Azerbaijan was the next destination on this year’s Formula One calendar, throwing up several challenges as a result of being brought forward from its usual June slot.
Strong winds and a track rubbing in all weekend represented just a few of many challenges confronting every team but what are the biggest lessons to take away from this weekend?
Mercedes Struggle Again but Lucks In
This weekend has proved surprisingly challenging for Mercedes, who lacked downforce throughout sector two.
Ferrari hid their pace throughout Friday whilst Red Bull seem to be on a level par excluding the Silver Arrows’ extra engine modes for qualifying.
For a team who have dominated for past four seasons, this is unusual terrority for them and they need to find a solution quickly before Sebastian Vettel drives off with the drivers’ championship.
If this had been a mini role-reverse processional repeat of 2016, they certainly would of been outclassed by a huge margin.
Instead, we got a clever strategy from Valtteri Bottas to take advantage of second safety car and pit from lead, only to be cruelly denied victory by debris puncturing his tyres.
Thankfully for Mercedes, it was Lewis Hamilton who lucked in and benefitted from Bottas’ retirement after Vettel locked up and dropped out of contention for the win.
Now, the aim has to be to win races on track without luck and hopefully the move into European leg of season will get them back to their best.
Force India Get Their Act Together
After three testing opening rounds, Force India finally got their act together with a strong weekend.
In two previous trips to Baku, the team have fared well but with a change of month and struggles with new car, not many would of expected them to be leading midfield this weekend.
They proved any doubters wrong from the off when Sergio Perez ended FP1 third before carrying that momentum throughout the weekend and getting both cars into Q3 for the first time this season.
The step forward is bound to give everyone at Force India confidence that they’re heading in the right direction, with Perez feeling that their performance is ‘a great motivation for everyone in the team and shows that we are making progress.
There is definitely progress because after Perez picked up a five second time penalty for an overtaking at end of safety car infringement, they wisely used the second safety car period to come in and serve it as part of a pit stop.
In end, it paid off with a third place podium result after Vettel suffered a flat spot on restart.
Summing up the weekend, Chief Operating Officer, Otmar Szafnauer described it as ‘very satisfying to convert our potential into solid points.
Szafnauer also looked ahead to the European leg of this season, saying; “The result gives us a nice boost as we return to Europe and shows just how much progress we have made over the last month to bring performance to the car.”
Baku might of provided a nice boost but the team still need to sort out their first lap issues, because at least one driver seems to be getting into trouble at start of races to ruin any double point finish hopes in an instant.
Do that and they definitely should defend their fourth place in the constructor championship.
Improvements for Williams
Like Force India, this season has been tough for Williams but they have also made improvements this weekend.
FP1 looked like it could be foreshadowing another poor weekend for the Grove based constructor but Saturday brought a surprise surge in improvement.
Both drivers were firmly in midfield and Lance Stroll nearly knocked Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo out of Q2, only to fall short and find himself 11th.
Following his criticism of the team in between races, Stroll was happy with the progress, saying; “We have obviously made a step forward this weekend compared to last couple of events… However I am still very happy with the job we have done and a big thank you to the team”
Sergey Sirotkin echoed Stroll’s delight post Qualifying and said; “We’re moving forwards, we’re making progress and doing a great job. Now we see that in the results.
Race day brought contrasting fortunes with Stroll getting his and team’s first points of 2018, in eighth place whilst Sirotkin unfortunately got caught up in contact and retired with a puncture.
Speaking post race, Stroll refused to get carried away and said; “We can’t assume this pace will carry on to Barcelona, we have to understand our issues and keep working but that is just what we are doing.
As easy as it is to dwell on the fact that they’re finally off the mark, Stroll is correct in the fact that there is still work to do because Baku is an entirely different circuit to what they will face in Barcelona.
In fact, that goes for all teams who enjoyed great results here because Barcelona is a more technical track and the weather might be totally different.
Leclerc Shines on Streets of Baku
Having won here in Formula Two with Prema last season, Charles Leclerc definitely had reason to want to get a good result for Sauber here.
In both of Friday’s practice sessions, Leclerc managed to finish in 16th before managing 14th across both of Saturday’s sessions.
That is consistency and he managed to get out of Q1 as well for the first time in his F1 career.
His race was even better, running in top ten for pretty much entire race and managed to outrace Williams’ Stroll despite not having as much straight line speed.
In end, sixth is a great result despite fifth being possible but Renault’s Carlos Sainz just had that extra pace to pip the Monegasque in the end.
Another positive is that fans acknowledged Leclerc’s performance amongst the madness by awarding him the ‘Driver of the Day’ award.
Surely if he can take the new found confidence from this weekend and apply it to remainder of season, Leclerc has to be a contender to replace Kimi Raikkonen next season at Ferrari without any doubt.
Red Bull Collides
Red Bull definitely will be stealing the headlines in coming days after Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen collided, taking both cars out of the race.
Till race day, this weekend has gone very well with the team roughly level with Mercedes on single lap pace (excluding Mercs’ extra engine boost options for qualifying).
The race however highlights the team’s indecisiveness when it comes to avoiding the eventual collision on lap 40, after both drivers went close on numerous occasions earlier in race, and even banging wheels at one point.
Surely after that moment, Christian Horner and others on pitwall should of acted before what was bound to eventually happen took place.
In end, the team threw away at least 22 constructor points if things had stayed the way it was at time of their collision.
Speaking post race, Ricciardo admitted that hard racing ultimately cost them valuable points.
Discussing the race, Ricciardo said “We tried to keep it clean and give each other room but we were racing hard and in the end it cost us.”
Verstappen who has been criticised lately for getting into too many scraps, drew attention to the earlier clash but wasn’t happy with what happened later on.
Giving his thoughts on the race, the 20 year old said; “… it was hard racing but fair I think and we gave each other space, we had a little brush with the wheels but I think in racing that can happen , but what happened afterwards is not good.
Team principal, Horner was frustrated by the collision but praised both drivers for being able to race each other cleanly in past races and for apologising post race, saying; “We allow our drivers to race wheel-to-wheel, which they have done to great effect during the last two years.
It is hugely frustrating for the team and the drivers have apologised.”
Using team orders now surely has to be a possibility but Verstappen is against that idea, arguing that ‘not letting us race anymore’ isn’t the right way forward.
Horner backed that up in his final thoughts, saying; “The most important thing is to learn from today and ensure that we avoid a repeat situation.”
The team therefore need to think carefully about where they go from here on in to avoid another Vettel/Mark Webber scenario unfolding.
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