We were really looking forward to Baku. It’s been arguably the race of the season for the past two years, but this time didn’t quite deliver the blockbuster we were hoping for.
All the right ingredients were there. Qualifying turned into a 2-hour endurance session as first Robert Kubica and then Charles Leclerc crashed in the same spot. Red flags were waving galore. The track temperature was falling and dusk approaching. At one point it looked uncertain if the session would be completed. They got there in the end though and it was the newly reformed Valtteri Bottas who pipped team mate Lewis Hamilton to pole. What would have happened if Leclerc had made it to Q3? Who knows, but he would have been close.
The race itself started with a tussle between Hamilton & Bottas. It was heart in mouth stuff for Mercedes, with millimetres between the two cars, but the Finn held his ground and deservedly kept the lead. Everyone thought Sebastian Vettel would close ground quickly on the Silver Arrows. Wrong! We’re not sure if it took longer for the Ferrari’s tyres to warm up, but it was the two Mercedes who pulled away.
Meanwhile Leclerc started his own charge, and on a new set of tyres he quickly jumped from 8th to 4th place and was behind his team mate. Surely not more team orders? Thankfully not as Ferrari quickly pitted Vettel. Both Mercedes also came in, leaving Leclerc in the lead but needing to go very long on his medium tyres.
It was always going to be a tall order for the young driver to stay in front and by lap 31 Bottas was on Leclerc’s tail, passing him a lap later. Surely time to pit? Nope, Ferrari kept their man out saying they were concerned about the soft tyres making it to the end of the race. As it turned out they waited just 2 laps before bringing Leclerc in, but this delay cost him around 8 seconds to race leader Bottas (including having to let team mate Sebastian Vettel by).
Lap 32 saw a bizarre incident where Daniel Ricciardo tried to overtake Daniil Kvyat. The Renault man locked up and went down an escape road. What Ricciardo didn’t realise was Kvyat also had problems breaking and had come to a stop right behind him. Ricciardo promptly reversed into the Toro Rosso, effectively ending both their races. In the stewards room afterwards he was handed a three-place grid penalty for Spain, plus two points on his licence. Ricciardo said afterwards: “Kind of crappy on my part, I certainly feel bad for the team and for Daniil. It’s not cool.”
Back at the business end and Leclerc found himself re-joining down in 5th place after his pit stop. Without the added performance expected from the soft tyres he struggled to gain any ground on Max Verstappen in 4th. By this stage of the race Mercedes were in complete control and Lewis Hamilton began a final charge to close down his team mate. He didn’t have enough left in the tank though, and a slight error during a VSC ensured Bottas’ victory.
Toto Wolff summed things up pretty well afterwards, saying: “I’m really happy, this was another fantastic performance from the entire team. We didn’t make any major mistakes today and that’s what has won us this race; our car was quick, the strategy calls were right, the pit stops were executed flawlessly, and the drivers didn’t put a foot wrong.”
Sebastian Vettel was slightly more cryptic in his assessment of Ferrari’s performance: “We have a good car, but we’re not using it in the way to get the results we should be getting. It’s like a Rubik’s cube where you have to have everything in the right order. We have a lot of clever people in the team who could solve that puzzle in less than two minutes, but in this case the cube is a bit bigger.”
We read that to mean the Scuderia are struggling for answers, but Toto is correct in that it was superior tactics, as much as anything which won the day for Mercedes. Will Ferrari finally get things right in Spain? We’re only 4 races in but they need to start performing sooner rather than later.
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