Formula 1 is back on your news feeds after a four-week break since the last event in Melbourne and the 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Max Verstappen leads the championship by 15 points from Sergio Perez, with Fernando Alonso just 24 points behind the Dutchman, so the title race isn’t exactly over.
Red Bull have looked imperious though so far, already 58 points in front of second-place team Aston Martin in the F1 constructors’ championship.
Unlike the summer break, the factories have been open and a huge amount of work has been put in by everyone to move up the pecking order and find some performance.
To throw a spanner in the works, F1 have introduced a new sprint format which will see one practice session and two qualifying sessions.
Consequences of new F1 sprint format
Not all teams are bringing their big upgrades to Baku because of the sprint format and one 60-minute practice session on Friday morning only makes it harder to properly test new parts.
Getting up to speed and finding the right setup would have been important anyway this weekend for the sprint, as qualifying for the main race is on Friday afternoon, but then Saturday is straight into two important sessions with sprint qualifying and the sprint itself.
“I think it’s exciting,” said Kevin Magnussen. “It will be only FP1 where you’re sort of just driving around and then all the other sessions there’s pressure on and it’s more exciting, I would say.
“It’s going to be even more important to hit the ground running in FP1. You’re not going to make big changes from FP1 to qualifying. So it’s a bigger challenge, but it’s the same for everyone. So I feel it’s exciting. I’m looking forward to it.”
Verstappen favourite for win but F1 future is questioned
Verstappen is driving exceptionally well, at one with the RB19 and that should be no different in Baku.
He won the 2022 Azerbaijan GP and should have won in 2021, if not for a tyre failure with five laps remaining.
On paper, a smooth weekend should see him extend his lead in the championship but Baku can produce some wild moments and the smallest of errors can have big consequences.
Following his comments about quitting F1 if the sport continue to add more sprint races, Verstappen‘s future was a big talking point and he reiterated his life will not circle around the championship.
“Sometimes, this sounds very weird for people from the outside, because they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re in Formula 1, you’re winning!’,” Verstappen told Sky Sports F1.
“And probably I would have said the same when I was in their position, but once you’re in it, it’s not always how it looks like or how people think your life is, right?
“I mean, yes, it’s great. I mean it’s amazing, I can do a lot of things. I’m very independent, but there is always a limit to certain things.
“I think every person is a bit different. It also depends a bit what you want out of your life, right? Some people just love racing, and that’s the only thing they know or the only thing they want to do. I am probably a bit more in the middle.
“I mean, I do love racing but I also want to do other kind of racing and then you can’t combine the two, or set up other kinds of stuff.
“I think when you do that amount of races, not only drivers, but also staff and the team, it’s a lot of people who will struggle with that.”
Ferrari downbeat about Baku chances
It would be unfair to say it’s doom and gloom at Ferrari but Laurent Mekies‘ departure to AlphaTauri for 2024 certainly underlines that all is not well.
Carlos Sainz thinks Ferrari will be in a similar position to Australia and, on paper, Aston Martin‘s more nimble, easier to drive machine should mean they are the front-running podium candidate.
Sainz, who is fifth in the drivers championship, said: “We do know our car much better, especially after these three weeks.
“We’ve managed to put together some good analysis and good directions set for the future, to chase in our development programme. This was target number one of this three-week break, to really identify the weaknesses that we have.
“The strengths of our direct competitor, in this case Red Bull, that is a clear step in front of everyone, and we try the best we can to come back to fighting them as quickly as possible.
“Our chances this weekend should be similar to the chances in Australia. It is true that in Australia, we took a bit of a different path on setup that seemed to work. We were quite quick in the race, where in the past we’ve struggled.”
Start of a new chapter for the W14
As for Mercedes, they have shown better straight line speed though compared to Aston Martin, so this is where the upgrades will come into play and it’s impossible to say which team will make the biggest step forward.
Lewis Hamilton confirmed Mercedes have a substantial upgrade for Baku and alluded it will put them on the right track. The development also comes a week on from the announcement that James Allison is back as technical director.
“I think it will be the start of a new path for us, ” said Hamilton. “It will be, at the core, still the same car, but part of the path to getting it to where we want to be, so we’re not going to hit the ground and be where we wanted to be at the start of the season.
“We’re not making up that crazy ground that there is but I think it’s really positive. So much great work has been done back in the factory. It takes time to progress in the right direction, so I’m excited for it.”
All eyes on McLaren
Since pre-season testing, McLaren have made it clear that the car they wanted at the start of the 2023 F1 campaign, will be ran for the first time at the Azerbaijan GP.
A big change to the floor could see them leap up the order, perhaps towards the back of the top four teams as they look to escape the midfield.
Australia was already positive for McLaren, with Lando Norris in sixth and Oscar Piastri in eighth, so this weekend is a vital few days for the Woking-based team’s season.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” said Norris. “I think Australia was definitely a better weekend for us, things definitely went our way a little bit more.
“I think we were unlucky, which made things look worse than they were in the first few races. We do have the upgrade. I think that was made clear and obvious very early on in the season.
“Our job is to try and bring slightly bigger things and try to play a little bit of catch-up. I think what we have this weekend is just the baseline we should have started the year with, and it’s about understanding what we have now. It’s a better baseline.
“There’s more room for opportunities and more room for improvements with what we have. It’s definitely going to make us take a small step forward.
“But to other people also bringing upgrades it’s going to be slightly smaller. I’m excited. The team did a very good job to bring these things through and to get them ready. But it’s about maximising what we have now.”