Mark Hughes explains the setup dilemma that Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes face for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix – and why the competition scheme might not be as straightforward as expected this weekend.
The Baku track is unique in its extremely conflicting combination of aerodynamic demands. The “straight line” (with multiple flat knots) parallel to the Caspian coast is 2 km long, giving plenty of lap time for a low-wing setting.
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But the middle sector through the historic old town resembles Monaco in its tightness, demanding maximum downforce settings. In terms of what the layout asks of the wing, it is a combination of the two extremes of the schedule: the very low downforce Monza and the very high downforce Monaco.
Which means there isn’t a “correct” wing level here; uniquely, the potential lap time is similar with low or high downforce settings. It’s just delivered in a different way. At least, that’s been the case historically since the inaugural race here in 2016. It’ll be interesting to see if that’s true with the new generation of cars, which derive a much larger proportion of their total downforce from sub- floor than before.
In general, the low downforce method seems to give a slightly better lap time, but with the possible risk of increased rear tire degradation due to the greater rear slippage. Last year Mercedes and Ferrari opted for skinny wings and, at a point in the season when the Red Bull was usually the fastest car, Charles Leclerc put his Ferrari on pole ahead of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes.
But Red Bull had opted to use a lot more fenders and was comfortably the fastest car in the race, with much better tire degradation.
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Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez both managed to head past Hamilton in the first pit stops on tires that were still working very well at the end of the stint, thanks to the greater protection the wing had given them by force. higher support.
Historically, the more competitive the car, the more likely a team is to use more wings here, with those looking for competitiveness tending to go for the lowest setting, go all out for grid position and then trying to maintain their position on the track. So in Mercedes’ super strong seasons here (2016-19) they ran a lot of wings. In 2016 and 2017, rivals Ferrari and Red Bull raced coupes.
Ferrari, with a very fast car in 2018, matched Mercedes with a higher downforce setup and did it again in 2019. But in 2021 the roles were reversed and Red Bull for the first time in Baku was confident enough in the inherent pace of his car. use more wing than their rivals.
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This year across all tracks the performance pattern between the Ferrari and the Red Bull has been quite distinctive, with the Red Bull tending to run less than the Ferrari and be quicker at the end of the straight, the Ferrari being very often faster through corners and accelerating harder out of them.
How will it be in Baku? Does this suggest that the Ferrari’s inherently higher drag/downforce will lead it in that direction in preferred wing choice? Will Red Bull use its inherently lower drag to afford the luxury of using more wing, given how well that choice went last year?
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Mercedes faces an intriguing choice here. Barcelona have shown that, cured of its aerodynamic porpoising, the W13 can be competitive and fast on the straights. Combined with a low wing setting, could this allow Lewis Hamilton and George Russell to lose to Red Bull and Ferrari in qualifying? Even knowing that it would probably compromise tire degradation in the race?
Mercedes presented their specific low downforce rear wing in Miami and their choice in Baku will be between this and the usual more streamlined wing.
As always, Baku offers an intriguing choice for teams and a perhaps unusual pattern of competition throughout the weekend.