F1 Baku – The wrong side of average?
In true F1 fashion, there was drama aplenty leading up to the second street circuit race of the year with Ferrari in a rather sketchy position, needing to respond to the advances of Red Bull and a lurking consistency build-up from Mercedes.
Qualifying involved the usual suspects making it through with Leclerc grabbing yet another pole proving his qualifying mastery once more, ahead of Perez. Sainz, again, was not able to respond to Leclerc. One can imagine this theme must be taking its toll on the rivalry. Lance Stroll crashed out twice in Q1, in a rather dismal display in hopes of pressing on.
Lights out and it was Perez with the hole shot into turn 1, after capitalizing on a lockup from Leclerc, who then seemed to stretch a gap thanks to the Red Bull’s superior speed. A sign of things to come. An early gamble from Ferrari at the Virtual Safety car after Sainz’s Ferrari suffered a hydraulic failure. An odd moment of wanting to turn misfortune into fortune and with the team suffering a slow pit stop of 5.4 seconds. They weren’t the only ones. It was only going to go from bad to worse from there on out for the team from Maranello. The race then fell into a steady cadence without too much drama in terms of racing which is what we’re after at the end of the day.
Wrong side of average
If there were warning shots fired in the direction of Vettel and Ricciardo from earlier conversations leading up to the weekend of the Grand Prix, with both drivers looking on the wrong side of average all year so far, it certainly worked. Ricciardo showed great form in responding to all the contract discussions around his pace including the burning topic of Patricio “Pato” O’Ward possibly occupying that seat after his superb performance in the Indy car with McLaren.
Nothing brings out the best in you quite like a bit of pressure and the Australian proved why he’s still got some magic despite the closing stage of the race when teammate Lando Norris looked like he could have passed... All this in a McLaren that is still not looking like it has the legs to compete at the top of the “best of the rest” competition. Vettel looked to be gelling well with his Aston Martin responding to the speed of the Alpine but then foiled it, out-braking himself into turn 3 on Lap 13 (Unlucky 13).
The four-time drivers' champion and regular social injustice champion responded by coming back and finishing in P6 at the end. Hope for Aston Martin and a warning flare fired in the direction of Lance Stroll.
Red Bull stomping Ferrari's toes
It was all Red Bull as Verstappen easily passed Perez and I know what you’re thinking but let’s leave the team order discussion for now. Let’s try and understand why both of Perez’s pitstops were significantly slower than Verstappen’s? Hmm... Kind of like a “know your place, Perez” as much as so many of us wanted that inter-team race to develop throwing a further spanner in the works.
It all looked like a proper race until that moment when Leclerc’s Ferrari engine decided to pop sending a plume of smoke into the city centre (that was not hookah pipe smoke from a corner street cafe…). We wanted the race that never happened but did that engine failure raise the question of whether Ferrari is stretching the capabilities of the car in the ambitions of bridging the performance gap between them and Red Bull?
F1 is not without their issues but the general standard of engineering and performance for what is the ultimate version of racing must be brought into question at Baku. The engine failures… the slow pitstops… the breaking parts….
Sure, there’s an acceptable degree of issues but are we seeing the first signs of attrition caused by the cost-capping as teams run harsher part-life cycles in the hope to make the full season? A double Ferrari flop, one for an engine failure on Leclerc’s car and then for Sainz, a hydraulic failure. The hero-to-zero stories we did not need after the rampant start by Ferrari at the beginning of the year.
Then came Alpha Tauri’s fix on Yuki Tsunoda’s rear wing…duct tape… yes, that’s correct… duct tape. What next? Zip-ties and chipboard screws? I’m all for quick fixes but at this level, it’s just not expected. I’d expect to see this at more grassroots level racing than F1. Another Ferrari failure with Kevin Magnussen’s Haas and Zhou Guanyu’s Alfa suffering another engine failure… Either way, let’s hope that this isn’t another Colin Chapman story in poorly-built F1 cars whilst pursuing maximum speed.
The result saw a 1-2 finish for Red Bull with Verstappen taking P1, extending his championship lead and Perez in 2nd with “Mr Consistency”, George Russell in 3rd. The real loser is Charles Leclerc who, in addition to falling further behind Verstappen, lost out to Pérez in the championship battle and now exposes himself to Russell who continues to prove his ability with a Mercedes that is not up to speed.
Toto Wolff referring to the W13 Mercedes as a “s**tbox" may go down in history. The F1 travelling circus now packs up and jets over to Circuit Gilles Villeneuve for the Canadian Grand Prix this week on the 19th of June. No need to wait two weeks to get your fix again, and speaking of fixes, one week does not leave the Ferrari team with enough time to solve what seems to be a championship-losing regression for Leclerc.
Words: Brent vd Schyff