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Azerbaijan Grand Prix 2019: After failing to live up to the early-season hype, it's now or never for Ferrari in Baku

In the weeks leading up to the 2019 Formula One World Championship, winds of change were believed to be blowing after five consecutive years of Mercedes domination. Tales of a resurgent Ferrari were on everyone’s lips — including those of their strongest rivals. But as the inaugural race in Melbourne came and went, Mercedes registered their first 1-2 finish of the season.

Next up, the Bahrain Grand Prix. At qualifying, Ferrari’s precocious Charles Leclerc became the second youngest pole-sitter of all time, beating his senior teammate (and youngest pole sitter of all time) Sebastian Vettel to register a front-row lock-out for Ferrari, announcing a potentially mighty comeback. Next day at the race, however, Mercedes registered their second 1-2 finish of the season.

In the third outing of the season and the 1000th ever F1 race, after an almost-promising show in the initial free practice sessions, Ferrari were found foraging for pace the entire weekend, and eventually gave in to their fate after a dozen laps and extraordinary team orders at the Chinese Grand Prix. For a third time this season, Mercedes secured a 1-2 finish at Shanghai.

 Azerbaijan Grand Prix 2019: After failing to live up to the early-season hype, its now or never for Ferrari in Baku

Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel in action during the Chinese Grand Prix. Reuters

Three races in 2019, three top shows by Mercedes. The Silver Arrows, with three consecutive 1-2 finishes, now lead the current constructors’ standings with 130 points — the most dominant start to a Formula One season since the historic Williams’ exhibition in 1992. Ferrari find themselves 57 points behind at the second spot on the table (a gap expected much further into the season usually), followed closely by Red Bull Racing.

The drivers of these teams, too, reflect the performances of their teams so far — in terms of points. Defending champion Lewis Hamilton and his teammate Valtteri Bottas are head and shoulders above the competition with 68 and 62 points respectively, followed by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen with 39 points. Ferrari’s duo only appears on the drivers’ standings at fourth and fifth places, as things currently stand.

Given this salad of numbers, it would take less than a rocket scientist to note that if Mercedes are not offered strong competition right away, this is going to be another predictable and boring season of Formula One racing, with fans forced to pretend to be amused by “a fierce midfield battle”.

The team best equipped to offer Mercedes competition this year, even by Mercedes’ own admissions, is Ferrari — so it essentially boils down to this: if Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto doesn’t fix things soon, the 2019 world championship is increasingly likely to be the sixth straight title for Mercedes.

But Binotto, considered one of the most astute strategists of the game, realised this soon after the Chinese Grand Prix and arranged for the first in-season development of the SF90. “We are bringing a few updates to Baku, as the first step in the development of the SF90,” Binotto was quoted as saying. “Coming off the back of three races that definitely didn’t go the way we wanted, this Grand Prix is another important moment for us. We have prepared for it very well, analysing all the data we have acquired up until now, looking at areas where we can improve and working on adapting the car’s set-up and the power unit management to the characteristics of the track.”

Although that seemed diplomatic at best and a bluff at worst, it is a satisfying summary of efforts for the Ferrari fan. The engineers at Maranello have indeed been working to enhance the performance of the car’s underfloor to generate more downforce and improve its aerodynamic efficiency, a technical precis of which was published by Formula One’s official website on Tuesday.

Aside from the technical fixes in the car, it is the sport’s calendar that might give Ferrari what they need to turn around a chastening start to the 2019 season.

Baku is Ferrari’s best bet

Designed by iconic F1 track architect Hermann Tilke (who has also designed the Buddh International Circuit in India, among many others), the fast street circuit in Baku is made for madness. Featuring a massive, long straight and also the tightest track section on the F1 calendar, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix gets race strategists scratching their heads to come up with the optimum car setup. The sheer unpredictability (every race so far has seen at least one surprise entry on the podium) and the guaranteed drama (the safety car has featured in every single F1 race in Baku so far) in the fastest street circuit of the calendar makes it one to not miss.

But it is the track’s similarity with Bahrain that might give Ferrari the edge. Ferrari’s power units have shown greater pace on straights than Mercedes this season, and Baku features an enormous flat-out section that begins at the end of Turn 16 and ends 2.2 kilometres later at Turn 1. Although this stretch does include a couple of ultra-highspeed ‘turns’ on paper, it is as good as one long straight as the downforce levels let the drivers floor the peddle throughout the stretch.

Baku being a very high efficiency circuit, pundits of the sport also expect the track to help the lower drag Ferrari more than fast-in-the-corners Mercedes this weekend, and some predict an aerodynamic advantage of more than a few tenths-of-a-second in lap timing for Ferrari.

The drivers in the red SF90s also have strong memories made on the Baku track. Although Vettel has never won a race here (his best finish was P2 at the inaugural race in 2016), all his races have unfolded dramatically — most notably in 2017 when he drove into Hamilton’s Mercedes and was later penalised for causing a collision. But it is more Vettel’s junior teammate who can use his history on this track as motivation for the upcoming weekend.

Just days after his father’s death, Leclerc qualified on pole at the 2017 Formula Two race in Baku. With Je t'aime papa (I love you dad) painted on his car, the clearly emotional Monegasque driver led from the front on race day and also set the fastest lap, even as accidents and collisions brought frequent interruptions to the race. A year later, it was in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix that Lerlerc won his first Formula One points, as he took an impressive sixth place for Sauber.

With history, track design and car strength all going for Ferrari this weekend, one can only hope the team doesn’t pass mindless orders to its drivers mid-race and gets the vital tyre strategy right, to win a very, very winnable race. If it fails, with Red Bull Racing currently incapable of building cars that can beat championship leaders Mercedes, reruns of last year’s IPL matches will be more interesting to watch than the remaining 18 races in the calendar this year (with no parallels drawn between CSK and the Silver Arrows).

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Updated Date: Apr 27, 2019 14:52:44 IST