Having been at Le Mans last weekend, my first impression of the Baku City Circuit came from watching a short highlights package on French TV from a budget hotel room.
The appearance of Jean Alesi as a pundit aside, the compilation did little but paint an exceptionally unflattering picture of the event in my mind. More than 90 per cent of the footage focused on the first three corners of the lap, making it seem as though the race had been held around an industrial wasteland with a feel more akin to a concrete jungle than an emerging city.
Already knowing the result and the fact that the race had not been particularly entertaining, I was fearing the worst as I sat down to watch the race in full, the recent experiences of Korea, India and Sochi still fresh in the memory.
With that in mind, the end result was a pleasant surprise. While Baku can hardly lay claim to being one of the best circuits Formula One has visited, by no means is it one of the worst.
The 23 second, full-throttle section that ends the lap proved to be a unique spectacle that spawned the opportunity for close racing, while the uncompromising nature of much of the second part of the circuit caught many drivers out over the course of the weekend.
While the first sector is an unremarkable collection of 90 degree turns, that is merely part and parcel for a street track if you want to provide a track layout suitable for racing without bulldozing an entire neighbourhood. It is easy to see why the decision was taken to bring the cars past the ancient Qosha gate, but stunning photo opportunities and tourism adverts aside, the section from turns eight to 12 was clearly unsuitable for Grand Prix racing and a potential recipe for disaster had a car crashed or stopped there. Thankfully, that risk was averted.
Once through turn 12, however, and what was until that point a thoroughly mediocre circuit becomes a quite brilliant final section that proved challenging, clearly fun to drive, and probably the best segment of a new circuit since Istanbul Park gave us the fabled turn eight in 2005. It is something that in future years should give us plenty of drama and great battles, and more importantly, is a refreshing change from the plague of identikit venues that have sprung up in increasing numbers in recent years.
The only regret about this section was the needless DRS zone on the pit straight. With the design of the final sector producing arguably the best opportunity to slipstream on the calendar – alongside the run up to Les Combes at Spa – allowing drivers to use an additional overtaking aid here was flawed and made passing into the first corner far too easy.
Not having a second detection point before the second DRS zone down to turn three was also a mistake, as it meant that more often than not, the driver which benefitted from it had already made the pass and was free to open up a gap, preventing anybody from fighting back had they lost out on the pit straight. This is something that urgently needs addressing for next year, with one DRS zone between turns two and three more than adequate for a circuit of this nature.
The race itself may have been underwhelming, but that could be put down to the fact that most of the positions at the front were settled early on rather than the circuit preventing close racing. The drama of Sergio Perez’s last pass on Kimi Raikkonen for third was tempered with the fact that the Finn already had a penalty, while Lewis Hamilton’s engine problem robbed the viewers of a charge through the field.
Anyone doubting the ability of the circuit to produce a thrilling race needs only watch both GP2 races, which threw up a mixture of barnstorming racing and disorganised chaos. In the right circumstances, a Grand Prix on this circuit could be just as exciting, it just lacked a competitive fight between any of the frontrunners.
In terms of where the circuit would rank compared to others, then it would be pushing it somewhat to place Baku alongside the likes of Spa, Suzuka and Silverstone in the pantheon of great venues, but in a sport that this year gives us Sochi, Yas Marina and Shanghai, it is more than worth its place.