortened DRS zone was the main culprit. However, both, unprompted, cited the larger issues at hand.
“I feel like this year certainly has become a little bit harder, you know, because they said they’re collecting the data from last year,” Perez, the race winner, said.
“But somehow, I feel like these cars are generating a bit more downforce and when you’re generating that little bit more downforce, the car behind the struggles a little bit more to follow.
“So, in my opinion, it wasn’t the right thing to shorten up the DRS, because it’s getting harder to overtake than last year already in itself. It’s something we should review.”
Verstappen added: “Yeah, like Checo said, I think the more downforce we generate, and that, of course, will always be every year, if you keep the rules the same, it will be harder to pass.
“And I think also, because of the weight of the cars we have nowadays, because they’re quite heavy, in the low speed is a bit harder to follow because as soon as you have a tiny moment with that weight, it becomes a bigger slide.
“It’s harder on the tyres, so you overheat the tyres more and also with these new type of cars, you have to run them super stiff. Whereas I remember like 2015 or ’16, you could do sometimes a few different lines, you could run a curb because the cars were quite soft, well a lot softer than what we run now.
“And you could do a few different kinds of techniques and lines. But that is really, really hard nowadays because the cars just don’t allow it.”
What can be done?
The regulations are locked until the end of the 2026 season but the FIA can make amendments, as seen with the change of ride height to address the porpoising issue.
However, under the cost cap, it’s unlikely anything will be implemented that will make a tangible difference, certainly this season, while scrapping the regs will cause as much, if not more furore than leaving them as they are.
It means what we saw in Azerbaijan is likely to be repeated at other races bereft of unforeseen influencing factors.
All we can hope for is that those tasked with governing the sport are taking note of the noise and are using it to shape a more competitive future, because Baku proved the current regulations aren’t working.