Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 16.7° Track 36.7° Humidity 68% Wind 0.8 m/s
Cerulean skies vaulted the paddock in Baku as devilish winds swirled through the circuit and played havoc with the drivers, who were regularly taking to the escape roads when they cars failed to turn in, a product of colder than usual temperatures and the new front wing regulations that have left all the teams trying to recreate last years load on the front axle, to varying degrees of success…..
Ferrari arrived with a fair boatload of new developments, ahead of schedule, with new bits for the barge boards, diffuser, a new rear wing and with new fins for the brake ducts, to help with tyre temperature issues they had been suffering with. And lo and behold, back on a rear limited circuit ala Bahrain, and they were on it, the developments rumoured to bring 0.2 seconds to the table. Mercedes, on the other hand, struggled with the Soft tyres, and were far off in FP3, so far off that it was Max Verstappen who was planted in P3, with Leclerc ahead of Vettel by 0.2 seconds as the checquers waved, for the top 3 spots. And that despite Mercedes reverting to a deeper rear wing to match Ferrari’s performance in S2 from Friday. An interesting pattern emerging with Leclerc is that he seems to outperform Vettel at the tracks where he raced F2, something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
Of course the main talking point was the manhole cover that utterly destroyed George Russell’s Williams on Friday, stopping FP1 well short of completion after the recovery vehicle mashed it’s crane into a bridge and leaked hydraulic fluid all over the car and track…. Things weren’t helped by a number of crashes in FP2, with Stroll and Kvyat into the walls and a genuinely bizarre interaction between Hamilton and Magnussen that saw the two kiss wheels, which didn’t lead to much love between them however….Gasly was nicked for missing the weighbridge and thus a pitlane start for him….. The end result was fairly compromised running for all the teams and that usually leads to interesting races.
Green Light!! Russell out first in his Williams, that was completely rebuilt after his chassis was destroyed by a manhole cover. Ferrari wasted little time rocking out behind him and the rest of the field was in close pursuit, save Red Bull. It was Bottas to the top early days, as Hamilton put it up the escape road in T3 and Stroll gave the wall an almighty whack on the exit of T2.
12 minutes to go and Red Bull were out of the pitlane as Vettel, who backed off his first lap was on a hotlap. Into S3 and he picked up a beautiful slipstream and up to P1 he went, less than a hundredth up on Bottas. Hamilton was quite far down, P6 and dropping quickly down the order as the sharper end of the midfield rocked in. Giovinazzi, P4, Albon P5 with Renault nowhere as their struggles with braking continued. Haas, in the form of Magnussen was rocking P9 but by then, with 8 minutes left in the session, Hamilton was down to P15.
Flat spot or no, Mercedes managed to keep Lewis’ first set of tyres going, and he rocked around into a much more respectable P3, although the pace of track evolution would keep even the sharp end of the field on their toes. Leclerc came through and took P1 whilst Vettel had dropped to P4. With 5 minutes to go, he was through and 0.6 seconds up. but he wasn’t P1 for long as Gasly came along and took it away by less than a hundredth.
2 minutes to go and it was Ricciardo, Grosjean, Hulkenberg and Russell and Kubica natch on the outside looking in, whilst Stroll was in the hotseat P15.. Verstappen in P14 was looking a bit uncomfortable but he was on a hotlap with under a minute to go and with a mostly empty track, a difficult thing to achieve, it was up to P4….
Bang Stroll goes P15, and then Kubica into the wall T8, as Ricciardo goes P15 and it’s Stroll, Grosjean, Hulkenberg, Russell and Kubica going no further as they are off in search of some plov, their day done and the session red flagged for more than a bit as the car is cleared and wall repaired…..
Q2 finally underway and it was again little wasted time as the track filled up, with Mercedes again wasting little time joining the usual midfield contenders, as the shady areas of the track consumed more and more of the surface as the afternoon sun waned, making it even more difficult to get the tyres properly warmed up. Verstappen was up to the top, followed by Bottas and Hamilton while Ferrari decided to play with their pace advantage and attempt to qualify on the Medium tyre…
The first laps weren’t that impressive, with Leclerc P5 and but Vettel rather far off in P11, but on the Mediums they were perhaps going to run a 2nd lap before shelving that strategy. Raikkonen was on a hot lap and then it was Leclerc, at 8:33 into the same wall as Kubica, ruining Vettel’s lap at the same time. Red Flag straightaway, and with 7:41 left in the session it was Albon, Vettel, Ricciardo, Giovinazzi and Gasly (with no time) on the outside looking in and Kmag on the hotseat. On replay, it was it was the unpardonable sin of not choosing the escape road after locking up and carrying far too much speed into the corner entry that ruined the young Monegasque’s day….
As the espesso machine sprang into overtime, the question of should they have run the Medium tyre popped up, given how much later Q2 was being run, with track temps down to 30°C, but the fact of the matter was it is on the drivers to manage the tyre given and it was a very understandable error by a young driver, but an error nonetheless…. That said, with 7 minutes left and the temps dropping, it was possible he would still wind up in the top ten when the dust settled, but first it was another long wait as the barriers were repaired. Red Bull decided during the wait, that Gasly, already starting from the pitlane due to his penalty for missing the weighbridge, was done for the day, better to save tyres and no need to risk binning the car as the track got colder and colder with the diminishing angle of the sun……
28°C when the green light finally came back on and the cars headed out, Perez and Raikkonen leading the way. Onto the Softs for Vettel, in P12 with 5 minutes left in the session. Kmag had a big slide on his way through T8 on his outlap on the cement dust laid down to soak up the fluids, as did Ricciardo behind him. Fast and hard went the outlaps as the teams attempted to make up for the ever dropping temperatures…
Up to P7 went Vettel as the fastest part of the day seemed to have gone with the setting sun. In the midfield, Kmag was shuffled down to P13 and as the checquers fell it was Sainz, Ricciardo, Albon, Magnussen and Gasly going no further, off in search of some Xirdalan to quench their thirst for the glories of Q3, a sad and pale substitute….. Meanwhile the ever dropping temps were cause for concern at Ferrari as Vettel reported an inability to get his front tyres to switch on as the start of Q3 hurtled toward them like a freight train…
Another degree lost as Verstappen was first off in Q3, tracked closely by Bottas and then Hamilton. Giovinazzi, Norris, Raikkonen and then Vettel, trailed by Perez completed the set for the first runs. Verstappen setting the track ablaze in purple and to the top he went with a 1:41.447,displaced first by Bottas and then by Hamilton, who had rather obviously figured out how to get his tyres into the window… This was absolutely not the case for Ferrari, with Vettel just managing to sneak in between the two of them but without the previous advantage.
Verstappen stayed out for a second run, and managed to zip up to P2, ahead of Vettel and the second lap showing the way perhaps for Ferrari. But with 3 minutes left, would they could they copy that strategy. Perez, Kvyat Norris, Giovinazzi and Raikkonen finished out the top 9, with the stricken Leclerc in P10 barring chassis damage…..
2 minutes to go and it was the entire field out of the pits, with Mercedes doing practice starts, just strange to be stuck at the back when a fast out lap is absolutely required to get the tyres switched on….At the front, Vettel leading the way into the last hot lap as Mercedes found their outlaps compromised. Vettel to P2, just 0.09 seconds off Hamilton, but then Bottas was through and to the top, 0.3 seconds up and with Hamilton rocketing in behind but as he hit the line he was a miniscule 0.059 seconds slower than his teammate and it was pole for Valterri Bottas, followed by Hamilton, Vettel, Verstappen and Perez, now an outside favorite for a podium should the inevitable chaos of a street circuit come into play.
Leclerc in P10 had to be an interesting bet as well, given the pace of his car all weekend and with the start on Medium making everyone’s strategy calls more interesting. Mercedes v Ferrari on race pace is also a bit of an unanswered question as the massive disruptions to Friday’s running compromised all the teams. In the midfield, it once again will come down to those starting P11-P15 running long on the harder compounds, who have mostly had the advantage at the first 3 races. Good news for Giovinazzi, finally into Q3 for the first time after a hard start to his year as Haas fulfilled their predictions of not making Q3 as they continued to struggle with their tyre issues. Verstappen’s one stint in Q3 was down to a lack of tyres but he remained confident heading into the race with the performance of his car……
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