Charles Leclerc is on pole for the second straight weekend, and though he’ll almost certainly make the start of the race in Baku, his odds of winning the grand prix are slim.
Ferrari’s pace in Monaco was far more legitimate than it is in Azerbaijan. Around the slow-speed, low-energy Monte Carlo circuit, where driveability and stability over the kerbs is everything, the Italian team’s chassis was a genuine contender.
In Baku, however, where the track is more demanding of the overall package, Ferrari has had to choose between having either a decent race car competing for around third in the pecking order or a rapid qualifying machine in exchange for diabolical tyre wear.
The team has gambled on starting near the front and figuring out the rest later — commendable, but the main fight remains between Red Bull Racing and Mercedes in Azerbaijan.
Or Red Bull Racing and Lewis Hamilton at least. The Mercedes car has struggled much as it did in Monaco, unable to warm up its tyres equally, depriving the drivers of confidence.
Whereas last weekend Valtteri Bottas was the more amenable to the shortcoming, this weekend he’s way off the pace, unable to squeeze any performance from car and tyres. Hamilton, on the other hand, has found a solution that works for him in a more aggressive, lower downforce set-up enough to vie for pole.
Is it enough to contend for the race? Certainly on FP2 times the answer is no, but the set-up changes were clearly substnaital enough to case doubt on Friday’s times for Mercedes.
Undoubtedly, however, Red Bull Racing is at least a step ahead in terms of pace in Azerbaijan. Milton Keynes has always produced street-friendly cars, and with Mercedes struggling, the opportunity is now for Verstappen to stretch his title lead.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
|19||Lance STROLL||No time|
|20||Antonio GIOVINAZZI||No time|
Distance: 6.003 kilometres
Lap record: 1:43.009 (Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, 2019)
Track record: 1:40.495 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2019)
Lateral load: low
Tyre stress: medium
Asphalt grip: low
Asphalt abrasion: very low
Traction: very high
Safety car probability: 50 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 331 metres
Pit lane time loss: 16.5 seconds
Fuel consumption: High
Tyres: C3 (hard), C4 (medium), C5 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.6 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.8 seconds
Based on what we’ve gleaned from practice, the top three are in reverse pace order. For Leclerc that’s by a long way, so expect him to sink behind the frontrunners within the first 10 laps, but how the fight will play out between Hamilton and Verstappen remains to be seen.
Verstappen is carrying more wing than Hamilton so will be marginally slower down the straight, but Hamilton has the worse tyre life. The timing of the pit stop — we’re expectign only one — will therefore be crucial, and the race is finely balance between the undercut and the overcut.
Mercedes, with its tyre warm-up issues, is unlikely to go for the undercut after it was so badly burned in Monaco for attempting the earlier stop and losing out thanks to a slow out-lap as the rubber came up to temperature. Only particularly poor tyre wear or a lack of understanding of the rubber will likely trigger Hamilton to stop before Verstappen — and with drastic set-up changes after Friday, any unexpected feedback from the cockpit could make the team jumpy for a stop.
The overcut also has the potential bonus of increasing the chance of cashing in on a safety car. Races in Baku have been prone to safety car interruptions, and a cheap stop could make or break a race.
Either way, warmer weather than Friday is likely to brign the question over stop timing to an early resolution, with the soft tyres used by everyone in the top 10 for the first stint likely to last less than 15 laps.
In the bottom 10 things get interesting. Opening on the soft tyre and switching to the hard for a long final stint is the preferred strategy, but the inverse has appeal, starting on the hard while on full tanks, rising up the order and then switching for a late blast on softs. This opens the inverse risk of a safety car coming at the wrong time, however, and missing both the cheap stop but also the ground you’ve made up on midfield rivals. Nonetheless, this may be an option for Lance Stroll, starting out of position at the back after his Q1 crash.