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STRATEGY GUIDE: What are the possible race strategies for the 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix?
After the new Sprint format played out over the first two days of the weekend it’s time for the Grand Prix as normal on Sunday, but with much less certainty when it comes to strategy, thanks to just one practice session. So here are some of the options that should be available to the teams on race day in Baku…
What’s the quickest strategy?
Before answering that question, it’s important to point out that this is the race with the least certainty when it comes to strategy so far this season. That’s not to say teams will not have a clear idea about what they think is the best strategy for them to go for, but a lack of representative data means there are more unknowns than usual.
As has been the case at many of the opening races this year the one-stop strategy appears to be the way to go – but the Sprint has shown it won’t be easy to execute.
Starting on the medium tyres, a number of drivers suffered from graining towards the end of the 17-lap race – which took place later in the afternoon with a lower track temperature – despite starting with just a third of the fuel load that will be required in the Grand Prix. So with a heavier car, it could be tricky to reach the latter stages of a pit window between Lap 13 and Lap 20 before fitting the hard tyre.
And another challenge is the fact that hardly anyone knows how the hard compound will perform. Very few drivers used the hard during first practice on Friday due to the nature of the session, so there’s only data from four teams – and that came with the track at its dirtiest and without significant long running being possible.
Usually the teams would lean on previous data to help inform their decisions, but with much of the track having been resurfaced for this season’s race, that can also change the way compounds perform.
How about a different option for the top 10?
As all of the drivers have a free choice of tyres, there’s a chance we could see some opt to start on the hard, but that’s one we’ll examine a bit later. Instead, what is potentially a more attractive option is one that actually isn’t going to become attractive until after the race starts.
Not following? Well, if the frontrunners start on the medium aiming to do a one-stop strategy but find they need to make the first stop earlier than planned due to severe graining on high fuel – or more likely a Safety Car or Virtual Safety Car interruption – then they could be forced into an extremely long stint of over 40 laps on the hard compound. And as pointed out, there’s limited data on that tyre.
So a two-stopper could then become the quicker option, with two stints on the hard tyre in order to be able to push more. For that to work, a driver would likely need to make a first pit stop comfortably before Lap 16, and then run two stints of relatively equal length around 20 laps. If that middle stint was able to be extended to closer to 30 laps, then a second stop to fit either medium or soft tyres could also be considered.
The latter case is definitely going to be required if either Carlos Sainz or Kevin Magnussen are going to complete a two-stop race, because both of them handed back a used set of hard tyres earlier in the weekend and only have one set remaining for the Grand Prix.
What are the options for the bottom half of the field?
All of the drivers have at least one new set of hard tyres available, though, and that could lead to them choosing to start the race on the hards.
Although it’s a strategic choice that is usually avoided due to the penalty off the line, the short run to Turn 1 should limit any damage and with the race starting at 3pm local time – as opposed to 5.30pm for the Sprint – higher track temperatures would help with warm-up.
The hard tyre would need managing though even if it does prove to be the most consistent tyre in the race, with the quickest option in this case being to get beyond 30 laps before fitting medium tyres to tun to the end. A more aggressive alternative to that second stint would be to try and get close to the 40-lap mark to switch to the softs for the run to the flag.
Starting on the softs is looking extremely unlikely, though because of the drop-off seen from the runners on that compound during the Sprint, when track temperatures were lower and fuel loads lighter too.
Wait, but what’s the weather doing?
Shall we add another potential curveball into the mix in Baku? Oh go on then. According to the weather forecast, there’s a risk of thunderstorms threatening to have an impact on the race.
That threat is a light one it must be said – ranging from between 5% and 30% depending on the weather app of your choice (and decreasing) – but nevertheless it’s a greater chance than on any of the previous days this weekend.
If I’d made it sound like the teams are struggling to know what will happen with the hard tyre earlier, that’s nothing compared to how they will be feeling with regards to the intermediates and wets.
Rain has not been seen during the race weekend in Baku before, meaning there is no data on how the track holds up when faced with a shower.
It could be that the new track surface – which doesn’t appear to be as rough as the old one – doesn’t provide the opportunity for water to drain as quickly and there will therefore be more standing water earlier on, or perhaps the lack of rain recently will mean anything that does fall will quickly be absorbed.
Given the risk of an error leading to car damage on the Baku City Circuit, that would tend to see drivers trend towards an earlier stop for intermediates when rain falls, but whether we actually get any wet conditions remains to be seen.
In all likelihood, it would be a surprise if those thunderstorms were to materialise, with the general forecast being for similar ambient temperatures but slightly cooler track temperatures than Saturday due to increased cloud cover.