Round four of the Formula 1 championship set up shop in Azerbaijan this weekend and Friday’s practice sessions seemed to suggest that Ferrari’s higher downforce and straight-line speed could favor the Italian team but we’ve heard that for three races now and none of them went Ferrari’s way.
Qualifying was a sunny, 60 degree evening but things weren’t too sunny for Pierre Gasly who suffered a penalty on Friday for ignoring the weigh-bridge leaving him to start from the pit lane. For Ferrari, Charles Leclerc entered the weekend on top of the free practice sessions and even hinted that he had no interest in obeying team orders from here on out. There is one way to avoid those orders and that’s beating your teammate. Could Ferrari convert practice pace for pole position or are Mercedes sandbagging?
Williams F1’s George Russel was first out and he needed to get on track having sat most of the free practice sessions out of order waiting for his car to be repaired after clouting a manhole cover during FP1.
Lewis Hamilton ran wide on his first attempt and Sebastian Vettel, running behind him, slowed for Yellow’s which left both their laps woefully slow. This left Lewis’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, to take top spot initially with Charles Leclerc second.
Vettel made his second attempt and jumped to the top with a 1:42.348s just 0.082s ahead of Bottas. Alfa Romeo’s Anotonio Giovinazzi jumped to 4th and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat followed his teammate, Alex Albon, into 5th and 6th. It was Vettel’s teammate, Charles Leclerc, who jumped on top with a 1:42.426s.
Renault was struggling with both Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg locking brakes, missing turns and flat-spotting their tires. They added more downforce in FP3 and then tried to dial in the desired amount but it wasn’t paying dividends in Q1. Ricciardo narrowly made it into Q2 and Nico was out in Q1.
Pierre Gasly, effectively running for nothing, got a tow and jumped to the top with a 1:41.335s and while it won’t matter, because he has to start from pit lane, there was the concept of getting Gasly involved to help Max Verstappen with a tow in Q3 if the Frenchman made it into Q3. Team boss Christian Horner says they aren’t considering it.
Haas F1 really struggled with Grosjean out in Q1 and Magnussen barely in to Q2. Like most of the midfield teams, tire temps and grip were really on short offer.
The session was stopped in the waning moments when Robert Kubica crashed heavily at turn 8.
Out in Q1- Kubica, Russell, Grosjean, Hulkenberg, Stroll
After a lengthy delay for track repairs caused by Robert Kubica’s crash, the session got under way and it did give concern over the dropping track temperatures and waning sunlight causing long shadows. All the teams were immediately out in order to take advantage of what heat was left in the circuit.
Initial laps sent Bottas to the top followed by Hamilton and Leclerc but it was Max Verstappen who jumped all of them with his first run. Vettel had a tough lap leaving him in the elimination zone.
On their second runs, it was Charles Leclerc who crashed at turn 8 at the same wall as Robert Kubica stopping the session and radioing his team “I am stupid”. Charles is immensely talented and while fans have been upset over team orders favoring Vettel and claims that Charles is better than Vettel and should be favored, we’ve argued that Charles is a young driver and like Lewis in China or Vettel in Canada, he is going to make young-driver mistakes this year. Baku is one of those mistakes. Having said that, I think Charles is the kind of driver, like Lewis and Seb, who will learn from it and quickly rebound.
The delay allowed Sky Sports F1’s team to contemplate the choice of running the Medium tires and it was a strategic choice that may have worked as Ferrari are a team that may have been able to switch that tire on even though the track was cool. The Sky team felt that the Medium tire was the wrong choice and put Ferrari in trouble. They may be correct. Regardless, the time ticked away, the sun dipped even lower and the repairs took time with fluid on the track and damaged barriers.
The challenge on the restart of the session was the speed-dry litter on the apex of Turn 8 and with Vettel in the elimination zone, he had his work cut out for him as that corner would now be compromised and as Verstappen, Bottas and Hamilton were all looking safe for Q2, Sebastian had a lot of work to do and was forced to abandon the Medium tire gambit.
With 5 minutes left, the cars started their final runs in Q2 and Vettel led the way which meant he was the first person to trundle over the speed-dry in Turn 8 on his hot lap. Vettel jumped up to 7th on the session on the Soft tires. The cooler temperatures were not helping but both Alfa Romeo’s into Q3 was quite an achievement for the team.
Out in Q2- Gasly, Magnussen, Albon, Sainz, Ricciardo
The sessions started and everyone came out immediately. The question was, can Vettel find the pace that Leclerc seemed to have all weekend and take pole position. Charles was quicker than Vettel during all Free Practice sessions so it was going to be a tall order.
Verstappen set the initial time at 1:41.447s but Lewis was setting purple sectors as both Mercedes drivers jumped to 1, 2. Vettel put together a quick lap to split the Mercedes and slot into second behind Hamilton. Max tried a second hot lap while the others pit and made progress by setting personal best sectors and slotted into 2nd place moving Vettel back to third. It suggested the Red Bull chassis and Honda’s new power unit upgrade may be paying dividends on this cooling track.
With two minutes left, the cars came out for their final runs. Vettel passed Giovinazzi to give himself some clear track but it meant he wouldn’t have a tow. Max Verstappen got out of his car ending his session. Hamilton radioed that there was a lot of traffic. Mercedes did a practice start on the way out and compromised their track position but they did make it over the line just in time.
Vettel jumped back to 2nd and Bottas pulled out a terrific lap taking pole position from Lewis Hamilton. Bottas set a lap record in the process and turned his quiet weekend into a Beardy Bottas pole position. Mercedes locked out the front row again
At the risk of sounding sour, I am growing weary of the patronizing from Mercedes about how they are on their back foot, how they can’t match Ferrari’s pace. They won the first three races and just took the front row in Baku after running seven tenths off Ferrari’s pace in FP2. My conspiracy theory radar is going off and I am a fan feeling like I am getting toyed with in order to play down the Mercedes dominance yet again.
|4||Max Verstappen||Red Bull/Honda||1m41.069s||0.574s|
|5||Sergio Perez||Racing Point/Mercedes||1m41.593s||1.098s|
|6||Daniil Kvyat||Toro Rosso/Honda||1m41.681s||1.186s|
|8||Kimi Raikkonen||Alfa Romeo/Ferrari||1m43.068s||2.573s|
|10||Carlos Sainz Jr.||McLaren/Renault||1m42.398s||–|
|12||Alexander Albon||Toro Rosso/Honda||1m42.494s||–|
|14||Lance Stroll||Racing Point/Mercedes||1m42.630s||–|
|18||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo/Ferrari||1m42.424s||–|
|20||Pierre Gasly||Red Bull/Honda||–||–|