Co-presented by

Azerbaijan Grand Prix 2019: Ferrari’s blunders continue, Mercedes’ race management stands out and other talking points

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc won the fan-voted ‘Driver of the Award’ for his race performance in the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – possibly the most ‘pointless’ award given out during a Grand Prix weekend. In Leclerc’s case, this award seems even more pointless when one thinks of the fact that the young Monegasque could’ve scored pole position or even won the race. Unfortunately, the pole was lost due to driver error while Ferrari could be blamed for costing the race win – let’s remember, the medium-compound shod Ferrari of Leclerc’s was the fastest on track in the first half of the race.

So what went wrong?

Initially, Ferrari seemed to have pulled off a masterstroke by starting Leclerc on the medium tyre – the only driver in the top-10 to do so. In fact, Ferrari’s affection for the medium tyre was first seen in Q2 of qualifying when it actually appeared that the Italian team had committed a strategic blunder by choosing the mediums over the softs. In qualifying, we know how the medium tyre turned out for Leclerc – he crashed out; while Vettel too narrowly missed the barriers at the same corner – the wretched Turn 8 (that also took out Williams’ Robert Kubica).

Ferrari’s strategic masterstroke and blunder

The medium compound turned out to be the tyre to start the race on and Leclerc put his advantage to good use by overtaking through the field to eventually claim the race lead. But it didn’t take too long to figure out that Ferrari’s tyre strategy for Leclerc relied on a Safety Car period. Yes, one could argue that for yet another race Ferrari appeared to have no strategy whatsoever but for discussion sake, let’s assume that ‘medium +’Safety Car’ was Ferrari’s strategy for Leclerc – not bad given how chaotic the races at Baku have often been. Tellingly, Ferrari failed to act when the Safety Car didn’t appear. This is despite the most usual suspects who could bring out the Safety Car being involved in incidents.

But what could Ferrari have done? Ferrari knew that Leclerc wouldn’t have been able to keep up the race-leading pace had he switched to softs and worse, an early switch to softs could see him run out of grip in the last stages of the race and come under potential attack from Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen. Armed with this fact, Ferrari chose to leave Leclerc out till he saw his entire 20-plus second gap to Verstappen (then in 5th place) be wiped out. But again, what could Ferrari have done?

Could Ferrari have attempted to stop Leclerc twice? Could they have given Leclerc another set of mediums when he had the pit-stop delta to Verstappen with the hope that he would come back out on the mediums behind Vettel-Hamilton-Bottas and try and catch them again? Ferrari had the relative pace information to the trio given that they were all running mediums in their second stint too. Of course, Leclerc would have needed to stop again for softs. But given that he started from the 4th row of the grid, most race-winning strategies in a straightforward race as Baku would require Leclerc to overtake the front-running cars twice. Could Ferrari have used Vettel (running 4th) to try and trigger another round of pit-stops and aid Leclerc’s lead?

The moot point is that Ferrari failed to try; let alone try something different. It was evident very early what the outcome of their desired tyre strategy would be - Leclerc would be 5th, losing 4th place to Verstappen for another race this season. But instead of watching Leclerc lose his advantage and drive around trying to get into a window where the soft tyres would last till the end of the race, one wishes that Ferrari attempted a bolder approach. The eventual result could’ve been the same – 3rd and 5th, but at least they would’ve possibly challenged Mercedes and Red Bull Racing that much more. Currently, it seems as though Mercedes are winning races on their might while Verstappen is sneaking through to 4th place ever-so-often thanks to Ferrari’s errors. Strangely enough, both Ferrari drivers seemed content with their race performances post-race. Are Ferrari and its drivers accepting that they currently lack the tools to take the fight to Mercedes?

Ferrari have a fast racing car – it is evident during the sessions that don’t matter the most, like the Free Practice sessions. But for the third season in running, Ferrari’s ‘race management’ wasn’t able to convert a fast car into a race-winning one and seemed to rely on their drivers pulling off magic behind the wheel. As early as it may be to talk about the World Championships, Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc trail the Mercedes drivers by 30-plus points.

Mercedes: Can they be beaten?

Mercedes scored their fourth consecutive 1-2 finish of the season. Valtteri Bottas, the first driver to win a race from pole position this season, drove a controlled race to go two wins apiece with his teammate, Lewis Hamilton. If Ferrari’s blunders continue, fans will have to contend with a Bottas vs Hamilton battle for the Drivers’ Championship and at least for the moment, it seems as though Bottas has answers to Hamilton’s pace. The Finnish driver leads the Drivers’ Championship over Hamilton by one point and must be complimented for clinching pole position despite not being the Mercedes car that was to receive the ‘tow’. Bottas started the race well and drove a strong first lap to keep the challenging Hamilton at bay. It was good to see the Mercedes drivers drive in parallel through the first few sequences of corners, giving each other respect and space with Bottas eventually pulling through.

Apart from a fast and reliable racing car, it is Mercedes’ race management that has helped them amass more points in the Constructors’ Championship than Ferrari and Red Bull Racing put together; and yes, we are only four races into the 21-race long season. In Q3 of qualifying on Saturday, Mercedes chose to dummy Vettel into choosing track position over the tow – a decision that possibly cost Vettel pole position (apart from the cooler track temperatures). Mercedes’ toying with Ferrari does make one miss the lethal days of Jean Todt-Ross Brawn at Ferrari, when they played the field instead of being played. In terms of records, Mercedes and Ferrari hold the record for five consecutive 1-2 finishes in the sport. Could this record be broken by Mercedes this year? In 2017 and 2018, Mercedes scored four 1-2 finishes; in 2019, they’ve managed this feat with 17 races to go. What could it take for someone to beat Ferrari? Well, maybe we could get Red Bull Racing to manage a race weekend for Ferrari. They do have the knack to finish higher than the potential of their package!

In Baku, the upgrades to the Red Bull Racing – Honda package seemed to deliver the bite that the team would be looking for on a track that is definitely classified as a power track. In fact, in Q1 of qualifying, Pierre Gasly stunned everyone (including Red Bull Racing) by claiming top honours. However, Gasly’s weekend was definitely the one he and the team would like to forget – multiple penalties leading to a pit-lane start eventually retiring from the race. The Frenchman drove a fine race to go from a pit-lane start (and there were three cars that started from the pit-lane, by the way) to running in 6th place – a position he could’ve easily finished in had his Honda power unit not given up. As for Verstappen, he finished 4th for the third race in succession and is 1 point behind Vettel in the Drivers’ Championship.

McLaren take 4th in the championship – Unbelievable!

In the mid-field, Racing Point (formerly Force India) were expected to do well (they do have a magic formula for this track!) and they did so by scoring double points – Perez (6th) and Stroll (9th). Perez’s ‘best of the rest’ finish sees him be tied for points (13) with Gasly and Kimi Raikkonen. As for Stroll, two points would be good consolation given that he’s been eliminated from Q1 of qualifying for eight consecutive races! Mclaren jumped to 4th place in the Constructors’ Championship (46 points behind Red Bull Racing and 1 point ahead of Racing Point) thanks to their drivers scoring the team’s first double points finish of the season. Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz Jr. started from the top-10 and had an incident-free race to finish 7th and 8th. Raikkonen scored the final championship point. Another commendable race, given that the Finnish driver had to start from the pit-lane thanks to a technical penalty post-qualifying that saw him be disqualified. The Alfa Romeo driver’s front wing failed the FIA’s deflection test.

The two teams that were expected to lead the mid-field pack – Renault and Haas, continued their no points-scoring streak with both their cars. Ricciardo had an embarrassing retirement from the race when he out-braked himself into the run-off area almost taking his former Red Bull Racing teammate Daniil Kvyat with him. However, what followed was even more embarrassing – Ricciardo reversed into Kvyat’s Toro Rosso, an act that earned him a 3-place grid penalty for the next race.

The 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix was definitely low on action and drama when compared to the races from the previous years. However, the race had just-about-enough dose to keep one on the edge – with the expectation that something was about to happen that could’ve changed the complexion of the race. Unfortunately for Formula 1 fans, the wait for another nail-biting Grand Prix only gets longer. Will it be the 2019 Spanish Grand Prix? We will find out in a fortnight.

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

Updated Date: Apr 29, 2019 15:08:52 IST