Scott inför Azerbajdzjans Grand Prix
Äntligen GP-helg igen – denna gång i Azerbajdzjans huvudstad Baku. Scott Mitchell-Malm går här igenom vad årets första sprint race innebär och lyfter fram tre team som har förändringar på gång.
Formula 1 returns in Azerbaijan with a new race weekend format and the first chance for Red Bull’s hunters to give chase as an intense part of the season begins.
The accidental spring break, caused by the cancellation of the Chinese Grand Prix, left a four-week gap in the 2023 calendar. It followed a fairly relaxed start to the season, with three races in the space of five weekends.
Now we will have five races in six weekends. Azerbaijan and Miami are back-to-back, then there’s a week off before the first triple-header: Imola, Monaco, Spain. By the end of that run the season will be past one-third distance and on the evidence of the opening races Red Bull and Max Verstappen will be a good way to winning both titles.
Unless their rivals can start to do something about it. In pure performance terms, that’s unlikely to begin this weekend in Baku, but the three teams – Aston Martin, Mercedes and Ferrari – all have improvements coming, some now and some later.
There is also the first sprint race of the season to contend with in Azerbaijan, which adds another variable for Verstappen and Red Bull to manage.
The surprise package of 2023 also has the most potential to improve among the leading teams because it is allowed to spend more time in the windtunnel and produce more CFD designs than its rivals.
That was a rule introduced a couple of years ago to try to gradually close up the gap between teams. The worse a team does one season, the more development work they are allowed to do the next season.
As Aston Martin was only seventh in the championship last year it has a much bigger development allowance than Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes. But the question is can it use that time effectively, and close the gap?
In Azerbaijan we see the first real changes to the AMR23 this year and one that could have the biggest impact isn’t really an upgrade, it’s a track-specific change.
For the first three races, Aston Martin used the same rear wing. It was a higher downforce specification that perhaps flattered its cornering performance slightly but was also partly responsible for the straightline speed deficit it had to Red Bull too.
That was a choice made for financial reasons. Aston Martin produced a higher number of different wing specifications last year, to optimise for different circuits if they had more or less straights, but felt this was an inefficient use of money under the budget cap.
So, this year the team stuck with one design for the first three events. Now it has a low-drag rear wing in Baku, it could help with a key part of its gap to Red Bull.
Beyond that, though, the AMR23 will need to be improved significantly if Fernando Alonso is to turn his run of podiums into a shot at victory in a straight fight.
During the break, one of the big stories was a significant change at the top of Mercedes’ technical organisation, with its chief technical officer (James Allison) and technical director (Mike Elliott) swapping jobs as part of a reshuffle of engineering and design personnel.
It is primarily designed to influence the team’s work longer-term, as it bids to catch and eventually re-pass Red Bull, so it shouldn’t impact what upgrades arrive at the track in the coming weeks.
There is an existing development plan that will not be deviated from. This is a hybrid of elements Mercedes has been working on for months and lessons from the on-track running since pre-season testing.
There are some changes for this race, with a different rear wing for lower drag and some performance updates like a reprofile lower wishbone outboard fairing on the front suspension, and lower deflector endplate at the rear corner of the car.
The first significant package is due at Imola, where the sidepods among other parts of the car should change. This is something Mercedes was already developing before the car even ran in pre-season testing but it should also incorporate other elements like suspension changes, presumably to allow the car to run lower to the ground.
Despite not starting the season as competitively as hoped Mercedes has still been a podium threat and enjoyed a much better race in Australia, where it seemed to use the tyres better than other teams. That will not be a given here, or in the coming races, but Mercedes is on a development path to where it thinks it needs to be.
Red Bull will not stand still, and has upgrades of its own in Baku, but there is optimism within Mercedes that its progress will eventually be enough to resume the fierce rivalry from 2021.
Ferrari does not have upgrades in Baku beyond track-specific parts, because it did not want to bring something new at a sprint weekend.
This format eliminates a lot of practice running for the teams. Normally there are two 60-minute practice sessions on Friday and another 60-minute practice session on Saturday before qualifying. That’s a lot of time to hone the set-up and learn about new parts.
But on a sprint weekend there is just one 60-minute session then qualifying on Friday for the grand prix. On Saturday, after a last-minute format change was agreed earlier this week, there will be a separate qualifying session for the sprint race, which takes place later in the afternoon.
That means it’s unlikely Ferrari is going to suddenly become a Red Bull threat this weekend but if it can finally have a cleaner weekend than the first three it has a shot at finishing on the podium.
Then it’s a case of getting upgrades to the car as quickly as possible, starting in Miami next weekend – although the consensus is that Ferrari’s car concept does not have enough potential to catch Red Bull and its car needs a much bigger redesign, which will inevitably take longer.