Azerbaijan - GP preview - Renault F1
Cyril Abiteboul, Team Principal, Renault F1 Team
For the first time this season the weekend of the Chinese Grand Prix went to plan up to the end of qualifying: the competitiveness of our cars, and our drivers, made it possible to reach Q3 and we could have maybe started even a bit higher on the grid. On Sunday, Daniel drove a solid race completely in control and he was the only driver to make the one-stop strategy work starting the race on Softs allowing him to seal his first points for the team. Thanks to the points scored, and to a fragmented grid, we are now fourth position in the championship.
However, we have had another retirement, the fourth in six starts, three of these were due to reliability issues. If our objective this season - to widen the midfield gap - remains unchanged then we must accept to put in strong efforts to resolve these issues that could compromise our season.
Nevertheless, we will push on and bring new elements over the next races. Baku is often unpredictable, the racing there is thrilling and it is an opportunity to capitalise on rivals’ errors whilst avoiding making some ourselves.
Baku, the city famed for its strong wind, is the next stop on the 2019 Formula 1 calendar. After the team returned to the points and moved into fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship last time out, Chassis Technical Director Nick Chester talks about the unpredictability of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Why does the Baku Street Circuit seem to throw up a number of surprises?
Baku has a nice layout, which makes it very interesting. It’s almost three circuits put together. The first section is like Sochi with right-angled corners and some straights, then the middle section is similar to Monaco and the final part like Canada with a long straight. It’s a tricky combination to get right as, ideally, you’d run a different downforce level for each sector. There’s always a compromise for downforce levels there. Any mistake will get punished and, unlike a lot of street circuits, Baku is quite fast. Drivers find it tricky, but it’s an exciting track that’s for sure.
What’s required to do well in Baku?
More so than most circuits, you need an efficient aero package where you can run a reasonable amount of downforce without too much drag. Drivers need to be good on the brakes and also through tight and slow corners.
What changes are there to the Renault R.S.19 to accommodate the challenges of Azerbaijan?
Most teams will run a lower downforce rear wing than they’ve run in previous races. There will be a variety of levels with a trade-off between time in the middle section against the last section. The main change on the R.S.19 is the medium downforce package with new front and rear wings as well as a small update to the sidepod area.
How does the team look back on China?
It was a mixed weekend overall. We had a sensible qualifying in seventh and eighth, which we were fairly satisfied with. Daniel drove a very good race and he made a difficult one-stop work, having had to start on a used Soft. He responded when he needed to and made it look pretty easy. Nico was unfortunate with the MGU-K issue.
Nico and Daniel are top drivers and the car has, at the moment, enough pace to be at the top end of the midfield. We want to show that in the next few races. Daniel was satisfied in Shanghai with the balance and the changes we’ve made to the car has helped him in terms of braking and suspension. We have made a step forwards in China, but there’s still a lot more work to do.
Nico Hülkenberg heads to Azerbaijan in a bullish mood as he seeks to return to the points on the old, cobbled streets in Baku.
What do you like about travelling to Baku?
Baku is an interesting place and has a different feeling to the conventional Grand Prix weekend. It’s also a bit different to any street track because everything is located quite close together, including the distance between the hotel to the paddock. The old town buildings, vintage houses, castles and cobbled streets are all quite cool to see. The race is also interesting year on year; I’ve been a little unlucky for the past two seasons there, but you have to be in the right place at the right time to capitalise on any opportunity.
Where are the key sections on the circuit?
The long straight is probably the standout section of the whole track. You can get a big tow from other cars there as we saw last year with our early battle with the Red Bulls and, as everyone knows in Baku, anything can happen. It’s high-speed and intense there. The middle sector is quite good with some winding, slow-speed corners and close walls on both sides. We have to go beyond our comfort level in Baku because the cars have low downforce settings, and that’s both a challenge and a thrill at the same time. The slightest mistake there can have a big impact.
How do you feel after China?
It’s disappointing to retire from two of the three races so far this year, especially as we’ve shown strong pace at each weekend. The car has been feeling good, I’ve been feeling comfortable in the car and there’s certainly potential to score solid points at each race. We have to ensure we have more consistent weekends. Baku can be a strange place for results, everything and anything seems to happen there, so we have to be in the best possible position to be in and amongst it.
Six points in China for Daniel Ricciardo meant he opened up his points-scoring account for the team. Now his attention switches to Baku on a circuit which can spring up all sorts of surprises, which the Australian knows all so well after his 2017 heroics.
What makes the Azerbaijan Grand Prix so unique?
Baku is a unique circuit, different to other street circuits we race on, because there are a lot of places to overtake. Baku has been interesting for me; I’ve had high points, like the crazy win in 2017, and also some low points like last season. 2017 was a wild race, it was like we were karting and all of us were kids again. There are some things in Baku, which future circuits could replicate. The long, winding straight lends itself to massive slip-streaming and close racing. It’s a low downforce setting on the car, making it a low grip circuit.
What are the main challenges of the Baku Street Circuit?
Braking is the biggest challenge there. It’s tricky and you have to commit and brake as late as you can, especially at Turns 1 and 3 after the straights. When you aim to brake late, it means you’re constantly on the limit and there is no room for error. You have to find that limit under braking and that is probably the hardest part to get right in Baku because the walls are close. We’ve seen in the past there any small error means you’re in the wall and it’s game over.
How satisfied were you to score your first points for the team?
It was good to get points on the board with the team in China and get ourselves up and running. We built up nicely over the weekend, starting with a solid day’s practice, followed by improvements every time I stepped in the car all the way up to qualifying. The race was a challenge, managing a tough one-stop, but we made that work and there’s a lot of positives to draw from that. We know we have a lot to do if we’re to keep up the improvements, but we’ll keep digging away.