Two weeks after the conclusion of the Chinese Grand Prix, the teams arrive in Azerbaijan. Three races from the start of the Championship, the standings see Lewis Hamilton leading the drivers' battle with sixty-eight points, six more than his teammate, while the Ferrari drivers are outside the top three. Mercedes also dominates in the constructors' standings, but this time it is Ferrari who is right behind, while Red Bull is third with only fifty-two points.
The Chinese Grand Prix was significant for some teams, as it was in fact the first weekend completed by both Ricciardo and Sainz, and the first without any retirements for Haas. Unlike the drastic gap between the top teams, in the midfield the competition is still very open and the points collected vary from four to twelve, without considering Williams who has not yet managed to bring home the first point of the season, given the great difficulties it is facing.
The one in Baku is a street circuit, so not among the easiest considering some very narrow sections and therefore also the high risk of accidents: just think back to the disastrous weekend of Red Bull in 2018 and Vettel's missed victory, or the accident between the Ferrari driver and Hamilton the year before. In short, it's common knowledge that this is a circuit where rationality must rule. Ferrari has to be careful not only because they have never won at this particular track, but also because they cannot afford a fourth Mercedes one-two if they are intent on winning the championship. Sebastian Vettel is aware of the difficulties, and presents the circuit this way:
"This circuit has a 2.2 kilometer long section to do in full throttle where we touch 360 km/h before the very demanding braking of the first left-hand corner. The steep slope around the old city walls is only seven meters wide, which in a Formula 1 car seems even less. You feel like you have to thread a needle. There's not enough room for two single-seaters at that point, so if you're dueling with another driver, it's best to agree on who should pass first. One of the challenges in Baku is finding the right balance in terms of downforce: you need to be able to cope well with the slow corners but you also need to be very fast on the straights. It is not an easy compromise to find".
For Leclerc, on the other hand, it is a circuit full of positive memories, from the victory in Formula 2, after the death of his father, to the magnificent sixth position with Alfa Romeo the year before. So the Monegasque is quite optimistic about the weekend:
"The one in Azerbaijan is one of my favorite circuits, I love it and I have always done very well here having scored a win and a podium in Formula 2, and my first points in Formula 1 last year. I really like the track, especially the old castle part with that series of tight corners. It really is a unique track with no equal in the world. The rule is quite simple: never lose concentration, because at the first mistake you find yourself against the wall. The Baku track is challenging, but I'm looking forward to it".
The Monegasque, talking about the recent team orders, warns:
"There will always be such orders in Formula 1. Will I continue to obey? It depends on the situations, in some cases I will".
Leclerc does not hide his disappointment at having to surrender his third place to Vettel in China, while acknowledging the team's good reasons:
"When you're in the car and they ask you to let another driver pass, it's really frustrating. Obviously it is for everyone who is in a situation like that, it wasn't just for me. On the other hand, though, I understood their motivations, they had more data on the wall than I had in the car. We'll see what happens in the future. Sebastian is obviously now in his fifth year with Ferrari and has won four world titles in the past. I, on the other hand, have just arrived and I'm only in my second season in Formula 1. So there are still a lot of things I have to prove, it will be up to me to try to do the best possible job when I'm in the car, so I can show the team what I'm capable of. I think at the moment I just have to keep doing what I'm doing, trying to improve race after race in the hope that things will change soon".
To extinguish any kind of controversy rushes Sebastian Vettel, who admits:
"Inside Ferrari there is no turbulence. We want to achieve the best possible results and we can control everything except the noise made by those around us. The important thing is that this does not reflect negatively on the team, but so far it seems to me that this has not happened, and I am calm. Our priority is to score as many points as possible. I can understand that it is easy to criticize the decisions of the race wall, but it is even easier to do so after the Grand Prix. Making those decisions in the moment, in the race, is a little more complicated. Charles has the same passion as me. Obviously everyone wants to excel and some team radios clearly sound impatient. However, we must not forget that we are on the track at 300 km/h in a race car, not sitting on the couch with a drink in our hands. If we communicated in a relaxed manner people might even think we didn't care. Emotions are a significant part of this sport, and it's only right that we should".
Mattia Binotto is more technical and critical about the situation:
"Coming from three races in which we did not achieve the result we hoped for, this Grand Prix is once again very important for us. We have prepared as best we can, analyzing all the data available so far, trying to identify areas of improvement and to adapt our set-up and power unit management to the characteristics of the track. Baku in fact has a very long straight, where the engine is particularly stressed both for the heat engine and for the hybrid part. Here overtaking is quite easy also thanks to the DRS effect that this year is even more powerful than in the past. The asphalt is very smooth, so tire wear tends to be scarce and since the level of energy transferred to the tires is low, they have a hard time heating up. Experience has taught us that Baku is a track where the probability of seeing the Safety Car in action is high, and this is an important element to consider in the race strategy. In Baku we will bring some updates that represent a first step in the direction of the SF90's development".
There is no denying that this is a circuit that offers many emotions, both negative and positive; if we look back at the past, we can recall the podiums of Stroll or Perez, but also several defeats, such as those of Vettel or Red Bull mentioned earlier, but also the Magnussen accidents. So unpredictability rules the day. Giovinazzi, like Leclerc, also has good memories on this circuit, such as his GP2 victories obtained in 2016. Moreover, for the Italian it is his first race in Formula 1 in Baku, and he cannot hide his excitement.
Despite the great start of the season, Mercedes is always cautious, and does not hide its concerns about Ferrari's speed, especially on this circuit. Hamilton also talks about the difficulties they had in the first weekends (although from the outside you wouldn't think so, given the three double wins), and about Ferrari's potential:
"So far it has been a little bit harder to work with the car, definitely not easier. It's always a combination of factors. Every year you have to know how to exploit the tires, and this year it seems a more complicated than in 2018, but at the beginning of the season we always struggle. I don't think we will have any updates this weekend, we have some things planned but they are not planned for this race. We realized a lot about our strengths and weaknesses over the last weekend. Ferrari is very fast on the straights, so I anticipate they will be very strong this weekend".
Bottas, on the other hand, does not have good memories on this track. Just last year he was deprived of victory because of a puncture, and now he comes back with a bigger goal: to lead the Championship. So the concentration is great:
"We are happy with our start, but we are not invincible. The season is still long and we mustn't underestimate anything. The results have given us great confidence, and we will try to continue in this direction also in Azerbaijan".
He also comments on Ferrari's performance:
"Our car, at the moment, cannot compete with Ferrari on the power front on the straights. We will experience a complicated weekend here in Baku. We will try to exploit our characteristics after having forced a lot in this start of the championship, due to the difficulties encountered in the Barcelona tests. Usually, Mercedes comes out at the distance".
It will be Friday's free practice to give us a first idea of the fate of the weekend, where a bit 'all expect an answer from Ferrari after a start not exactly brilliant. Friday's free practice does not start in the best way. The session is interrupted shortly after its beginning after George Russel, passing on a stretch of the circuit, raises a manhole cover not properly fixed, thus finding not minor damages on the bottom of his car.
The session is cancelled to give the stewards time to check all the three hundred manhole covers on the street circuit, repair the one in question and clean the track of oil. This inconvenience certainly does not help the work of the teams and in particular of Williams, which is facing great difficulties not only technically but also economically, and given the damage it will require several spare parts. Moreover, Russel will not be able to participate in the second session of the afternoon. Fortunately, the Briton is fine and unharmed:
"I hit a manhole cover, I'm fine but the single-seater suffered serious damage. It is an incredibly unfortunate episode".
The accident certainly does not put the FIA in a good light, as it is the FIA's job to ensure total safety on the circuit before a race. This is not even the first case of a flying manhole cover: in 2016, in Monaco, Jenson Button was almost hit by a manhole cover.
Fortunately, the British driver escaped unharmed. And always in Monaco also Barrichello in 2010 was victim of the same episode, as well as Romain Grosjean in Sepang, in 2017. In short, embarrassing episodes considering the entity in question, and that make the paddock turn up its nose. The reaction of Claire Williams, also personally involved, is eloquent:
"This is not acceptable. This is not how Formula 1 tracks should be".
Even Kimi Raikkonen, who is known for not talking much, exclaims in this circumstance:
"Obviously it was far from ideal for everyone and we looked like amateurs today, but that shouldn't be the case. It's up to the FIA to make sure the track is up to code. It seems like every year some drainage hole comes loose or something slips. Fortunately no one was hurt, but it obviously destroyed everyone's day".
As if that wasn't enough, on the way back to the pits, the crane that was transporting the British driver's Williams hit a bridge, from which some liquid came out and flooded the car. Will communicate the press office of Williams after the episode:
"George's car will require a chassis change due to the damage. Therefore, due to regulations, he will not be able to run until Saturday's FP3".
The first day of free practice doesn't seem to give any satisfaction even in the afternoon, despite being fundamental because it allows the different teams to collect all the data and information needed for the race on Sunday. The second session is interrupted several times due to several yellow flags and two neutralizations following the red flag.
The first neutralization is caused by Lance Stroll's exit from the track, who hits the barriers in turn 2, while the second one, with less than thirty minutes to go, is caused by Kvyat's Toro Rosso, who has lost control in turn 7 and hits the barriers; on the car there is also a brake fire.
Charles Leclerc, who in the few minutes of the first session had set a time of 1'48"343, in the afternoon sets the best time of 1'42"872. Sebastian Vettel follows with a time of 1'43"196. From these results it could be said that Ferrari has a good chance in the race, despite Mercedes shows an excellent race pace.
"We tried enough in FP2 especially because in FP1 we didn't have time to do so many laps. However, these were enough to understand that the updates brought seem to be positive, but I don't want to say anything because Mercedes also appeared very competitive, especially on the race pace. Tomorrow we will see where we are".
The Monegasque driver admits.
"Today it was difficult for us to understand how exactly we are set up for the race. Sebastian and I found a lot of traffic, but there is no reason to think that when you are strong in qualifying configuration, you are not strong in race configuration. Let's hope it will be the same this weekend. The slipstream effect here? It's hard to know how fast the ones in front are going, the important thing will be to be free in the second sector, where you can lose a lot, but if we can find one in qualifying, it's better".
Despite the excellent chronometric readings, Ferrari is trying to keep a low profile, because the Mercedes were very fast in the race pace simulations on Medium tyres.
"It was a difficult Friday and the track was very slippery. It was fun though, the car worked well although I think we can still improve it. Overall I'm happy with our starting point, we hope tomorrow to be very close to Mercedes. They also seemed very strong, although we perhaps showed something more...".
Sebastian Vettel admits, who while acknowledging the superiority of the Mercedes, is not worried by the excellent race pace of Hamilton and Bottas:
"We haven't looked in depth yet, we thought more about ourselves and the feeling with the car. But, as said, Mercedes will be the car to beat this weekend. The Red Bulls also seemed fast at times, we'll see what happens in qualifying. The main thing for us was to find the rhythm and the confidence behind the wheel, because there are high-speed braking, few reference points and a lot of bumps on the asphalt. It's very easy to go long, so it will be crucial to have a good driving feeling. We are working precisely for this".
Hamilton is 669 tenths of a second behind. Splitting the two Mercedes there is Verstappen, pushing Bottas into fifth, well over a second behind the Monegasque. Despite Kvyat's accident, the Toro Rosso team can be satisfied, placing both cars in the top ten: sixth position for the Russian and eighth for rookie Alex Albon. At the end of practice, Lewis Hamilton comments:
"It was a bit of a strange day, FP2 however went well, I felt comfortable in the car, more so than I did last year. However Ferrari are clearly very fast and seem to be ahead of us, so we'll have to work out where we lose out to them. It's unlikely we'll make up seven tenths overnight, but we'll do everything we can to push the car in the right direction. Our race pace seemed stronger than our qualifying pace, so it could be a good fight tomorrow".
In fact, during the night a technician from the factory will arrive in Baku, who will give the right indications to modify the suspension set-up, after having carried out some simulations. The Anglo-German cars prove to be competitive when using the Medium tires, in the first part of the session. A system that simulates four-wheel steering will also be tested on these cars. Meanwhile though, Valtteri Bottas also agrees with what his teammate said:
"Having only run FP2 we tried to maximize track time, adding a few laps to our original plan. I'm not satisfied with the laps I did but it's always complicated to find the pace in Baku, you need some time. It was not easy to get the Medium tyre up to temperature today, but tomorrow it should be better. The long runs seemed good, although Ferrari seems really strong, especially on the dry lap. It will be a tough fight tomorrow".
To try to counter the Ferrari and Mercedes drivers there will be only Max Verstappen (who during the session complains about a pedal problem), as Pierre Gasly runs into a penalty that will compromise his race. The Frenchman in fact commits the most trivial of mistakes, not stopping at the traffic light that the race direction shows him during FP2 to call him to technical checks.
"I pushed to the limit and the conditions were quite difficult especially under braking. I ended up twice in the runoffs because I tried to go a bit further, but the feeling with the car seems to be improving and I must say I'm pretty happy. In the qualifying simulation I messed up a bit, but I think we can do better tomorrow if we can put together a good lap time. We are improving all the time, even though the Ferrari is clearly very fast in the straights, much faster than we are. But we'll see what happens in qualifying. As I said, the car is strong in race pace and this is a very positive aspect".
Left virtually the only hope in Red Bull, Max Verstappen also spoke positively in favor of the new Honda power unit:
"The track was very slippery and it was very easy to make blockages or go wide. We simply tried to do a lot of laps to get used to the circuit and these conditions. It wasn't too bad, there is some work to do but no big drama. Sometimes you get a better start, while at other times the first few laps are not great. The new engine? For the moment it works very well. But we still have to analyze all the data collected".
On Saturday morning the drivers go on track for the third free practice session. After a difficult first day, the teams are determined to collect the missing data in order to be prepared for qualifying and the race. It seems that Leclerc's chain of positive results on this circuit should be extended: in fact, the Monegasque driver once again sets the best time, improving on Friday's thanks to a lap time of 1'41"604. He is followed by his teammate, a few tenths slower, while Max Verstappen surprisingly climbs to third position, but the gap to the Monegasque is much higher: more than a second.
Even more surprising are the performances of the Mercedes, only in fourth and fifth place, with Bottas at 1.4 seconds, while Hamilton is even 1.6 seconds away. Once again Toro Rosso confirms to have a competitive car and the two drivers are in sixth and eighth position. After having missed the afternoon session on Friday, George Russell is back on track, on whose Williams a new ECU and a new battery have been fitted, while Romain Grosjean remains at the pits for a long time due to a power unit problem.
Ferrari definitely has a good chance to win; from the free practice it seems that they have great potential and the gap from the others is clear. But the doubt remains, since in Bahrain we saw an absolute domination by Ferrari, but in the race they lacked reliability, and also in China there were good chances but the report was always the same: Mercedes one-two.
Therefore the expectation is high, and with this also the desire to see Ferrari on the highest step of the podium. All eyes are now on the qualifying: will Ferrari be able to secure the first row? Ince Baku is an unpredictable track, all the drivers go out right from the start of Q1: Red Bull is the only one waiting. And there's no shortage of first neutralizations, caused by Lance Stroll and Lewis Hamilton: the former is forced to pit for a tire change, while the latter takes advantage of the escape route on the outside of a corner.
Hulkenberg is in more trouble, who after causing a neutralization towards the middle of the session, pits, compromising his hopes of qualifying for Q2. In fact, even if he tries another lap, the German of Renault doesn't manage to pass to Q2. The first positions are instead fought between the two rivals: Ferrari and Mercedes. Vettel's time of 1'42"348 is stolen by Bottas, but the latter is improved once again by Charles Leclerc, who sets the pace with a time of 1'41"426.
The Red Bulls take to the track only late in the session, and while Gasly sets an excellent first time that takes him to sixth position, Verstappen is outside the top ten. In his second attempt the French Red Bull driver seems very competitive, and also thanks to the use of a slipstream in the last sector he takes the lead, being a tenth faster than Leclerc, while Verstappen improves and moves up to fourth position.
A few minutes before the end of Q1 Ricciardo, Grosjean, Hulkenberg and the two Williams are about to be excluded from Q2. The only one able to improve is the Australian driver, who moves Stroll back, but in any case it's not a great improvement, as the driver advances only one position. Renault seems to disappoint more and more, after in 2018 it had seemed one of the most fierce teams, so much so that it pushed one of the most desirable drivers on the market to join the team, while now it finds itself the author of four retirements and anonymous qualifications.
But a worse fate awaits Williams: the historic English team is facing great difficulties, and this weekend does not seem to be on their side. During the free practice one of the cars was heavily damaged by a manhole cover, while now at the end of Q1 Kubica loses his car going to the wall in turn 8, the castle sector. As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining, and in fact Williams Racing can have its moment of respite, as the team has signed a partnership agreement with the Financial Times newspaper. The start of Q2 is postponed by fifteen minutes in order to proceed with the removal of Kubica's single-seater and the repair of the barriers.
The drivers get on track, the fight for the first position is between Hamilton and Bottas: the Finn manages to beat his teammate by a few thousandths, but the moment of glory lasts little while Verstappen sets the best time, with 1'41"388. Vettel's first time is not so good and he is excluded from the top ten, while Leclerc is fifth.
A few minutes before the start of Q2, Vettel, Ricciardo, Raikkonen, Giovinazzi and Gasly are out of the top ten. Gasly did not set any time during the session, due to the penalty given, while Raikkonen managed to get to sixth position, before the interruption of the session when the red flag was shown for the second time.
In fact, seven minutes before the end of Q2 another incident at turn 8 halted the session: this time it was Leclerc, who made a naive mistake by taking the corner too fast and extending the braking point. Accomplice to the shadow that in the meantime has settled on the track that compromises the temperature of the asphalt and tires, and the choice to try to qualify with Medium tires that in these particular conditions become extremely slippery, instead of choosing to slip into the escape route to stop the car, Charles crashes into the barriers.
"I'm stupid. I'm stupid".
Fortunately, the time set before this incident secured him the fifth row, but what about pole now? The young Leclerc has indeed dominated throughout the free practice, showing a lot of potential and speed, but unfortunately the eagerness got the better of him. Now it's all in Vettel's hands.
The restart of Q2 is scheduled after fifteen minutes, to give the stewards time to clear the track, thus offering another chance to the drivers who are not in the top ten (Albon, Vettel, Ricciardo and Giovinazzi). Excluding Verstappen, already secure in first position, the first six drivers wait to enter, while the drivers who are present from seventh to fifteenth position immediately take to the track. Vettel improves to seventh, while Magnussen and Ricciardo do not improve. With only one attempt left, the first drivers get back on track, but without changing their time: Vettel moves up to fifth position, while in the back Giovinazzi rises to ninth position, excluding Norris. But a few moments later the Briton sets a time that allows him to climb back up to eighth position.
Magnussen doesn't improve as he goes wide coming out of a corner, Ricciardo cancels his lap coming back to the pits, and Kvyat and Albon hit the wall. Therefore Sainz, Ricciardo, Albon and Mgnussen are excluded from Q3. Giovinazzi reaches Q3 for the first time in his career, but will be penalized ten positions due to the replacement of the engine control unit of his Alfa Romeo. With Leclerc excluded after the accident in Q2, nine drivers reach Q3 and among them is once again rookie Lando Norris.
The first to hit the track during Q3 is Verstappen, while the rest of the grid waits another minute before making attempts. The Red Bull driver sets the best time of 1'41"447, but the first position is soon taken away from him by the Mercedes of Hamilton and Bottas, while Vettel misses the provisional pole by only four tenths, joining the five-time World Champion. The Dutchman tries a second time with a free track, but misses the pole by three tenths and thus ends his qualifying.
With two minutes to go, the remaining eight drivers make one last attempt. The two Mercedes are already fighting in the out lap, with complaints from Hamilton. Vettel sets the best time in the first sector, while Hamilton is unable to improve it unlike his teammate. The second sector is in favor of the British driver, who is immediately back in contention for pole. At the end of the respective laps Vettel crosses the finish line with the second best time, just missing the pole position. But it's Bottas who sets the best time of 1'40"495, beating Hamilton's time by a few thousandths. The Finnish driver takes his second consecutive pole of the season, and once again the front row is colored in silver.
Verstappen will start alongside Vettel, and the two drivers will be followed by Perez, Kvyat, Norris and the Alfa Romeos of Giovinazzi and Raikkonen. Bottas seems more fierce than ever, and as soon as Hamilton takes a few points from him, he immediately retorts.
"I'm very happy, it's a great feeling. I had a good last lap. Ferrari was very strong, but Charles made a mistake and was eliminated from qualifying. We did a great pole as a team to get us to this position after a difficult free practice. It's all about small margins here. I was able to take advantage of the slipstream, but here even the corners make a difference. It's all about improving the details, and I was able to make the most of them. Temperature? Yes, it was a problem. You shouldn't run so late. Here, however, I somehow managed to make the tires work".
Hamilton starts for the second time behind his teammate, so there is no lack of compliments towards the Finnish driver, and also some comments on the Ferrari:
"This was a very complicated weekend for us, with the Ferraris looking incredibly fast. Valtteri did an exceptional job but it's an extraordinary result for us. We arrived here without any updates, while the others brought them. The Ferraris looked very fast but in the end we monopolized the front row, again. It will be a good fight tomorrow. I hope to keep the Ferraris behind, in terms of pace we were closer than it seemed in qualifying. I don't know if Sebastian did a great lap or not, maybe he didn't find the right space because here the wakes make the difference. Valtteri is always strong here, I will have a lot to do to beat him".
Vettel starts only in the second row: maybe the Ferrari driver decided not to risk, or maybe Leclerc's accident slowed him down. But what is clear is the fact that once again Ferrari does not excel.
"I don't know if they took the pole away from us, they seemed faster than us at the end. I started a little bit bad, towards the end I was doing better. The session was complicated because it was very long, with the temperature dropping a lot and the sun going down. Finding the balance was difficult, as well as finding the slipstreams on the final lap. I didn't have the slipstream in the last attempt and I think this cost me the final gap. I'm happy because I think I did the best I could, but I'm not happy because as a team we expected better from Charles and myself. The wakes depend on the situation. Having someone ahead in the final sector by two or three tenths can help you, even if it becomes difficult in the middle sector. In hindsight I could have taken the chance to go out with someone in front".
Leclerc finds himself in ninth position due to his mistake in Q2, but one should never take anything for granted:
"I realized the mistake too late. I locked the car, and when I realized it I had no more solutions, just the wall in front. I was stupid, and I'm sorry because the whole world is watching and I don't have to make these mistakes anymore. The responsibility is totally mine, I threw all the good we did in the bin when we had high hopes instead. But I hope to sleep on it and recover in the race, to come back stronger and go beyond this episode".
As said, the Baku circuit is very unpredictable, characterized by narrow passages, and usually the safety car makes its entrance on the track. For this reason it is impossible to make a prediction for the race: anything can happen. It is not by chance that it is considered a track that favors rookies. The maximum attention must be given at the start, a good initial push can be fundamental, so it's early to give up.
As luck would have it, the young driver from Monaco moves up one more position, as the starting grid changes due to all the penalties assigned. Among them the one inflicted to Kimi Raikkonen, who will start from the pit lane together with Kubica and Gasly, due to the bending of the Alfa Romeo's front wing that goes beyond the five millimetres allowed by the regulations.
So in the first row we always find the Mercedes, with Valtteri Bottas who will start from the pole; Sebastian Vettel will start from the third position, flanked by Max Verstappen; in the third row Perez and Kvyat; in the fourth row Norris and Leclerc, while to close the top ten will be Sainz and Ricciardo, who also moved up in position after the assignment of penalties; from eleventh to seventeenth position will start Alexander Albon, Kevin Magnussen, Lance Stroll, Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg, George Russel and Antonio Giovinazzi, who pays ten places on the grid. While Kubica, Gasly and Raikkonen will start from the pit lane. At the end of qualifying, Max Verstappen admits to being surprised by the competitiveness of his Red Bull:
"We are positively surprised that we were so competitive in qualifying and the second row is not bad at all. Everything was going smoothly, but then in Q3 we chose a different strategy as I only had one set of fresh tires. Doing the lap alone, without being able to take advantage of a slipstream, is however very negative on this track and, comparing the time in Q3 with the ones I did in Q2, I practically lost two and a half tenths only on the straight. Anyway, I gave it everything I had and I think the last attempt was very good. We could have been fighting for pole if we had been in a little train of cars, but at least we know that the car works well. This is a track where the races are always crazy, of course it won't all end in turn 1. We are all very close and we can still fight for the win".
At the end of qualifying Pierre Gasly is excluded from the time list. His car exceeded the fuel consumption limit of 100 kg/hour in the fastest lap that allowed him to set the best time in Q1. This does not affect his starting position, as he was anyway forced to start from the pit lane. But what is certain is that between disqualifications and penalties on Friday, the French driver is less happy but aware of having a good car and being able to attempt a comeback, even starting from the pit lane:
"Finishing Q1 in first position was nice but, knowing that we would start from the pit lane, the most important thing was to find the right feeling with the car even with little fuel. I felt really good and I think it's the first time it's happened to me this year, so I'm happy. We are in the right direction, I'm working to try to adapt to the best step by step. Honestly we didn't expect to be so competitive as we hadn't yet pushed the new power unit to the maximum to try to save it as much as possible. In the end the performance was encouraging and I'm happy that Max was able to get a good result in Q3. The car is good, we can recover and bring home some heavy points".
Sunday, April 28th 2019 with the turning off of the lights the Azerbaijan Grand Prix begins. Lewis Hamilton is the author of a great cue at the start, and is immediately a wheel to wheel with his teammate in turn 1, while in the rear is reported the contact against the barriers of Alex Albon with the right rear wheel, but his race proceeds without any particular problems.
Bottas wins the clash and keeps the lead, and Vettel is also very good at resisting Verstappen's attacks, who loses the fourth position to Perez. Leclerc, due to the choice to start on Medium tyres, does not have a great start and drops to tenth place, behind Norris, Kvyat, Sainz and Ricciardo. Verstappen doesn't give up and passes Perez on the straight taking advantage of the DRS, while Leclerc tries his hand at a comeback. The Monegasque passes first Ricciardo and then Kvyat, who in turn loses his position on Sainz Jr., moving up to eighth place.
Shortly after Perez overtakes again Verstappen: Racing Point seems to have a competitive car as Stroll also overtakes Ricciardo's Renault. Leclerc gains more and more ground and overtakes also Sainz Jr., while Kvyat seems to be in trouble and loses another position on Ricciardo; soon after he's overtaken also by teammate Alex Albon. The first to come back to the pits is the Russian driver, to mount Medium tires: only after five laps his Soft tires are clearly worn. During the sixth lap Raikkonen comes back to the pits to change his tires.
In the meantime Verstappen doesn't give up and overtakes Perez on the inside, moving back in front. The Dutchman, however, has to start worrying about Leclerc, who overtakes Norris on the straight and, on lap seven, overtakes the Mexican driver as well. While in the back of the field the duels are going on, at the front of the race the positions are unchanged and Bottas extends his gap over Hamilton by three seconds and seven over Vettel. Pierre Gasly is also the author of a great comeback, who in just seven laps has moved behind Albon, in twelfth position. His run-up continues. The Frenchman overtakes Ricciardo and shortly after manages to overtake Stroll as well, moving into eighth position in just ten laps.
On lap nine Leclerc also gets the better of Verstappen, taking fourth place: the Monegasque is faster than the drivers on Soft tyres. On lap 10 Pérez, Stroll and Ricciardo switch to Medium tyres. One lap later Sebastian Vettel also stops to change to Medium tires. The German rejoins the track in fifth position, just ahead of Sainz Jr.
Bottas pits as well, mounts Medium tires and rejoins the race ahead of Vettel, right behind Hamilton, Leclerc and Verstappen (all three still need to change tires). On lap 13 it's Hamilton's turn to change to Medium tires, allowing Leclerc to take the reins of the race: the Briton rejoins the track in fourth place. In the meantime a drive-through is inflicted on Robert Kubica, who left the pit-lane too early at the start.
The first Red Bull to stop was Verstappen's, two laps after Hamilton's stop, on lap 14: the Dutchman dropped to sixth, behind Gasly. The only one of the first four to have to stop is Leclerc, who, despite this, creates a gap of thirteen seconds on Bottas. In the midfield Norris makes his way through and gets ahead of Grosjean, one of the few who didn't change tires because he was on a different strategy. In fact, together with the Haas Frenchman, Leclerc, Gasly, Russel and Kubica have started on Medium tires.
The more laps pass, the more the group on new tires reduces the gap. Grosjean, under pressure from Ricciardo, makes a mistake and loses six positions, while the two Mercedes are closing in on Leclerc, with Bottas going from a gap of over eight seconds to just over four in three laps, while Vettel doesn't lose too much contact. The wheels are more and more worn and after thirty-two laps Leclerc is also affected, so much so that the group behind him resets the gap, and Bottas takes advantage of this by taking the lead. The next lap also Hamilton passes the Ferrari driver.
In the meantime Ricciardo tries to overtake Kvyat, but the Australian goes wide and exits in the runway and so does Kvyat, who stops exactly perpendicular to the Renault driver. As if that wasn't enough, Ricciardo, not noticing the presence of the Russian driver's car, not being able to see properly through the rear view mirrors, hits the side of the Toro Rosso while trying to exit the runway in reverse.
The two return to the track, but the cars are seriously damaged and Ricciardo is forced to retire for the third time, followed by Kvyat a few laps later. In the meantime Leclerc loses another position, and the wait for the pit stop seems never-ending. All this is not to the advantage of the Monegasque, who loses more and more ground and chances to fight for the victory. What strategy do they want to use in Ferrari? Vettel overtakes him, and on the radio he is told to hold on.
"The pit will be soon, but we don't think the softs will last, so we have to keep these for a while longer".
It is only on lap 35 that Charles Leclerc pits, returning to the track in sixth place, just behind Gasly, who unlike him is still running good times, despite having worn tires. But the Ferrari takes advantage of its powerful engine and the Monegasque overtakes the Frenchman on the straight. Unfortunately for Gasly there seems to be no respite: after starting from the pit lane, in spite of a fantastic comeback, the car slows down.
With only eleven laps to go, the Red Bull driver's car starts to slow down near turn 5, and stops completely in the escape lane. Although the car is safe, the race is neutralized with the virtual safety car, so it is forbidden to overtake. During the thirty-eighth lap Grosjean retires as well, having found some problems with the brakes, arriving at four retirements.
After the neutralization phase Hamilton closes the gap on his teammate when there are five laps to go, putting pressure on Bottas, but the Finn does everything to keep him out of reach of the DRS, defending his position. With just under three laps to go Charles Leclerc pits to put on a new set of Soft tires, to try and get a fast lap time, but without compromising his race position.
In the meantime Lewis enters the DRS zone and sets the best time, but he makes a mistake and gives Bottas the chance to stretch. The race leader takes advantage of the slipstream of Russell's Williams - lapped - to set the fastest lap, moving away from his pursuer, but Leclerc improves his time, gaining the additional point. Bottas crosses the finish line in first place, taking his second win of the season, while Lewis Hamilton is forced to settle for second place. Once again everything worked perfectly for Bottas, Hamilton and Mercedes.
Mercedes conquers the fourth consecutive one-two finish, taking away the record from Williams after having equalled it in the previous weekend. This podium starts to become a habit, a copy/paste in short, simply exchanging the first two positions. Chapeau to Valtteri Bottas, who proves once again to have what it takes to counter the speed of Lewis Hamilton, and conquers pole position and first place, moving ahead by just one point in the world ranking.
The Finnish driver has perhaps been misjudged and too early: now it is only hoped that this continuous turnover of positions at the top of the standings will go on for the whole season, at least to remain in doubt until the end, because at the moment Ferrari is not competitive enough. Certainly a Ferrari on the podium is there, but once again, after having dominated in free practice, in the race it did not show a good level of performance, and whether it is a driver error or a strategy error the result is always the same. If the goal is to win the championship we must act now, and not wait until mid-season, because in the meantime the gap from Mercedes is seventy-four points. So the scenario is always the same, with Mercedes in front and the others in pursuit. A more than deserved victory for Valtteri Bottas, who had to counter the attacks of his teammate:
"It was a difficult race, because Lewis continuously put pressure on me. I didn't make any mistakes and I kept the situation under control but I'm really happy to have seen the checkered flag in this race. It's incredible the level of our performance. I'm very happy for everyone, we're doing very well. Maybe at the start I was a bit too cautious to avoid the skidding I had in China, Lewis on the other hand started very well and so we found ourselves side by side in Turn 1 and Turn 2 but it was a nice and respectful competition between us, and in the end it went well for me. Of course, the victory helps: I have the confidence anyway, but the victories make it better obviously, winning was important. Now I'm leading the championship again and this is the position in the standings that I want to maintain. I'm enjoying this moment, it's a good feeling to win the race. Lewis tried everything to catch me at the end and he had a good pace but I managed not to make any mistakes and for this I'm very happy. The level at which we are expressing ourselves now as a team is really impressive".
When the lights went out, Lewis tried to overtake his teammate at the first corner, but the Finn managed to contain the attack. Many felt that the overtake failed due to Valtteri's strenuous defense, but Hamilton disagrees, and explains:
"It wasn't a strong defense from him, rather a weak attack from me: I was far too friendly and, in a way, I let him have the win. He did everything well in qualifying while I didn't and in the race he drove flawlessly, he deserves the result. I struggled a bit in this race, I simply struggle here, it wasn't one of my best this season. Considering all that, it was a great performance for the team and a good result for me. Valtteri did a great job this weekend and deserved the win. Even if I had more pace at the end, it was too late and anyway I had more problems than others, I can't point them out exactly, in some tracks it's like that".
Then, talking about the team, the Briton admits:
"What makes us strong is the teamwork, this team is stronger than it has ever been because everyone is working so well together, both drivers are pushing the car to the limits, every weekend they give their all and so is the team: pit stops, engineers, designers, the development in the factory. I have never seen the team as strong as it is now".
On Friday, it looked like Ferrari could make this weekend its own, but the outcome of qualifying was decisive:
"The way they had started, we didn't think we were dominating, we thought we were close. If we look at the data, Sebastian had pole in his hand: if he had put together his best sectors, he would have been first. And if Leclerc had been there too, it could have been a Ferrari front row, and the race would have been different. But then, unfortunately for them, we get great results".
At Ferrari they look for the positive side, and as President John Elkann says, the fastest lap was achieved by a car from Maranello...The consolation prize was brought home to them, in short.
"Mercedes is stronger and luckier but we did the fast lap today. The spirit in Ferrari is very good. There is a great desire to win and the championship is still very long. Forza Ferrari".
Binotto, on the other hand, speaks from a more technical point of view and sends compliments to Leclerc, who had a good pace and drove a good race:
"That they are strong is not a surprise, we already knew it from the Barcelona tests, we had said it and stressed it, however, these were not the expectations coming here to Baku. Yesterday in qualifying the car could have done better than it did, and it's one thing to start in front, it's another thing to start behind. We made it difficult for ourselves to make a comeback. Then it has to be said that we didn't have a good chance, we were hoping for some Safety Car that wasn't there, but at the end of the day they were fast, we never had the pace even with Sebastian, we just have to try to analyze the data and try to improve. Having two cars on the front row would have helped, also for the use of the tires, but when you are in the fray it is always more difficult, we saw it with Hamilton's difficulties in trying to attack Bottas, it's true for everyone, being behind is more difficult, and although here you can overtake, it is always easier to be in front. Now we have to continue with our way of doing things, which is to try to understand the weak points and go further. We will have to try to push on some choices, push on development, but this is part of our normal work."
Ferrari's team principal praised Leclerc's race, which at the start had deluded him that there could be a different outcome:
"Charles was doing well but it was definitely the Medium tyres that gave him an advantage over those in front due to less degradation. He did a good race anyway, starting eighth, he lost some positions at the beginning with the harder tires, but I think he made a good recovery afterwards, we have to look at our overall performance this weekend and then work. The spirit in Ferrari is good, positive, we want to do well and win, we work together and in my opinion this is the right recipe. We had hoped to be more competitive in this phase of the season, but for one reason or another we weren't, but there are still plenty of races left to prove our worth".
Binotto adds an interesting detail: Leclerc's stop was not extended until lap 35, but was brought forward. The Monegasque's strategy should have been closer to that of Gasly, who started from the pits with Red Bull and was handling the Medium tyres even better than Ferrari:
"The Softs immediately proved to be very fragile given the wear, we knew that, but we had to anticipate them a lot on Charles compared to the initial plans since he found himself with destroyed Medium tyres, after being overtaken by the Mercedes he had lost a bit of rhythm. It was a long stint and we had to try somehow to get them to the end, then the VSC changed the situation a bit. Surely these tires are not easy to interpret, but they play a decisive role in the race, so you have to try to understand them somehow".
Despite the already heavy gap in the standings from Mercedes, the team principal still believes in Ferrari's rainbow chances.
"Certainly we feel we are in the fight for the world championship, woe if we weren't. There are four races and we have seventeen more chances to prove that we are good and that we can do well, we do not make calculations about the world championship or not, race after race we try to do the best and try to bring good results, not only for us, but especially for our fans who I think deserve it, and for our drivers as well. In short, we owe it to everyone".
The Ferrari team principal is right, Mercedes is very strong. But the tests in Barcelona showed otherwise. On the third step of the podium is Sebastian Vettel for the second time in a row. The German driver did not take many risks, but he opted for a more consistent race, perhaps still suffering from the aftereffects of last year, and therefore preferred not to risk but to bring the car to the finish line collecting precious points:
"It was very hard at the beginning, I had no feeling with the softs, I was never confident. Then with the medium it went better, we kept up with the Mercedes and put some pressure on them as well. However, there is a lot to do. It's definitely not the situation we would have wanted at this point, but for now we have to be content. For sure we are not happy, but we are fighting against very very fast rivals and I think that today the third place is a good result. Anyway, both me and the whole team are not satisfied, after four races it's still difficult for us to find the right window for the tires. We don't understand why, it's not easy but I think that even Mercedes doesn't know the reason why they can stay in the window. We are not succeeding and we need to find out why".
Ultimately, it is always the tyres that are under investigation in Maranello. For this reason, Ferrari will continue to bring yet more updates to the SF90. Which leave Vettel hopeful, but not as far as the next Grand Prix is concerned:
"In the last races, on average, we were never really in a fight with Mercedes, so we won't be the favorite in Barcelona. But there is a good atmosphere in the team and there are still some things we will have to bring to the car. So we have to try to close the gap, however, we will need a smooth weekend because so far we haven't had any. Above all, we hope to have a smooth weekend, which we haven't had so far. So we can turn the season around".
Coming in fourth was Max Verstappen, by now a seasoned subscriber to this position, who at the end of the race talked about tyre management, a factor on which he won his position at the end of the race:
"Tyre management? Yes, I think this aspect worked well, we were able to go a little bit longer than the others from the beginning and then also with the medium tyres I had a good feeling. We made up ground on our rivals, I was feeling good in the car and in the final laps I was getting even closer. With the neutralization I lost too much time and too much temperature in the tires, I was not able to warm them up anymore and I started to slide. In Baku it is quite risky and so I decided to lift my foot and bring the car to the finish line. In any case we are satisfied, we know where we have to work and we will try to do even better in Barcelona".
In a disastrous weekend in terms of results - retirement in the race, disqualification on Saturday for irregular flow meter and departure from the pit lane for not having stopped for technical checks on Friday in FP2 - Pierre Gasly could not be happier. After suffering in the first three Grands Prix, the Frenchman seems to have found confidence with the RB15:
"This weekend was much better than the other three. I felt better with the car and I was finally able to drive the way I want to. We knew that, starting from the pit lane, it would be hard to fight with the other top drivers, but we had a car fast enough to recover to the points zone. Things in the race were going well, I managed to climb to sixth position but then I had to stop for a transmission problem. In general, though, I'm adapting to the car and I think I'm in the right direction. Now the car is more predictable and I've changed my approach. There is still some work to do, but every weekend we improve together with the team".
The one who reaches the finish line right behind the Red Bull driver is Charles Leclerc. The Monegasque expresses his doubts about the strategy adopted:
"The first stint was very good, afterwards, in the second stint, when I asked if there were any chances to get back on those in front, they told me no and, then, I tried to save as much as possible the tires to try to make the fast lap. In the second part of the race I didn't want to show the lap pace, I just wanted to try to make the fast lap, because they told me from the race wall that there was no possibility to go ahead in the positions. Stop in the pits earlier? I don't know, the only doubt is that I lost so much time with Hamilton, Bottas and also Vettel, who passed. I don't know, there will be a reason behind it, but I have to watch and understand. What's positive about this weekend? The positive thing is the pace. In my opinion, yesterday, apart from my mistake, the pace was very good, the pole, I think, was there, it was in our hands, and I think we must not forget that. Mercedes was very strong today in the race and, therefore, we have to work a little bit, however, it was not so catastrophic".
Behind the Ferrari driver arrive at the finish line respectively Perez, Sainz and Norris, then Stroll, Raikkonen, Albon, Magnussen, Hulkenberg and the two Williams of Russel and Kubica. Therefore, Ferrari does not seem to be the only one not reaching expectations. Even the men of Renault and Haas are once again forced to see their cars retired, thus failing to collect points.
After four Grands Prix we can begin to say that the winter tests have been a fairytale for some teams, and on these fell many expectations, perhaps too many. In particular on Ferrari. In Maranello they presented themselves as the team to beat, but in reality the one who did a good job was Mercedes. In Ferrari we can't deny the obvious problems: on four races the best position obtained is the third one, and we can't talk about if, because the mistakes made are linked to the poor reliability and lack of performance of the drivers. Vettel himself admits to not having found the right feeling with the car:
"I am not driving at my best because the car is not responding as I would like. It's a feeling that you feel or you don't feel, any driver can confirm this".
So the question arises: what is the secret of Toto Wolff's drivers? The team principal of Mercedes is leading a team where there have been no problems, and the results have always been maximized: also the relationship between the drivers seems to have found the right compromise. Between the two there is respect and esteem, there are no clashes, and the results are in their favor. Bottas is in great shape, as is Hamilton, and so far there doesn't seem to be any misunderstanding between the two. Teamwork is on the mind, as the reigning champion also states:
"At the start I could have overtaken Valtteri, but maybe I would have sent him off the track, or we could have both finished, or still be overtaken by Vettel. So yes, I wanted to overtake him, but I remembered that we are part of a team, that a lot of people work and depend on us and therefore we have to avoid extreme gestures. I think you can see that Valtteri and I respect each other a lot, and it will continue to be like that. We talked about it even before the race, we have an agreement between gentlemen".
He also offers to give Ferrari some advice:
"Ferrari has to improve if it wants to compete with us".
Yet Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff is keen to say:
"One-two finish doesn't always reflect the reality of the situation. All weekend long, it was Charles Leclerc who was the fastest. I'm very happy, it was another fantastic performance from the whole team. We didn't make any mistakes and that's why we won the race. The car was fast, the strategic calls were the right ones, the pit stops were executed perfectly and the drivers didn't make any mistakes. We let them run free, simply telling them to take it easy at the beginning of the second stint because we didn't know how long the tires would last. Both of them behaved well under pressure, we took a calculated risk but it was nice to see them fighting in a clean and respectful way. I'm happy with the result, for Valtteri it's a sort of redemption after the unfortunate epilogue of last season's race".
The air in Mercedes seems calm, even with two drivers who for now are the only contenders for the title. In short, we can only thank these two drivers, in particular Bottas, the only one who is livening up this championship and taking points away from the five-time World Champion. As mentioned, hopefully the suspense will continue for a while longer, leaving fans around the world anxious to find out who the winner will be until the lights go out at the last Grand Prix, to be held in Abu Dhabi.