Verstappen extends championship lead as Ferrari’s hopes go up in smoke

Max Verstappen extended his championship lead with victory in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, as both Ferraris succumbed to reliability issues.

Sergio Perez came home in second to make it another 1-2 for Red Bull, with George Russell securing his third podium of the season in third place.

The big story of the race though will be the fragile state of the Ferraris, with both Carlos Sainz and polesitter Charles Leclerc retiring before the race distance. Zhou Guanyu and Kevin Magnussen also retired with power unit problems, in what was a worrying day for the Italian manufacturer.

Perez taking advantage of Leclerc’s lock up. Image courtesy of RedBull Content Pool

It was Sergio Perez who led in the early stages, getting a superb start from second on the grid to take the lead into Turn One. A small lock up from Leclerc cost him any chance of getting the move back on the first lap one, as the Mexican driver quickly dropped the Ferrari outside of his DRS range.

Things looked to be settling down before Carlos Sainz’s retirement on lap nine with a hydraulics failure, which led to a Virtual Safety Car. Whilst both Red Bulls stayed out, the majority of the chasing pack, including Leclerc and both Mercedes, opted to pit, giving themselves the option of stretching out a one-stop, or pushing harder and making the two-stop work.

Baking hot conditions meant tyre management would be crucial in Baku, as the track temperatures reached 46 degrees Celsius at the start of the race. Pirelli were clearly concerned as well, raising the minimum tyre pressures to try and negate the risk of punctures, thankfully, there were none of the issues which plagued last years race.

Strangely, it was tyre management which looked to be Sergio Perez’s downfall. His early sprint on the medium tyres took too much out of the tyres, and Verstappen was soon able to catch and overtake the Mexican on lap 15, with Checo being told ‘not to fight’ into turn one. However, it looked unlikely that Perez would have been able to put up much of a defence even if he wanted to.

After the Red Bulls pitted to go onto a conventional one-stop strategy, Charles Leclerc had a comfortable lead, and it looked as the win was still a distinct possibility, even if there was a concern over how well the tyres would last. By lap 20 though, this was a moot point. The Monegasque driver’s engine expired on the pit straight, handing victory to Verstappen and Red Bull.

Further back, it was another solid race from Mercedes, even if they aren’t showing the improvements they would have wanted to. George Russell was in no-mans land for the majority of the race, coming home in a lonely third place. His teammate, Lewis Hamilton, had a much more eventful afternoon though. After losing out in the first VSC because of the double stack, Hamilton spent a lot of his second stint stuck behind traffic, with Esteban Ocon being particularly trick to overtake thanks to the Alpine’s straight line speed.

After clearing the Frenchman, Hamilton was able to take advantage of the second virtual safety car (triggered due to Magnussen’s retirement) to get a cheap pitstop, overtaking both of the Alpha Tauri’s to come home in fourth. The heat combined with the vicious porpoising of the Mercedes clearly took it’s toll on the Brit, as Lewis struggled to exit his car at the end of the race.

Hamilton catching Gasly before taking P4 at the end of the race. Image courtesy of RedBull Content Pool

Pierre Gasly finished fifth for Alpha Tauri in what was his best result of the season, and if it wasn’t for a broken rear wing (which necessitated a gaffer tape fix), Yuki Tsunoda would have likely come home just behind in sixth. In the end, Sebastian Vettel recovered from an early spin to finish sixth, ahead of Fernando Alonso, the McLaren’s of Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris, and Esteban Ocon.

Ricciardo and Norris seemed to be inseperable throughout the entire race, with the Australian consistently challenging Norris in the early stages, being told to hold station behind his teammate. The roles were reversed at the end, with Norris clearly unhappy at being told to stay behind Ricciardo. This is a nice problem for McLaren to have, with this weekend looking like one of Ricciardo’s best this season.

Although the McLaren team orders may have had an effect on their result, it’s doubtful that Red Bull’s did. Verstappen’s race pace was too much for Sergio Perez, and the Dutchman now has a twenty-one point lead in the championship over his Mexican teammate. Ferrari’s double DNF drops them to eighty points behind Red Bull, as their championship challenge has unraveled dramatically over the last four races, which has seen Leclerc take pole in each race but not reach the chequered flag first in either, becoming the first driver to do this since Juan Pablo Montoya twenty years ago.

Celebrating a RedBull 1-2. Image courtesy of RedBull Content Pool

Next, Formula One heads to Canada first the first time post-COVID, with the last race there being remembered for Sebastian Vettel receiving a five-second penalty for gaining an advantage of track, handing the victory to Lewis Hamilton. Ferrari will be hoping that this time around, they don’t hand victory to their rivals once more.

2022 Azerbaijan GP Qualifying

Its already round 8 of the 2022 F1 World championship and this weekend brings the Azerbaijan GP, a crazy high speed street circuit that always delivers drama. Already this season its clear that the title battle is going to be between RedBull and Ferrari, the result in Monaco also brought Sergio Perez into contention giving us a three way battle. Even though Carlos Sainz has had a poor season by his usual high standards a change in form could also bring him right into the mix.

After the three practice sessions the top four were again close and looking at long run pace were evenly matched. The chasing pack are further behind this weekend but with the usual mix of crashes and safety cars this weekends race could be won by anyone. Qualifying isn’t as important at this track as at most but nonetheless an intense battle loomed.

The start of the session was delayed by 15 minutes due to a shunt in the F2 race which delayed the start of FP3 and the regulations state that there must be a 2 hour gap between the end of practice and the start of qualifying.

With a minute to go before the green light the pitlane resembled the worlds most expensive car park. They were led out by Lando Norris in his McLaren. Everyone would be looking for a slipstream down the very long main straight. Ferrari decided to stay in the garage to avoid all the jostling for a clean bit of track.

Lando Norris around the streets of Baku. Image courtesy of Pirelli F1 Media

Norris went quickest with a 1.45.0 but that would quickly be beaten by Alonso immediately behind him. With the first runs completed the two RedBulls were top ahead of the two Ferraris. Russells lap was hindered by Verstappen so he aborted and went again, putting his Mercedes into P4 on his quick lap.

The Ferrari’s went for a second lap on the soft tyres and replaced the RedBulls at the top of the timesheets. Leclerc again ahead of his team mate Sainz. Next up for a second run were the Redbulls, Perez went quickest but was then beaten by just 0.011 by his World Champion team mate. With the top four seemingly locked in the rest of the field would have to battle to not be in the bottom 5 and avoid being eliminated from qualifying.

Lewis Hamilton was first to set a time and put his Mercedes in P8, 1.2 seconds behind the Redbulls. With just 4 minutes left Lance Stroll decided it was about time he redesigned the front wing of his Aston Martin going straight on into one of the tech pro barriers. An incident almost as common during a GP weekend as the chequered flag being waved. Whilst returning to the pits to get a new wing he somehow managed to hit the wall again. Replays show he actually carried on without returning to the pits and at turn 2 carried far too much speed and wiped out the front right corner of his car. At this rate he will need his own cost cap budget to make it to the end of the season. This brought out the red flag, Two and half minutes remained and again the pitlane was full of cars waiting to get back out for a shoot out.

First out was Hamilton desperate not to go out in Q1, He stayed in 9th, not improving his time, he fell to 11th with other cars coming across the line, not many improved due to the fact they were all fighting for clean bit of track and getting in each others way. Out in Q1 were Magnussen, Albon, Latifi, Stroll and Schumacher. At the top was Max Verstappen ahead of Perez, Leclerc and Sainz.

The Redbulls got Q2 underway, with Perez leading out Verstappen. Perez crossed the line with a 1.42.258, his team mate then crossing the line 0.031 quicker. Gasly then went 3rd quickest with a great lap in his Alpha Tauri. Russell in his Mercedes went 4th quickest before the two Ferraris took over at the top, for once Sainz ahead of Leclerc by just 0.094. Replays then showed Leclerc went a little wide into the corner before the long straight, amazingly keeping his foot flat to the floor whilst the car was going sideways.

Gasly putting in a solid perfomrance. Image courtesy of RedBull content pool

The top four were separated by just 0.170, Gasly in 4th was a second further back but the next 10 cars were covered by just over half a second. With 7 minutes left Sebastien Vettel gently went into the barrier at turn 14, unlike his team mate he didn’t seem to have damaged the car so would be able to go again after checking the car in the pits. The Redbulls were still out on track and Perez returned to the top of the times by over a tenth. The bottom five in Q2 were Norris, Ricciardo, Ocon, Zhou and Bottas.

And so to Q3, the battle to win pole position. Who of the top 4 will get their lap inch perfect and land at the top of the times.

The wily two time world champion Fernando Alonso was first onto the track. everyone bar the two top teams were using used soft tyres for their first runs. Sainz went quickest after the first runs with a time of 1.41.814, just 0.047 ahead of his team mate Leclerc, then came Perez 0.126 behind the leading Ferrari with Verstappen 0.175 behind Sainz. Behind them came Gasly, Russell, Vettel, Hamilton, Alonso and Tsunoda.

During the couple of minutes break in action between runs, replays showed the RedBulls and Ferraris all coming close the walls at different parts of the circuit clearly fully on it.

Out came the cars for the dramatic final runs. Perez had a small issue in the garage and was later to come back out on track.

Carlos Sainz just missing out on a front row start. Image courtesy of Pirelli F1 Media

Sainz was the first of the top 4 to set a lap, touching the wall gently at the exit of turn 2, At the first split he was already half a second down. His team mate Leclerc was improving on his lap, he crossed the line with an amazing time of 1.41.359 a massive half a second ahead of his team mate. Verstappen put his RedBull in 2nd 0.347 behind but was beaten again by his team mate Perez who got within 0.282 of the leading Ferrari. 4th was Sainz, then came Russell in the Mercedes, Gasly, Hamilton who was being investigated for driving slowly in Q2 then Tsunoda, Vettel and Alonso.

With the top four so closely matched tomorrows race should be another battle of strategy and getting the decisions right when the inevitable chaos ensues.

 

F1 Weekend Preview: Baku for Late Drama

After the changing conditions of Monaco we move on to the streets of Baku. This track often producing exciting races which can really affect the championship. With Perez now very much a championship contender he will be hoping Ferrari doesn’t have a change in fortune and the Mercedes still have trouble finding the right balance in the car.

Perez is In

Last time out Perez put himself very much in the mix as a title contender after RedBull seemingly looked to back Verstappen in Spain. With a good strategy from RedBull and a strategic slip from Ferrari, Perez stuck out the wet conditions to take home the win.

Lewis Hamilton failing to turn of the ‘magic button’ in 2021. Image courtesy of RedBull Content Pool

Perez was definitely happier with the RedBull than his teammate in Monaco even with a crash in Q3. He looked to make is claim in the team and hopefully RedBull have now got to consider that they have two potential 2022 world champions in the team.

This sort of confidence is something that Perez will want to take to a track which last year he also picked up the spoils with the title rivals Hamilton and Verstappen both having their issues in the race.

Ferrari Losing Momentum

Ferrari have looked very much on top at the beginning of the season. In Australia Leclerc was comfortably ahead of the RedBull’s and the first few races of the season Ferrari’s reliability made them the team to beat. However, there appears to have been a momentum switch in favour of RedBull.

Sainz manages to split the RedBulls in Monaco. Image courtesy of Pirelli F1 Media

The last few races have not been kind to the red team who’s turn it was to have their own reliability issues. In Spain Leclerc was controlling the pace until lap 34 when his power unit gave up. Sainz couldn’t bring home a podium in that race either but managed to salvage P2 in Monaco after an awful strategy from the team meant Leclerc went from P1 to P4.

The team now have to re-focus to bring the fight back to RedBull in Baku and hope that the late drama Baku is known for will be in their favour.

Which set up is correct?

Mercedes have still not quite got the hang of their performance. They seem to have almost got rid of the extreme porpoising which was holding them back, and in Spain they did have good pace. But Baku is unique in that a low or high downforce set up can yield good lap times.

However, based on the previous years low downforce is better over a single lap but increases tyre degradation in the race. This is the decision the teams need to make and for Mercedes, who introduced their low downforce wing at Miami, this could mean enough pace to compete with RedBull and Ferrari for qualifying.

The low downforce wing from Miami. Image courtesy of Mercedes Media

Qualifying is on Saturday at 3pm BST and the race on Sunday is at 12pm BST.

Is Experience the Best Teacher?

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix was definitely a race that was missed during 2020. A street circuit which often produces some exciting racing, testing overall straight line speed but allows for overtaking whilst testing the driver’s abilities to be calculated and precise enough to thread the car through the high walls of the circuit.

image courtesy of Getty images/ Red Bull content pool

Experience in an Formula 1 car is often key at tricky circuits like this, which shone through during this race, which did not disappoint. This week it seemed to be all about the older drivers putting in some epic performances which we know they are very capable of. They did give the young guns a run for their money, but it didn’t work out for all of them. Most drivers had solid races at Baku, but the skill of some of the experienced drivers was evident during the race, meaning they were able to maximise on what was a crazy race.

Perez is well known for his experience in an F1 car. Racing since 2011 in F1, he has learned a few things to keep in the mix when it counts, and this race was a clear example of that. In the early stages of the race he was able to keep up with Verstappen whilst keeping the 7 time world champion behind him under constant pressure. He managed his tyres well, showing pace in them during the pitstops, and had it not been for a slow pitstop he may have come out in front of his teammate. During the red flag restart, it would have been easy to get caught up with Hamilton going straight on down into turn 1 if he hadn’t backed out of the move. Even though in his F1 career he has very rarely been at the front, he handled the pressure absolutely perfectly to come out on top with a very deserved win.

Clearly full of confidence after a fantastic performance in Monaco, Sebastian Vettel had an incredible race and a solid weekend all round. Had it not been for the red flag at the end of Q2, he was looking at an almost certain top 10 qualifying, adding to the excellent qualifying from the previous race. After qualifying P11, finishing in P2 was absolutely deserved, and he showed his pace in the Aston Martin early on. During the first round of pitstops he gained the lead by default as the front runners changed their tyres earlier than expected. Vettel was able to manage the soft tyres whilst still pulling a gap on his rivals to then come out P7 after his pitstop. On the safety car restart he showed his experience again, navigating his way past Leclerc without contact despite getting very close. Vettel has gotten used to the new car very quickly, showing he has enough trust to make moves during both the restarts. A resurgence from him is definitely what the fans wanted after a not so great year with Ferrari in 2020.

Alonso had a highly anticipated return to F1 at the beginning of the season, however so far he hasn’t been so successful, being out qualified and finishing behind his teammate Ocon on Sunday. This could be down to getting used to F1 again after his time away from the series, along with getting used to a new car with a relatively new team under new management. Watching his on board camera from the restart after the red flag, he clearly showed why he is a double world champion. Starting on the grid in P10, he made up for places to finish P6 by the end of the 2 lap sprint. What is striking about his on board though, is the skill involved. He had the inside line into turn 1 but was being squeezed by Sainz, who also had Ricciardo on the outside. Alonso did not make contact with the wall or the other cars during any of this. He then demonstrated his race craft by waiting for the right moment on the same lap to overtake Tsunoda. This created an epic finish for him, the likes of which we were used to seeing before.

The oldest man on the grid did not want to miss out on the action, as is normal for Kimi Raikkonen. For him the highlight of the day was a skillful move on Bottas into turn 7, the slowest on the track, during the safety car restart. Raikkonen has shown throughout his time at Alfa Romeo that he still has plenty of talent to keep him in F1 and finishing in the points with moves like this are often the reason for this.

When talking about the experienced drivers on the grid, Lewis Hamilton is part of this conversation being extremely consistent and changing his style over time. However, the incident after the red flag restart was a rare mistake from him, the team revealing afterwards that he had flicked on the magic brake button whilst changing gears. This changed the brake bypass to mostly front end, meaning the car couldn’t stop before the turn. This admittedly makes the error an odd one because this has never happened before, despite the buttons position never really moving. They say it’s best to learn from your mistakes and Hamilton says they will grow as a team.

Overall, Mercedes had a terrible weekend. This is where the team experience came in, allowing them to try different set ups, strategy’s, and tactics to get the most out of a seemingly lacklustre performance from the car all weekend. By the end of Q3, the changes made to Hamilton’s car were successful with him managing to secure P2. Bottas on the other hand was arguably hampered by the red flag at the end of the session but suffered massively during the race. The Mercedes is not known for its great ability to pass other cars in the midfield, but with what appeared to be the quickest straight line speed and the power of the slipstream, a few DRS based moves into turn 1 were expected. Instead Bottas made his way backwards at the restarts and didn’t perform well. However, he did have a different rear wing to Hamilton, which the team confirmed as driver preference, this may have ultimately hampered him when trying to overtake.

Looking forward to the next couple of weeks, Mercedes will need to win in France to make up the points in the constructor’s championship after having lost more to the RedBulls this week. The outcome of the race could also have a huge impact on the Driver championship, with the front runners not gaining any points this week, it is massively important they maximise each race, as cancellations become more frequent and look to threaten the 23 race calendar. France is not known for amazing action over the last few years, but with the 2021 season we are having it could be unpredictable.

Perez picks up the pieces as Baku strikes again!

Sergio Perez won a bonkers Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Sunday as Lewis Hamilton finished fifteenth, failing to close the ground in the championship.

This race came with high anticipation because of all the incidents in qualifying which led to an unpredictable starting grid. Charles Leclerc managed to start on pole this week with Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen behind with arguably faster cars on race pace. Positioning for Leclerc was key as the long run into turn 1 provides a great overtaking opportunity at the start of the race. Hamilton pointed at Verstappen, showing that he would be covering the Dutchman off.

The start of race was a clean one, everyone making it through turn one without any issues. Hamilton pushed Leclerc but decided to back out this time, while Sergio Perez made a great overtake on Pierre Gasly, meaning he gained two places. Antonio Giovinazzi gained five places with an epic first lap, to then come in and change for Hard tyres along with George Russell in a strategic move.

At the end of lap one, the power of the slipstream around Baku showed, as Hamilton was able to make a move on Leclerc to take the lead without the use of DRS. One lap later, Verstappen had the chance to overtake the Ferrari man; this time they both had DRS and Verstappen would not make the crucial move until lap seven. Perez was able to follow his teammate on the next lap, bringing in both Red Bulls against just one Mercedes from a strategic point of view.

As the pit stops began, Lando Norris and Fernando Alonso came in at the same time, continuing the battle from on track. Norris was able to overtake the Alpine with a great move on lap 11. Leclerc pitted on lap 10, considerably earlier than predicted and Tsunoda was told to push with a fantastic response by telling his engineers: “I am, Shut up!” At this point, Mercedes decided to pit Hamilton for the hard tyres; he was held for two seconds too many to allow a passing car. A very quick 1.9 second pit stop for Verstappen meant that the extra 2 seconds were costly for Hamilton. Perez had been quietly making up the gap and pushing while the front two were pitting. Once Perez came into his pit stop, he had a slow left rear tyre change, but Hamilton’s delay proved even more costly when Perez came out behind Verstappen but, importantly, ahead of the champion.

Vettel was then leading the race because he hadn’t stopped. He opened up a gap, allowing himself to create a gap to his rivals for when he pitted, gaining positions on them when he came out in P7. Valtteri Bottas was being given the hurry up from his team whilst Vettel pitted, while the Finn was locked in an intense battle with Norris, the team requiring him to pass for a top six finish. This was squashed when he took a small trip through the runoff area at turn 16, opening up the gap.

As we were settling into the race, on lap 31 Lance Stroll had a massive, high speed crash on the straight. Stroll was understandably shaken, but okay and got out of the car with no issues. It appeared to be a potential left rear tyre failure, but this yet to be confirmed. The safety car was brought out, the cars were bunched up, and the tyres could not be changed due to Stroll’s crash happening in the pit lane entry. This was the extra bit of excitement the race needed at that point.

At the restart, Vettel had an epic getaway, taking Leclerc and nearly making a move on Gasly to gain some places. The four-time champion then completed the move on Gasly and charged for Hamilton. Bottas, conversely, had a terrible restart, losing 3 places by the end of the lap. Unfortunately, his race went from bad to worse at that point, not able to make any overtakes at this circuit.

Azerbaijan was the first time sine Austria 2018 that neither Mercedes has scored points – Courtesy of Mercedes F1 Media

Once we had calmed down from that restart, there was a second major incident. This time Verstappen crashed near the start finish line on lap 48! Similarly, to Stroll’s crash it was the left rear tyre which appeared to have failed – again, this is yet to be confirmed. The race was then red-flagged after a very interesting FIA team radio with Red Bull was revealed, where it was suggested a red flag was necessary to allow everyone to change tyres after they had no warning that there was a problem.

It was then confirmed that the race would be restarted with a standing start; a 2 lap sprint race had everyone nervous and excited. After the 20-minute stop, they lined up on the grid, Hamilton’s brakes smoking very heavily. The lights went out, Hamilton had a better start on Perez and looked like he would take Perez in turn 1 with the inside line, but he went straight on! This was down to the brakes, revealing in a radio after the race that he “left the magic on”. The magic believed to be a is a tyre warming set up used for safety car tyre warm up (yet to be confirmed).

In an intense battle to the finish, Leclerc and Gasly fought for the final podium place. Mercifully for both Gasly and Perez the chequered flag came out. Perez won, with Vettel P2 and Gasly P3. The didn’t end there because Perez had to stop on the cool down lap with an apparent hydraulics issue which meant they nearly had to retire the car.

It was a huge result for all three podium-finishers – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

This is possibly one of the happiest podiums. Perez got his second win ever, and his first with is new team. Vettel looks to be back to his old form with a first podium for Aston Martin, and Gasly had a great race finishing third, definitely deserved for the whole Alpha Tauri team. With Hamilton, Bottas and Verstappen out of the points, it was important that Perez picked up the extra points for Red Bull in the Constructors’ Championship.

Red flags cause chaos in qualifying for Azerbaijan GP

The sun was shining over the Baku Street Circuit this afternoon as qualifying for the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix got underway.

Q1 began with two brief yellow flags when Hamilton and Hulkenberg both ran off-track before rejoining the circuit, with Stroll also having a brief scrape with the wall.

A red flag came out just moments after the chequered flag fell on Q1, with Williams’ driver Robert Kubica clipping the wall at turn eight and hitting the barriers. Kubica was okay, but Williams were left with a huge repair job on their hands.

The first session ended with Pierre Gasly in P1, followed by Charles Leclerc and Lewis Hamilton. The five drivers knocked out of Q1 were Stroll, Grosjean, Hulkenberg, Russell and Kubica.

LAT Images

After a delayed start due to the recovery of Kubica’s William’s, Q2 finally got underway, but the red flag was brought out again within minutes when Charles Leclerc crashed into the barriers at turn eight – the exact same place where Kubica crashed in Q1. Leclerc was uninjured but was left understandably frustrated as he made his way back to the Ferrari garage.

After yet another half-hour delay, Q2 finished without further incident. Max Verstappen topped the time sheets followed by Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton in P3. The five drivers out in Q2 and lining up from P11-P15 on the grid for tomorrow’s race are Carlos Sainz, Daniel Ricciardo, Alex Albon, Kevin Magnussen and Pierre Gasly, who didn’t set a time in Q2 due to his penalty for missing the weigh-in yesterday in practice. He will start tomorrow’s race from the pit-lane.

Q3 was relatively uneventful with nine out of ten drivers out on track in a bid to get pole position. Despite having crashed out in Q2, Leclerc set a competitive time and will start tomorrow’s race in tenth place.

Valtteri Bottas set a sensational lap time of 1:40.495, placing him on pole position for tomorrow’s race. Hamilton completed the front row with Sebastian Vettel behind in P3 next to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. The rest of the grid consists of Perez in P5, Kvyat in P6, Lando Norris in an impressive 7th, with Giovanazzi, Raikkonen and Leclerc rounding out the top ten.

LAT Images

If today’s dramatic qualifying is anything to go by, tomorrow promises to be a very interesting race in Azerbaijan!

[Featured image – LAT Images]

How Ferrari has lost out in cornering speed

Images courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari

Ferrari seemed to be the car to beat after pre-season testing, but 3 races into the season, Mercedes has dominated, taking 1-2 finishes right from the start. How did the Italian outfit lose all the ground it had, and why is it difficult to come back?

2019 started with a really positive vibe for Ferrari. Mattia Binotto, a man who has earned the utmost respect of everyone in the team, was appointed team principal, and Charles Leclerc, a driver who knows Scuderia inside out and has been part of it since 2016, replaced Kimi Raikkonen and brought something unprecedented for the Italians, optimism.

Chinese Grand Prix 2019 – Charles Leclerc

All they had to do was get the results on track, a feat that seemed really difficult for them in 2018. Even though Sebastian Vettel started the season strongly, dominating the early part of the championship, the slump that followed was devastating for him and his team, resulting in another lost title.

It’s fair to say that the SF71H was the better part of the championship, the best car out there. It was fast in the straights, rapid in the corners, managed the tires better than its counterpart, the Mercedes W09, and it proved to be the most reliable car only for Ferrari to spoil it with a misjudged upgrade package after the Singapore GP.

The foundation was there for the 2019 car, though, and that seemed to be the case in this year’s pre-season testing. The SF90 was tremendous, toping the timesheets, with experts (and the teams themselves) arguing that this was the car to beat.

Lewis Hamilton’s remarks may have been the most graphic, and possibly exaggerated:

“I think it’s potentially half a second, something like that. But we will be analysing a lot from this test and there will be some mods that we’ll try and implement before Australia. There’s obviously not a lot of time, but over this next week, hopefully we’ll gain another tenth at least just in our understanding of the car.”

And they gained, not just a tenth, but seemingly 8 tenths of a second against Scuderia, which seemed to have taken a huge blow in Melbourne. Set-up problems, cooling issues, all sorts of things happened to the car that was meant to be the winner at the season opener.

Set-up woes and a key factor that changes everything

Right from the start, Binotto emphasized on the set-up issues his team faced in Australia, saying that this was a one off thing, downplaying the importance of this problem, or even worse not fully acknowledging its full extent.

“You’re always hoping to address and improve the situation through the weekend when you’ve got some issues with balance and the set-up,” he said. “It didn’t happen. We need to bring all the data back home and try to analyse it.

“That has to remain an exception all through the season. But I think it will be a good lesson learned.

“If we may identify where the issue was, we can be back even more stronger.”

This year’s aero kits are a very different kind from those of 2017 or 2018. Simplifying the front wing and the bargeboards, widening the rear wing and its effect on the straight line speed messed with the balance of the Italian car, more than any other on the grid.

Ferrari tried to maintain a more aggressive approach with its front wing design, with the inner part of it being taller than the outer, meaning that towards the endplates, the outwash would still be the same as it was with the 2018 wings – and that is the main issue with the set-up changes.

Simplifying aero parts has an effect on the things a team can ‘tweak’ to get the most out of its car, because the operating window of it is really decreased, and every detail has a bigger impact on the car’s performance.

Mercedes tried to be more conservative with its front end design, and that enables it to make changes to the set-up without compromising its all around performance as much as Ferrari.

The Maranello squad tried to push for the straight line speed not only by making big gains in the ERS deployment (with the MGU-K being at full power for the better part of the lap), but with its aerodynamic components, in order to have as less drag as possible. But, less drag means less downforce around the corners, and I don’t know any track which is composed only by big straights.

Even Baku has a very tricky middle sector, full of mid and low speed corners, and Ferrari addressed that by bringing its first upgrades there, per Binotto:

“We are bringing a few updates to Baku, as the first step in the development of the SF90.”

It is almost certain that Ferrari will bounce back and sort these problems out. It is only a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’. And this cannot come soon enough.

Race 1001: Another cracker in Baku?

After a decidedly disappointing 1000th race at the Chinese Grand Prix, the F1 bandwagon brings us to the six kilometre-long Baku Street Circuit for the fourth ever race in Azerbaijan.

Last time out saw Lewis Hamilton take the 75th win of his career, and his second of the season. He goes into this weekend at the top of the WDC ahead of team-mate Valtteri Bottas, while Ferrari are yet to deliver on the massive potential that they promised after testing in February.

In fact, they have seen their rivals not only inflict significant damage to their title hopes, but make the best team start to a season since Williams in 1992 with three one-two finishes to start the season.

2019 Bahrain Grand Prix, Sunday – Wolfgang Wilhelm

If there is to be any hope for Ferrari getting back to winning ways for the first time in 2019, it is that they looked impressive in Baku last year. Sebastian Vettel had been on for victory had it not been for a safety car late on that allowed Bottas to pit and rejoin ahead of him.

A penultimate lap puncture for Bottas then handed the win to Hamilton in a race that didn’t quite equal 2017, but certainly gave us a lot of excitement and entertainment, while Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen were given a lot of resentment by their Red Bull team after their crash.

Speaking of the Austrian team, the tight and twisty corners of a street circuit plus a Honda engine which is giving them significantly more power than Renault did could put them into contention for a podium or perhaps even more if things do their way.

However, this weekend will be a telling one for Pierre Gasly. Having been heavily out-qualified and out-raced thus far by team mate Verstappen this season, a circuit like Baku is an opportunity for him to prove that he deserves the seat awarded to him by Red Bull. Knowing Red Bull’s tendency to be impatient with young drivers, he’d better find some pace quickly.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Their sister team Toro Rosso continue to enjoy a solid start to 2019, and Alex Albon is Red Bull’s next optimistic topic of conversation. He finished 10th in China, having started the race from the pit-lane following a crash in FP3 that put him out of qualifying.

The battle between Toro Rosso, Racing Point, Haas, and Renault continues to be a fun one to watch, as Haas still look for answers to their baffling lack of race pace, and Renault try to have their first clean weekend of the season after a reliability issue-strewn start to the year. There is extra incentive for Nico Hulkenberg, as he looks to prove that Baku is not a bogey track for him, having crashed out of both of the last two races.

As a street track looms, opportunity beckons for some to prove their worth to their teams, and for Ferrari to finally try and throw down the gauntlet to Mercedes in 2019.

 

[Featured image – Wolfgang Wilhelm]

Driver Ratings: Baku Does it Again!

Azerbaijan never ceases to amaze, I am unsure whether this beats 2017’s race which was amazing to watch. Lady luck was on a few driver’s side today, we’ll look in deeper detail at who had it in the rating review. As per always the rating will be done in results order.

Lewis Hamilton – 7

Lady luck was most definitely on his side today, he took longer to turn the tyres on unlike Vettel who led early on. He made some uncharacteristic mistakes especially at the first corner flat spotting both tyres he told pit wall the tyres were finished so had no choice but to change strategy and pit. The pace on the fresher yellow softs was slow but then the safety car came into play. He was gifted the win with misfortune of others.

Kimi Raikkonen – 7

Kimi being Kimi, you wouldn’t really remember he is a World Champion from 2007. He’s being used to a certain extent as a clear number two driver to Vettel. It all went wrong on Saturday with Ferrari only bringing one set of super softs he had to make one lap count, he didn’t do so. This forced him onto another strategy for Sunday. A silly collision on the first lap when he could of let off the throttle easily damaged his car, no penalty surprisingly, as others fell by the way side he took an unexpected second.

Sergio Perez – 9

Ever the opportunist, now the most successful Mexican driver in Formula 1 history and most successful at Baku in terms of podium finishes. Force India looked strong all weekend with their Mercedes grunt. Great pass on wounded Vettel along the straight. The catalyst the fourth placed team from 2017 need to push on this year?

Sebastian Vettel – 8

Go big or go home from the German, he took advantage of the safety car in Australia but this race it hindered him as we look at in a moment. A great flying lap for pole and early race from the quadruple champion. He pulled a clear lead out after the first safety car. He got a lacklustre restart from the second safety car and went for it on the brakes but with such a long straight they went cold, locked up and ran wide. He lost places rather than gaining, and dropped to P4, with then Perez getting him in the later laps due to his massive flat spot. The Ferrari was strongest all weekend, did he really have to go for it at the first attempt he had?

Carlos Sainz – 8

Flying the flag for Renault today for the first half of the race had they had the third best package. He got by the Red Bulls well and then pulled clear. When they got up to speed he kept up with them. He pitted early as started on the ultra softs and continued well to finish solidly in the points. Pretty much the reason why Renault ‘loaned’ the Spaniard from Red Bull this season.

Charles Leclerc – 9

The reason why Ferrari rate this driver highly was shown today as he scores his first World Championship points in P6. He did better than most turning on the super softs and had great pace from his impressive qualifying managing to keep Raikkonen at bay after the first restart. He would of still scored points even if others finished, he just got a few more as result. Great for the Sauber team to have points but more importantly a talent like Leclerc behind the wheel of one of their cars.

Fernando Alonso – 8

The character and grit that Alonso showed today was the reason why everyone rates him so highly. To begin with he got the McLaren round a near 2 minute lap with 2 wheels shod car into the pits with minimal damage. There was some to the floor of the car as a result but still managed to score decent points for the team. Good battle with fellow countryman Sainz today. Worth every penny to Mclaren once again.

Lance Stroll – 8

A happy hunting ground for the Canadian, after taking advantage of the 2017 race and scoring an unlikely podium, he scored his and the team’s first points this season. Great confidence booster for him and the team. He had the pace with the Mercedes power and good racecraft to finish in the points.

Stoffel Vandoorne – 6

Stoffel was off colour this weekend, but took advantage of others to finish in the low end of the points but also once again Alonso was on average a few tenths quicker than him all weekend. He continues to pile pressure on himself regardless of a points finish today, Lando Norris is looking pretty nifty in Formula 2.

Brendan Hartley – 6

The Kiwi has scored his first point in Formula 1. He had a very unorthodox way of entering the sport last year and has taken him a while to adjust, some say he still is and was the fortunate today. Bad driving on Saturday as he didn’t set a lap and his team mate nearly went flying over the top of him. He drove better on Sunday.

Marcus Ericcson – 6

Marcus was in the shadow of his team mate today, a collision on the first lap turn 2 restricted his performance. He received a penalty for the collision and was clearly at fault, no excuses. He flat spotted tyres which also ruined the strategy he was on halfway through the race. The car was good over the weekend which should give him confidence Bahrain can happen again.

Pierre Gasly – 7

He showed great racecraft on Sunday, and reactions on Saturday. He thought that he was going into the wall after coming across his team mate but managed to keep it away with lightning reactions. With yellows like his team mate he didn’t set a representitve lap time. The race was different all be it he has nothing to show from it, he managed to get up as high as P7 in the race after carving through the field’s destruction on lap 1. An out and out racer, battled with former rival Leclerc which was good to see. He was involved in a collision with Magnussen which prevented the attack for points as he had the pace.

Kevin Magnussen – 6

K-Mag was in the wars on Sunday after a tough qualifying. A short run to the 90 degree corners and being in the middle of the pack increases chances of collisions. He collided with Ericcson at turn 2 which ended his chance of a good finish at that stage. A further collision with Gasly after the second restart then ended his chance of points. Later reprimanded with 2 penalty points, 12 is the amount before a ban, at this current time he is on 8 in the 12 month period. Most dangerous driver Gasly has ever raced according to the Frenchman. An off colour performance to such a great start to the season.

Valterri Bottas – 8

He was on for a win with Mercedes but you could say poor marshalling and debris still scattered over the track resulted in his dramatic retirement. It was through no fault of his own. He managed the gap all race and was consistent, and midway was fastest driver. He made no mistakes throughout. Due to staying out longest he used the safety car to continue to lead. He then restarted well and pulled away but ran over debris which caused a dramatic puncture at around 180mph, forcing him to retire with only a handful of laps remaining. Great weekend but nothing to show for it, joy for one of the Silver Arrows but despair for the other.

Romain Grosjean – 5

Grosjean seemed to be in 2017 mood, very emotional and spins aplenty with one really silly. He was hindered by a gearbox problem in qualifying which resulted him starting last. He kept his nose clean driving through the mess and was on for good points. Every driver was struggling for tyre temperature. He tried to warm the tyres up behind the second safety car by weaving and too much the Frenchman hit the wall at slow speed, throwing away first points of the season ironically at the time putting Magnussen into the points. Bad day at the office.

Max Verstappen – 5

His fault or not but Max has now collided with other drivers 3 times in 4 races, beginning to remind me of the great Pastor Maldonado. He was playing with fire all race long with his team mate, great spacial awareness but sometimes a bit too aggressive with squeezes and double direction changes defending. He couldn’t get the red walled super soft tyre switched on early in the race resulting in both Renault passing him. Battery issues may of slowed his pace but the issue between team mates was brewing all race long. Once more a retirement and hefty bill for Red Bull to pay.

Daniel Ricciardo – 5

The high of Shanghai two weeks ago to the despair of Baku. He struggled to get by his team mate as the over powered DRS with gusty winds helped him dramatically. Various occasions the driver supposedly best on the brakes had his car side by side with his team mate but only pulled it off a few laps prior to the pit stop. He had better pace than Max at a track he did great on last year. Multiple times he was on the outside centimetres from the wall and multiple lock ups. He lost out to the overcut but with the warmer rubber from far back he tried to get by but went straight into the back of his team mate. The worst thing you can do in motorsport! Red Bull blame both drivers which you can understand, but much like Vettel did he have to go for it? Plenty of laps were remaining. There is talk of Ricciardo going to Ferrari with contracts ending for various drivers, not the first time he colliding with his team mate maybe sway his mind to leave the Austrian outfit?

Nico Hulkenburg – 5

With how the race played out, Nico could of finally got on the podium! He still waits to taste the champagne after being close on multiple occasions. He lost the car on his own accord after getting by the poor paced Red Bulls. Renault looked like the fourth best car. He needs to keep concentration as with more mental races and no mistakes from the German, he could be that podium soon.

Esteban Ocon – 7

A passenger in his crash with Raikkonen, surprised that the Ferrari driver didn’t receive a penalty. Strong qualifying and pace but nothing he could do on his short Sunday afternoon.

Sergey Sirotkin – 7

Best weekend for the Russian rookie, albeit the mistake into the wall in third practice. Qualified strongly and was unfortunate to be in the sandwich between drivers on the first lap which ended his race early. Extremely harsh that he has received a 3 place grid penalty for the next race in Spain.

Summary

So Hamilton got his win in Baku through some strong luck, whilst Vettel through his decision to go big at the restart lost points. Hamilton now leads the Championship for the first time this year. 

My driver of the day is a very tough decision, my toughest yet this year, and it’ll go to Sergio Perez for his podium finish. It just shades Charles Leclerc’s impressive points finish. Red Bull really need to look at the current situation, once more through collisions they have cars not finishing. 

Cars tend to change quite dramatically at Barcelona and that is where the Formula 1 circus is next at. Will Red Bull kiss and make up or will the fire get bigger? Mclaren say big upgrade for Spain, will it work and push them forward? What upgrades will Mercedes have in store to catch up to Ferrari? We have to wait 2 weeks to find out.

?image courtesy of Sahara Force India. Fetured image courtesy of RedBull Content pool

Opinion: the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was the race F1 needed

At the start of the 2017 season, hopes were high that this would be the year F1 found its feet once again. After years of processional racing, unattractive cars and an all-too-corporate image under Bernie Ecclestone and CVC, we were promised a whole new era for the sport, one that would take it back to the spectacle for which it was once renowned.

But when the championship got underway in Melbourne, the product appeared very much different from the initial pitch. The new regulations were slammed for stringing-out rather than levelling the field, and the apparent “sex appeal” of the aggressive new car designs was hard to find beneath an array of shark fins, thumb noses and T-wing appendages. Before long, the optimism surrounding Liberty Media’s acquisition of F1 also faded as its plans for T-shirt cannons at Grands Prix and a 25-race calendar prompted fears of a slide towards an “Americanised” sport.

Such criticisms were then amplified once it became clear the 2017 title fight would not become a legendary battle royale, with the likes of Fernando Alonso, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen held back once again by the inequality between F1’s engine suppliers—nor was the sport’s image helped by the censure directed at the on-track struggles of Jolyon Palmer and Lance Stroll. In short, Formula One has been left more bruised than bettered so far in 2017, and has been in desperate need of a pick-me-up for months.

Baku City Circuit, Baku, Azerbaijan.
Thursday 22 June 2017.
A view of the circuit.
World Copyright: Zak Mauger/LAT Images
ref: Digital Image _56I6235

Strange, then, that it should find that at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Although last year’s inaugural visit to the Baku City Circuit was a success logistically, from a fan’s perspective there was little to commit to memory—the race result was a walk in the park for Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg, and all the usual drama of street circuit racing was absent amidst a glut of run-off areas and spacious 90-degree corners. It seems safe to say that, given the response to 2016’s event, anticipation for F1’s return to the City of Winds this year was pretty muted.

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

But for all the pessimism, the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix turned out to be—in no uncertain terms—a surefire classic. Teammates collided, the title contenders clashed and controversy brewed all over the grid; and all that before the race was won by a driver who crashed out in qualifying, and a teenager in only his eighth Grand Prix start took a maiden podium finish. Looking through the classification tells only half the story of a race that would belong in the same camp as Senna’s Monaco ’84 podium, or Button’s infamous last-to-first win in Canada—and one that might prove exactly the shot in the arm that F1 needs right now.

For starters, the end result was packed full of good news stories. As neutral as we journalists are, it’s hard not to enjoy the sight of Daniel Ricciardo beaming down from the top step of a podium—especially when his victory makes Baku the first time three different constructors have won in a single season since 2013. Furthermore, Valtteri Bottas proved by finishing second that overtaking is clearly not impossible for the 2017 cars, having come back from last place after a collision with Kimi Räikkönen on the first lap.

Just as enjoyable was the return of Williams to the rostrum courtesy of Lance Stroll. The Canadian’s ability to bounce back from being blasted as F1’s worst-ever rookie to becoming its second-youngest podium finisher was astonishing to see, and will surely give the sport’s media something positive to discuss all the way to Austria. It may still be too early to tell if Stroll’s maiden podium will be the first of many or a one-off delivered by fortune, but the maturity he has shown in progressing from first finish to first points to first podium definitely suggests a promising second half of the season now that the wind is in his sails.

And as if that weren’t enough, there was also plenty of celebration at the lower end of the top ten as Fernando Alonso came home ninth to take McLaren’s first points of 2017. Admittedly, a haul of just two championship points is hardly the kind of result McLaren and Alonso fans want to be seeing, but for the two former champions to finally get on the board in such a woeful season can only be a good thing for them and F1 both.

Baku City Circuit, Baku, Azerbaijan.
Sunday 25 June 2017.
Fernando Alonso, McLaren, arrives on the grid.
Photo: Steven Tee/McLaren
ref: Digital Image _R3I3731

But as uplifting as those relative victories were, where F1 really won out in Baku was through the numerous controversies that unfolded on and off track.

When Sebastian Vettel banged wheels with Lewis Hamilton at the second safety car restart, it was almost possible to hear the collective intake of breath from spectators around the world. Although the contact was far from race-ending, the exit of Baku’s Turn 15 had all the hallmarks of a moment that turns a title fight from a fierce-but-friendly rivalry into a veritable powder keg: think Hamilton and Rosberg at Spa in 2014, or Vettel and Mark Webber at the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix. Without shared team management to cool things down between Hamilton and Vettel, the friction will surely only continue to escalate over the coming races, providing F1 with the kind of fiery headlines seen during the days of Senna and Prost—and that would hardly be a bad thing, as I’m sure any racing fan will agree.

And as the title battle rages, there is also a much greater chance for that tension to spill over into the intra-team relationships at Mercedes and Ferrari. As Hamilton chased down Vettel in Baku, he was heard on team radio apparently calling for teammate Valtteri Bottas to call off his own hunt for second place and hold up the Ferrari behind him. It’s hardly the first time Hamilton has intimated he would prefer a more favourable hierarchy within the team this season, and will no doubt be the last; especially as Räikkönen’s slumped position to fifth in the standings with less than half Vettel’s points will surely mean team orders coming into play at Ferrari sooner or later.

Großer Preis von Aserbaidschan 2017, Samstag – Steve Etherington /Mercedes AMG-Petronas

What’s more, although the box office clash at the front has become the dominant talking point from Baku, Hamilton and Vettel were far from the only ones cooking up a storm in the City of Winds on Sunday.

Force India endured what must have been one of its most painful races in a long while on Sunday, as Esteban Ocon tripped over the front wing of Sergio Pérez and turned what might have been a double podium into a sixth place and a retirement respectively. It was an incident that has frankly looked inevitable since their falling out at the last race in Montréal, but for things to come to such a head so soon was surprising, and it will be fascinating to see how the team manages this situation over the next twelve races.

Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson were also in the wars late in the race, rubbing wheels and shedding carbon fibre as they fought for position behind the top ten. Despite not producing the kind of fireworks as Ocon and Pérez, this will surely not help to ease the discord that has apparently arisen in the Sauber garage following media reports of the team favouring Ericsson over Wehrlein—especially as the German reputedly disobeyed a pitwall order to let his teammate through for tenth in the closing stages of the race.

What makes these two intra-team brawls particularly interesting (besides the resulting carnage and curse words) is that they’ve come at that point in the season when drivers’ eyes begin turning towards the negotiating table for 2018. A deteriorating relationship with one’s teammate now will make those summer break offers all the more enticing; factor in also the pointedly visible contact between Alonso’s entourage and the heads at Mercedes and Renault, and Max Verstappen’s continued displeasure with Red Bull’s reliability issues, and we could well have Baku to thank for one of the most engrossing driver markets in recent years.

Pascal Wehrlein (D), Sauber F1 Team. Baku Street Circuit.

Of course, only time will tell if the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix has earned a place in F1’s Hall of Fame. But what can’t be denied is that, at a track lambasted as soulless and bland, we were gifted with a race as compelling as it was unpredictable, one that has set a fire beneath an already-simmering championship contest and generated enough subplots to keep the press supplied with headlines all season long.

And if that’s not just what Formula One needs right now, I don’t know what is.

James Matthews, Deputy Editor

©2017 The Pitcrewonline