F1 is back! Five big questions as hectic schedule begins in Azerbaijan

Thomas Maher
Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc leads the the F1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix. F1

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc leads the the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

After a seemingly interminable in-season break, F1 stirs back into life this week with the circus heading to the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

With the early season momentum quelled after the first three races of the season, this weekend’s race in Baku almost feels like the season starting all over again – such is the level of excitement here at PlanetF1.com towers.

And what a return to racing we’ve got on our hands, with Azerbaijan kicking off a relentless stream of racing throughout the summer. With Azerbaijan the first of a double-header with Miami, Imola kicks off a triple-header two weeks later, meaning five races in six weekends before a proper breather before heading to Canada.

As the action resumes and Red Bull are in a dominant position with three wins from three races, here are some of the key questions that need answering with the F1 season back in full swing.

All eyes on the qualifying format

While F1 will definitely be using the Sprint Qualifying format for this weekend’s race in Baku, it’s astonishing that it’s not yet 100% confirmed that the weekend will run with the new, tweaked format that is aiming to make the Sprint race more exciting.

The proposed changes keep a practice session and ‘normal’ qualifying on Friday, but Saturday essentially becomes its own self-contained day of action with a qualifying session to determine the Sprint starting grid before the 30-minute race itself – which won’t dictate the starting grid for the Grand Prix.

It’s only a tweak but, with the Sprint becoming standalone event and, barring any catastrophic car damage, no longer having an effect on the Grand Prix should, in theory, make the short race more exciting to watch than the offerings we’ve seen before.

Arguments about whether such changes were needed or wanted in the first place aside, it will be interesting to see if the tweaks have the desired effect and whether the teams and drivers become more enthusiastic about the format going forward.

Can anyone stop Red Bull?

No-one was capable of stopping Red Bull in the first three races, with Max Verstappen romping two of them and Sergio Perez claiming the other.

Fernando Alonso and Aston Martin lead the charge to try closing the gap to the frontrunners with third place in the Drivers’ Championship, although Australia suggested it’s Mercedes who might be able to challenge Red Bull more strongly when the conditions are right.

While there’s been a big break in between the races, this in-season break didn’t have the same stipulations as the enforced mandatory summer break which means the factories and staff aren’t working. It’s been full steam ahead on upgrades and updates over the few weeks off, meaning someone could make a big step forward on the streets of Baku.

Added to this is the fact Red Bull’s wind-tunnel time penalty for exceeding the budget cap in 2021 means that they won’t have been able to spend as much time fettling their RB19 and any update ideas compared to their immediate rivals. Over the course of the season, the gaps should, in theory, shrink. Might Baku be the first sign of the competition closing the gap?

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Can McLaren’s MCL60 take a significant step forward?

Having had an underwhelming start to the season with the MCL60 starting life as a ‘troubled’ offering from the Woking-based team, McLaren’s fifth-placed position in the Constructors’ Championship has come about as a massive slice of luck as Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri took a big points haul as a result of the chaotic end in Australia.

The team are still targetting a top-four finish this season and, since Bahrain testing, have earmarked the upgrade package being brought to Baku as their possible redemption.

McLaren will thus unveil their first big upgrade package for the MCL60 this weekend, but team boss Andrea Stella has cautioned fans about getting too excited.

“When it comes to the Baku upgrade, we do see the numbers, which are promising. It’s hopefully from sixth, it will allow us to be fifth,” he said.

“It’s not enough yet to achieve our objective for the season, which is to become a top-four car. This will require the Baku upgrade and we require another couple of upgrades following Baku on which we are working.”

While McLaren’s performance is unlikely to be a lightswitch improvement, Baku could mark the point at which they lay the foundation for a much stronger remainder to the 2023 F1 season under their new technical structure.

Can Ferrari get their F1 season underway properly?

Compared to this time last year, Ferrari are having a much less fun time. With two wins from the first three races in the ground-effect era, Charles Leclerc was on top of the world heading to the fourth round of the championship.

However, this year, the Monégasque has scored just six points from the first three races, with mechanical problems and a racing incident taking him out of the Bahrain and Australian races. While Carlos Sainz has scored 20 points and could have had a decent finish in Australia before being hit with a time penalty, neither Ferrari driver has yet stood on the podium in 2023 – the only ‘top’ team yet to manage it.

The beginning of Fred Vasseur’s reign of the Scuderia has been tricky, particularly with the outright performance of the car not quite there and the reliability of the power unit a little questionable.

Italian media outlets are reporting Ferrari have upgrades on the way to their front and rear wings for Baku, and spent the break testing out aerodynamic configurations, and different suspection setups. They are also said to have tested out running the power units in a higher engine mode in order to have more power for the long straights of the Baku circuit.

Might Baku be the race at which Ferrari finally score a decent result and kick off 2023 properly?

Will Sergio Perez be a headache for Max Verstappen?

Sergio Perez appears to be in a fightier mood for 2023, having resisted his teammate to take the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix win in impressive fashion. While their relationship remains cordial, a simmering background tension does still appear to exist between the pair, but circumstances haven’t yet tested the exact nature of the Perez/Verstappen working dynamic.

Perez has proven an adept hand at street circuits, winning in Jeddah, Singapore, and Monaco in the past 12 months, meaning Baku could set up a close fight between the pair provided both have a straightforward weekend.

Perez finished a clear second to Verstappen in last year’s race, and a much closer performer during the same race back in 2021 – inheriting the win when Verstappen’s tyre went bang late in the race.

Having had a messy Australian weekend after talking the talk following his Saudi win, Perez needs to right some wrongs – and fast – if he’s to stop Verstappen from increasing his lead significantly during the early stages of this championship. Baku is the stage for him to do that.