At the 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, the teams will be working with three tyre compounds:
the yellow Softs, red Supersofts and purple Ultrasofts. As Baku is a street circuit, the compounds are on the soft side of the spectrum because the turns are mostly low-speed 90 degree turns, rather than the fast sweepers that can rapidly degrade a soft tire.
It’s difficult to use the 2017 race as a barometer for what might happen this year. For starters, the tyre compounds are two steps softer this year. One of the steps comes from the fact that all compounds are softer, e.g., 2018 Soft = 2017 Supersoft, and one step comes from the different elections made by Pirelli for this year. So all else equal, expect more stops. But the 2017 race involved a red flag, which brought all cars into the pits for a mandatory stop. So while Ricciardo won the race making three stops last year, three stops probably wasn’t the fastest strategy on a more normal day.
So what will we see on Sunday? The teams have loaded up on the Ultrasofts, which will be used in qualifying and the top 10 will start on those qualifying tyres. Based on what we saw in the race simulations in FP2, teams are going to try a variety of strategies from there — some will go to the Softs and some to the Supersofts. At least a second stop will be needed and at that point many drivers will revert to the Ultrasofts. Many drivers may try a third stop, after seeing what Ricciardo and Verstappen were able to do on fresh tyres at the end of the Chinese GP two weeks ago.
Ferrari has taken the most aggressive allocation of all, with 10 Ultrasoft sets and only three of the Soft/Supersoft sets total. This means that Ferrari may be racing on used Softs/Supersofts on Sunday
and it will be hamstrung if track conditions mean that the Ultrasoft is not the ideal race tyre everyone believes it to be. The other teams are just a hair more conservative, with Mercedes electing four sets of the Soft/Supersoft and Red Bull taking five.
Hopefully we see some interesting tyre choices play out on Sunday, as strategy is often key on a street circuit.
-R.O’B., your tyre guy