Time for the fourth grand prix in Azerbaijan, for the fourth round of the 2019 Formula 1 World Championship, and, as ever, there are plenty of questions hanging in the air as Formula 1 heads to the Baku street circuit.
Can Ferrari hit back and rediscover the form that allowed it to dominate for pace in Bahrain? And can the team finally win for the first time this year to break Mercedes’ perfect run? What about Sebastian Vettel? Will he reignite his title hopes with the kind of top-ranking performance we once took for granted from him?
Then in the silver corner, can Valtteri Bottas finish what he so nearly achieved last year and deliver a redemptive victory to get back on terms with Lewis Hamilton? Is he really a genuine threat for the title? And what about Red Bull? Will Max Verstappen have what it takes to take the fight to the top two teams?
The questions continue down the grid. But there’s also the hope that we’ll get a better race, after the anti-climax of the 1000th world championship round in China. History suggests the chances are strong because the action in Baku tends to come thick and fast – as the three past examples show.
The first F1 race on the Baku streets, named the European GP, featured a dominant performance from Nico Rosberg and continued the trend of that season in which the German defied expectations by trouncing his highly regarded team-mate.
Hamilton was under pressure back in 2016 and once again made the kind of mistake we so rarely see from him these days: he clipped a barrier in qualifying, breaking his suspension, and started down in 10th.
Rosberg might have dominated at the front to extend his points lead on his way to an eventual – and surprise – world title, but there was plenty going on behind him. Hamilton inevitably charged up the order, but a problem with his car sticking in the wrong engine mode delayed him for a dozen laps and he could only finish fifth.
Sergio Perez was the hero of the day, coming back from a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change on his Force India to clinch a podium. Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari had been running ahead of him, only for the Finn to incur a time penalty for crossing the white line at the pitlane exit – but that didn’t stop Perez passing him for third anyway.
How Perez and the renamed Racing Point team could do with a repeat performance this year. It looks unlikely, given current form. But on street circuits, you never know.
2017: Hamilton and Vettel collide, Ricciardo wins
This was the race in which Baku’s reputation for high F1 drama was well and truly established. Now called the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, the action included three safety car periods and a mid-race red flag to clear debris.
The headline moment was Vettel’s red mist while following leader Hamilton behind the safety car. Having run into the back of the Mercedes at slow speed, Vettel was sure he’d just been brake tested, drove alongside his title rival and purposefully bashed into him.
Recrimination and a cold new edge to this rivalry was the inevitable result. Vettel would later be handed a 10-second stop-go penalty for dangerous driving and lose valuable points.
Hamilton appeared certain to claw back ground in their increasingly personal title battle only for a bizarre problem to thwart him: his cockpit head protection worked itself loose and began to raise up. Hamilton tried in vain to push it back into position, but eventually was forced to pit. That handed the lead and an unlikely victory to Daniel Ricciardo, who had started only 10th for Red Bull.
Other notable memories include a collision between Perez – the hero 12 months earlier – and new Force India team-mate Esteban Ocon, while Lance Stroll became the second-youngest podium finisher in history for Williams.
Perhaps there was more to the kid than a silver spoon after all…
A year on from his Baku victory, Ricciardo’s tail was up as he returned to Azerbaijan, apparently a genuine threat for the world title. Meanwhile, highly-rated team-mate Verstappen was in something of a slump, having made a string of mistakes.
In Baku, their worlds would collide in the fall-out would contribute to Ricciardo’s big decision on where he would drive in the future.
Usually in a rear-end collision, either on the race track or the road, the blame is squarely placed on the driver who hits from behind. But this was one of those occasions not so easy to judge. Verstappen’s tendency to swerve from his line under braking had contributed to a clash that cost Red Bull a possible one-two. Christian Horner, Helmut Marko, Adrian Newey – they were all furious. But with Verstappen escaping a level of team censure Ricciardo believed was merited, further doubts were sewn about staying at the team with which he had achieved so much.
A year on, he’s unlikely to find himself a victory contender in Baku, as his new team, Renault, continues its struggle to find both pace and reliability. What will be in his mind as he returns to the city that holds so much past history – both good and bad?
Bottas is another who will surely carry conflicted memories. This time last year he put in the type of performance to show he has the ability to beat his usually masterful team-mate, only for a late-race puncture to rob him of victory and gift a first Baku win to Lewis.
The Finn needs to harness that form that took him so close 12 months ago, and empowered him so convincingly at the start of this season in Australia, too. Victory on Sunday would do much to sooth the pain of 2018 and rekindle our belief that Bottas can ‘do a Rosberg’ and defeat a great champion over a season.
The past offers lessons and a focus for motivation. But as in all sport, there’s no accounting for luck when the red lights switch off on Sunday afternoon.