It’s All New In Baku
Despite the elevation changes the new Baku City Circuit in Azerbaijan will provide Formula One teams this weekend as they prepare for Sunday’s European Grand Prix, the 6.003-kilometer (3.730-mile), 20-turn street course is the closest thing to a level playing field Haas F1 Team will encounter in 2016.
The newest venue to hold a spot in the FIA Formula One World Championship means that Formula One’s newest team has the same amount of real-world data from the Baku City Circuit as its competitors. Zero.
Haas F1 Team, which debuted in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on March 20 to become the first American team to compete in Formula One in 30 years, comes to Baku with only seven races worth of experience. Meanwhile, their counterparts in this globe-trotting series of automotive acumen have decades of experience. A new venue with a layout that is likely to be the world’s fastest city circuit can be a great equalizer.
But despite no team having turned a wheel in anger at Baku City Circuit, established teams and, specifically, larger teams with deep resources, have turned Baku City into Sim City.
Simulations of a lap around the dumbbell-shaped track have allowed drivers and their engineers to strengthen their mental muscles for when they hit Baku City Circuit for real. And the simulations go beyond a driver acclimating himself to the twists and turns of a track that rockets through Baku’s juxtaposition of old-world history and new-age design. Aerodynamic flow, suspension travel, brake use – all can be simulated, with money the only boundary confining simulations and their infinite scenarios. Brain power and desire – two attributes that proliferate through the Formula One paddock – are part of an intellectual arms race, with simulations being the bulwark of a team’s battalion.
While new, Haas F1 Team has proven capable of holding its own among the sport’s establishment. It has scored 22 points coming into Round 8 on the 21-race Formula One schedule to sit eighth in the constructor standings, two points behind seventh-place McLaren and 16 points ahead of ninth-place Renault.
Those 22 points were scored in three races, the last of which came in Round 4 – the Russian Grand Prix at Sochi Autodrom. Haas F1 Team has been held pointless since, with the series’ rate of development closing the gap the American outfit established at the beginning of the season when they were fifth in the constructor standings.
After a handful of races where the weather has been unseasonably cool, Haas F1 Team drivers Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutiérrez look to heat up in Baku, not just with the warm weather forecasted, but on the track. The team’s best finishes have come when the weather is warm and the working ranges of their tires are quickly established and maintained. Baku portends both, and some winds of change in the aptly named City of Winds can send Haas F1 Team back into the points.
Guenther Steiner: Team Principle
How do you prepare for a venue you’ve never been to before?
“Logistically, we had our travel coordinator out there six months ago to check it out and look at the hotels. The track wasn’t ready by then, so we couldn’t have a look at it. I know a few other teams went out there to do an inspection of the garages, and our logistics manager has spoken with those people to get some information about it. Teams help each other in this respect because while there is competition, if everybody is informed, we’ll put on a better show. The technical guys take as much information as they can get from the FIA on the track layout and the surface of the track. Then, they make their best prediction of how to set the car up.”
The drivers have used simulator time to get acclimated to Baku City Circuit. While there’s no substitute for the real thing, how accurate is the simulator in providing feedback for what a driver can experience when he hits the circuit for real?
“It’s a simulation, so it’s not the real thing, but it’s the closest we can get to the real thing. It’s more for the drivers to learn the track’s layout. Normally, the first time you go out on a new venue, you’re pretty far off on grip level because the track is very green. It develops as more and more rubber gets put down.”
Haas F1 Team is new, so it doesn’t have any notes from last year. But at Baku, no one has any notes from last year. Do you feel that Baku is perhaps the most level playing field because it’s new for everyone?
“The big teams have more information because they go and get more information. Normally, they are better off because they’ve got more people to get prepared. They will always have an advantage, but at a new venue like Baku, sometimes you can get lucky.”
Baku is projected to be the fastest street circuit in Formula One, and its layout is amid a historic section of the city. Is there a current venue you can compare it to? If so, can any of your notes from another venue translate to Baku?
“You take the corners and the grip level and you just pick pieces of other circuits, but there isn’t one specific area where you could say, ‘We can do the same thing here that we do there.’ Baku will be a learning experience for everyone.”
We’re now a third of the way through Haas F1 Team’s debut season. How would you assess the season thus far?
“We are still learning. We’ve gotten a lot more stable. I think we can always be in a position to score points. We always try to improve, to get better, especially in qualifying. I think our race performance is better than our qualifying performance. Again, it’s a learning phase. We are pretty happy with the whole team, how they developed over the past three months, especially from where we came from. We’ve only had seven races. I keep forgetting myself. Baku is only our eighth race, while we compete with people who have been here for years. All in all, we just keep trying to do a better job at each race while preparing for the new car coming next year.”