BAKU, Azerbaijan — Another race weekend, another missed opportunity for Ferrari. This one may not have been the open goal missed in Bahrain, but on pure pace Ferrari had the potential to win in Baku and once again it came up short.
A series of interwoven errors, mainly on Saturday, were to blame, but make no mistake, Ferrari threw away an opportunity to peg Mercedes back and with it the gaps in both championships are widening at an alarming rate.
Rewind to the hour before qualifying on Saturday and you would have been hard pressed to find anyone in the paddock willing to bet on a fourth Mercedes one-two victory on Sunday. Ferrari had dominated practice, was still enjoying the power advantage it has held all season and was getting its tyres in the right operating window. Mercedes, meanwhile, looked lost.
In final practice Valtteri Bottas had been 1.5s off the pace of Charles Leclerc and slower than the Red Bull of Max Verstappen. Setup changes made after Friday practice had taken the team several steps back in terms of one-lap performance and unlike Ferrari, which appeared to have nailed the narrow sweetspot of Pirelli’s 2019 tyres, Mercedes was struggling for front tyre temperature all around the lap.
For all the drama it can produce, the Baku City Circuit is a relatively low-energy circuit, without the sort of high-speed corners that generate load in the tyres and get them up to temperature. Combined with Baku’s long straights, where the tyres cool off, you need a car setup that generates enough temperature in the front tyres for them to bite against the circuit’s smooth track surface. So obvious was the contrast between FP2 and FP3 that it was relatively easy for Mercedes to isolate the problem in the data and apply a fix.
But while Mercedes set about making the necessary changes to awaken their front tyres, Ferrari’s pace in final practice meant it had the luxury of strategizing for the race. So quick were the red cars over a single lap that they could consider using the slower medium compound in the second part of qualifying rather than the faster soft. It’s a tactic often employed by the top teams in qualifying as the tyres you use in Q2 are the same tyres you start the race on. The soft compound had been prone to graining — when rubber rolls up on the surface of the tyre and reduces the overall contact patch — whereas the medium was proving more durable and a better race tyre. By using the medium in Q2, Ferrari could, in theory, use its pace on Saturday to gain an extra advantage on Sunday when Mercedes were expected to hit back.
But while the upsides of such a strategy were clear, there was a less tangible downside. Baku, like all street circuits, relies on drivers getting into a certain rhythm around the lap. Hooking up all 20 corners while driving on the limit requires a degree of trust in the car and the level of grip, and changing tyre compounds suddenly alters the feeling from within the cockpit. Going into the session, Pirelli predicted that the medium tyre was a massive 1.2s slower than the softs over a single lap — the kind of performance difference that exists between one of the front running cars and a midfield car.
The drivers, of course, are aware of the difference in feel and performance between tyre compounds and should be able to react, but changing was an added complication that offers some explanation for what came next. On the approach to Turn 8, the narrowest corner on the F1 calendar, Leclerc asked too much of his tyres under braking, locked up and hit the barriers. Ferrari’s clear advantage was wiped out in one corner. Leclerc, who is relatively inexperienced in just his second year in F1, was hard on himself.
“I just tried to brake a bit harder, well actually I don’t think I put more brakes but I just braked as much as I did on the soft tyre but obviously I was on the medium and I locked up,” he said. “But I don’t want to it be misunderstood, there is no problems with the tyres, it is just myself. I am very disappointed.”
With the benefit of hindsight, the consequence of interrupting Leclerc’s rhythm with a run on the medium tyres can be blown out of proportion. But it was interesting to hear that Mercedes had considered the same strategy, but decided against it for the very reason of keeping its drivers focused on the job at hand.
“We made the decision before FP3 whether we wanted to run the medium in FP3 and one soft instead of two softs, and we felt that it was better to prepare the drivers on a circuit like Baku by throwing soft tyres at them in Q1, Q2 and Q3 rather than having a medium in the mix,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said after qualifying. “So we ran the medium in FP3 and we had six softs for qualifying. Ferrari ran two softs in the morning and they had to run the medium during qualifying and obviously hoped to qualify on the medium.”
But with Sebastian Vettel making it through to Q3 (albeit with a run on the soft tyres once Q2 had restarted), Ferrari was still the favourite for pole position. Mercedes knew it had to do something special to make the difference and, as if to underline the gulf in the way the two teams are operating this year, it pulled off another masterstroke to lock out the front row of the grid.
At recent races, the world champions had observed its rivals — in particular Ferrari – waiting for the Mercedes cars to leave the garage before sending its cars out. In qualifying, teams often try to gain an advantage by being the last car to leave the garage as track conditions are usually better and, at a circuit like Baku, it allows their drivers to benefit from the slipstreams of the cars in front. There are dangers to leaving it late, such as running out of time to set a lap as happened to a number of cars in China, but on the whole it is usually considered to be an advantage to be last on track.
Unwilling to play the usual game of chicken as the session clock counted down, Mercedes opted to send its cars out first but then instructed them to pull over in the area designated for practice starts at the end of the pit lane. The dummy played out perfectly, seeing Vettel — and a gaggle of other cars — leave their garages after the Mercedes but ultimately join the track ahead of them. Mercedes’ outlaps were slightly hindered as a result of being at the back of the queue, but the team benefitted from some perfect slipstreams while Vettel had no one in front of him and lost as much as 0.4s on the back straight.
But it wasn’t just the tow that Mercedes benefited from; the car was also quick in the tight middle sector compared to Vettel, which is where tyre temperatures are crucial. Leclerc’s crash had extended the session to allow for barrier repairs and saw Q3 start at 18:45 local time. The delay meant the sun was significantly lower in the sky and the temperatures plummeted as a result, playing into the hands of Mercedes and the pre-qualifying setup changes made to combat the issues it had in final practice. The result was an all-Mercedes front row, with Vettel 0.3s — or the advantage of a good slipstream — off pole.
A crazy race may have offered Ferrari a route back to victory, but after two chaotic races in 2017 and 2018, the 2019 edition of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was a tame affair. Leclerc’s strategy, which saw him lead the race from lap 14 to lap 34 was all about waiting for a Safety Car to give him a free pit stop, but it never came. And although Ferrari’s qualifying engine settings still give it an edge over one lap, it was not able to replicate the same power advantage in the race. Without a significant pace advantage and very little margin to play with tyre strategy, another third/fifth finish was the best the team could manage.
“I think we had a good car for qualifying — potentially we could have been on pole – but we weren’t,” Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto explained. “And I think that the races are certainly a different matter.
“The reason of it is a different day at first. I think between being out in front [like Mercedes] or being stuck behind [like Vettel], it is quite different to manage your pace, your tyres.
“When you have got fresh or clean air certainly it is a lot easier, so I think that our pace as well today has been affected by our position on the grid. But not only that — certainly the others are very strong and we are facing a very strong competition.”
There’s no indication things are about to get any easier for Ferrari. Just as every one-two victory mounts pressure on Maranello, it emboldens Brackley. The confidence with which Mercedes executed its smart qualifying shuffle in Baku and its double-stacked pit stop in Shanghai are perfect examples of a team growing in confidence each weekend. It should also be noted that while Ferrari brought a significant aero upgrade to Baku, Mercedes had found a steady improvement from its package without major changes.
“I think that obviously four races into the season, no win for Ferrari and four wins for Mercedes, no doubt they are very strong,” Binotto said on Sunday night. “Certainly they’ve got a slightly better car, but I think that the gap is not so big and the points on the results table are not reflecting the true potential of the cars.
“Yesterday, as we just said with Charles, we had the potential for pole, and if you’ve got a car fast enough to score potentially the pole, you’ve got a good car overall. In the race today, yes, we weren’t as fast as them, but we didn’t finish 20 seconds behind.
“I think that Seb somehow at the end of the race was somehow quite close, and if you look at the delta lap time average on the race, somehow it is significant but still little, and I think it’s something on which there is much to try to work and then to close in the near future.
“The updates we brought here worked as expected. These are only the very first ones. A few updates are expected as well in the next races, so we will not stop here. Our hopes definitely are that we can do a better job in the future.”
And Mercedes, which has made a habit of talking up Ferrari’s pace ahead of every qualifying session, is still genuinely wary of the threat the red cars pose.
“It is that we see a strong Ferrari on Friday and on Saturday, and I still believe that Charles was probably the fastest man on track today, but like in Bahrain, it didn’t come together,” Wolff said. “You can say now, ‘Yeah, stop saying these things – it’s the fourth one-two in a row’, but it is still very much our mindset. We still believe that there is so many things we need to understand better and improve.
“We have done some work for the race yesterday and we knew that we were compromising the qualifying a bit in order to have a good race car, but even today in the race at times the Red Bulls were the quickest and then it was us again. Then in the beginning it was Charles who was flying on the mediums.
“So I think that what we did in the first races was put all the things together. The team didn’t do any mistakes, the strategy calls were right, the drivers didn’t put a foot wrong, and that made us win the first four races. Then when you look at the other side, they had more problems.”
A strong start to the European season at the Spanish Grand Prix in two weeks will be crucial for Ferrari. Barcelona played host to pre-season testing in February and it was there that the Ferrari car looked like a world beater. If it comes alive again at the Circuit de Catalunya then the championship will be back on, but suffer another defeat and the remaining three quarters of the 2019 season will start to look very bleak indeed. The points Ferrari have thrown away at the start of the season have left it 74 adrift in the constructors’ championship after just four races. Against a team operating at Mercedes’ level, that simply isn’t good enough.
A threat from within?
With the results already reminiscent of Mercedes’ dominant years between 2014 and 2016, could we see a feisty battle brew between Bottas and Hamilton? During those untouchable years, Mercedes faced a constant threat of internal division from the toxic relationship between Hamilton and then teammate Nico Rosberg. It ended when Rosberg left the team in 2016, exhausted by the pressures of going up against his internal rival.
In the two years since, Hamilton and Bottas have barely had a crossed word. But during those two seasons, Bottas hasn’t been a real threat to Hamilton and we have yet to see how the relationship will cope with the strain of a title on the line.
Bottas leads Hamilton by a single point in the drivers’ standings, courtesy of the bonus point he picked up for fastest lap at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. In Baku, the battle for the lead on the opening lap was remarkably clean for two championship rivals and speaking after the race Hamilton admitted he had taken it too easy.
“I was too friendly at Turn 1 and basically gave it to him,” Hamilton said after the race. “It’s very very difficult — ultimately you always have to remember when you’re in a team as big as this that you are only one, and there are so many people that depend on us. So selfishly I could have for sure pushed a lot harder and Valtteri would have lost position, maybe I would have gained position, most likely he would have got overtaken by a Ferrari or something like that, so we have to work together.
“So whilst I wanted to overtake him, I had to be cautious at the same time, to give him space so that we would block the front row and stay there. Ultimately I lost out in that, but that’s a sacrifice you have to sometimes make in order for the team to win. I think if it was a Ferrari there it would have been a lot different.
“And that will be how it continues for the rest of the year — I think Valtteri and I have always had a lot of respect for each other, and we continue to do so. I think you can see that. That’s how we deal with it — we discuss it before the race, we agree as gentlemen, and we stick to it.”
But why does Hamilton have a better relationship with Bottas than he did with Rosberg? For him the answer is simple.
“I can’t judge if one’s character will change or not [later in the year], but drivers in the past didn’t stick to the rules of engagement that we have as a team, and Valtteri does.”
Although Hamilton gave Bottas plenty of space in the opening three corners of the race, he piled on the pressure towards the end of the race. Given that Mercedes was heading for a one-two victory, it would have been understandable if the team had told both drivers to turn down their engines and simply monitor the gap to Vettel in third. But as late as the penultimate lap, Bottas was forced to go half a second quicker than he had been at any other point in the race just to keep Hamilton from attacking into Turn 1.
After the race, Hamilton praised the team for letting its drivers “push as hard as we could all the way to the end” but, after his experience of the Rosberg/Hamilton rivalry, Wolff remains wary of having two championship contenders in one team.
“I think we are lucky that they have a very good relationship,” he said. “They get on with each other. There is not a lot of games in the background, and I am very happy about that. But as a matter of fact you have to be conscious.
“We have seen a relationship deteriorate. Both of the drivers have an ambition to win the championship. We want them to be feisty in the car, lions in the car, so you can’t expect the behaviour of sheep. But equally the respect needs to stay in there.
“We are very strong as a team and we wouldn’t allow a relationship between drivers to deteriorate to a point that it has a negative effect on the team if that would ever be the case. Again, after Nico and Lewis, we will ensure we have our own red cards. But we are far away from that and we are not there.”