That opened the door for Mercedes to continue their near-faultless start to the 2019 F1 season and score their fourth consecutive one-two finish.
“With the tow he would have been on pole”
The last two races in Baku had been lively affairs, punctuated with shunts and Safety Car periods. But the 2019 edition of the race was more absorbing than electrifying. Staying out of trouble on race day turned out to be a given, and the events of qualifying were of much greater consequence to the final result.
Leclerc’s weekend had a touch of Max Verstappen’s first three visits to Monaco about it. Here was a inexperienced driver flying around a street circuit with just a touch too little caution. He headed all three practice sessions, but also flirted with the barriers.
He was quickest again in Q1, save for Pierre Gasly’s Red Bull, which turned out to be running at an illegally high fuel flow level. Pole position beckoned.
Ferrari opted to send its drivers out on the medium compound tyres in Q2, in order to have them start the race on the harder compound. In the race, this proved to be a vastly superior tyre, but on a cooling track the drivers had to hustle their SF90s to keep the temperatures up.
Sebastian Vettel almost came a cropper at turn eight, slithering sideways through the narrowest corner on the F1 calendar. Leclerc asked a little bit more and paid the price. His SF90 smacked the TecPro wall, which had just been rebuilt following Robert Kubica’s demolition job in Q1.
This meant another lengthy repair job, by which time the track had cooled even more, and Ferrari no longer felt comfortable running the harder tyres. The sole remaining Ferrari of Vettel went through to Q3 on softs. There, unable to rely on his team mate for a tow, and brilliantly out-foxed by Mercedes into running on his own, he had to settle for third place.
“I think with the tow he would have been on pole,” said Hamilton. “And if Leclerc was there then they would have been one-two. So it would have been a different picture.”
That picture could have been two Ferraris starting on the front row on medium tyres. Just how much of a performance advantage that would have given them became clear on lap eight.
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Ferrari strategy costs Leclerc time
For the second race in a row Valtteri Bottas started from pole position and for the second race in a row he didn’t make the best of starts. But the run to turn one at Baku is shorter than in Shanghai, and Bottas was able to stave off Hamilton’s attack after three thrillingly close corners.
“I could have done a better job at the start,” he admitted. “I was a little bit on the cautious side. I didn’t want to get the wheel spin started, so I was rather smooth on getting on power, not to kind of mess it up.
“Lewis had a good start, so that’s why he was on the inside and we were pretty much side by side actually through turn one, so I was just carrying the speed on the outside, and same thing in turn two, leaving enough space. It was nice and fair.”
Too fair, thought Hamilton, who said he would “definitely” have fought harder against a driver from another team.
“Ultimately you always have to remember when you’re in a team as big as this that you are only one, and there are so many people that depend on us. Selfishly, I could have for sure pushed a lot harder and Valtteri would have lost position. Maybe I would have gained position, most likely he would have got overtaken by a Ferrari or something like that, so we have to work together.
“Whilst I wanted to overtake him, I had to be cautious at the same time, to give him space so that we would block the front row and stay there. Ultimately I lost out in that, but that’s a sacrifice you have to sometimes make in order for the team to win. I think if it was a Ferrari there it would have been a lot different.”
Bottas scampered away from Hamilton in the twisty middle sector, but none of the drivers on soft tyres were finding much grip. After the race Vettel told his team he had been “shitting myself a little bit” over the first stint, so poor was his car’s traction.
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Despite his crash, Leclerc’s initial time in Q2 proved quick enough to get him into Q3. This required him to start on his tyres from Q2, but as these had been damaged in his crash, he was given a new set of mediums. They proved just the ticket.
Starting cautiously on the harder tyres, Leclerc lost a couple of places from the line, but was soon effortlessly wafting past the midfielders with his DRS flap open. He passed Max Verstappen’s Red Bull just as easily for fourth, and by lap seven was quicker than anyone else on the track.
The next time around the soft-tyred drivers really began to struggle. Leclerc was nearly a full second quicker than anyone, and he sustained his pace as the leaders grew larger ahead of him. By lap 10 Vettel was in sight, and race leader Bottas was only 13 seconds up the road.
One the Mercedes and Vettel had pitted for mediums they began reeling Leclerc in. He would inevitably have to pit for a set of soft tyres, and once the Mercedes picked their way by there seemed little point in Ferrari leaving him out any longer. Bafflingly, they waited until a lap after Vettel had passed him to call Leclerc in, which cost him so much time he emerged behind Gasly’s yet-to-stop Red Bull.
That, plus the poor performance of the soft tyres, ruled Leclerc out of the fight for victory. During his second stint he never lapped quicker on his new soft tyres than the leaders on their worn mediums. It was only when he pitted for a third set of tyres and switched to ‘qualifying mode’ that he was able to pump in a 1’43.0 to bag the point for fastest lap.
The medium tyres had clearly been the rubber to start on. Had Ferrari been on them from the start, even from the second row of the grid, this might very well have been their long-awaited first win of 2019.
Hamilton’s three missed chances to win
Hamilton’s chance to win the race also slipped away from him during qualifying. It was his turn to have first choice on whether he or Bottas would run first in the queue during Q3, and he chose to run behind his team mate to benefit from his slipstream.
But after performing their ‘dummy’ practice starts to ensure Vettel ran in front of them, the Mercedes drivers ended up cutting it fine to begin their final flying laps, and Hamilton’s first sector was compromised. He almost made it back over the final two sectors, but Bottas beat him to pole by less than a tenth of a second.
That was his first missed chance to win. His second came at the start, and there was potentially a third when Gasly’s retirement triggered a Virtual Safety Car period on lap 40. Hamilton didn’t react to the VSC period ending as quickly as Bottas did, and the gap between them rose from 1.6 seconds to 3.5. Hamilton admitted afterwards he could have done a better job.
He spent the next few laps hauling Bottas in again. With three laps to go he was within DRS range, but as the final lap ended Hamilton ran wide at turn 16, letting his team mate off the hook. Bottas, who had lost a likely win with a handful of laps remaining 12 months earlier, was home free.
Perez stars in Baku again
The VSC period ended Verstappen’s efforts to get on terms with Vettel for third place. He had been closing on the Ferrari, but couldn’t get his tyres back up to speed after the temperatures dropped.
He was also told to stay off all kerbs over the final two laps as the team suspected a driveshaft problem caused Gasly’s retirement. Nonetheless he collected fourth place for the third race running.
Sergio Perez cemented his reputation as a Baku specialist by finishing ‘best of the rest’ as he had done in qualifying. He faced race-long pressure from the McLarens, but this eased after the VSC period when McLaren tried to put strategic pressure on Racing Point by pitting Lando Norris.
It backfired badly. Norris had a sluggish pit stop, tardy VSC restart as he couldn’t see his delta time and clouted the wall as he struggled to extract pace from the unfancied soft tyres. All the strategy achieved was costing him a place to his team mate.
Lance Stroll took two points for ninth having gone out in Q1 again, meaning Racing Point matched McLaren’s haul of 10 points in Baku. The two teams therefore vaulted from seventh and eighth in the championship to fourth and fifth, McLaren ahead by one point.
The final point went to Kimi Raikkonen who started from the pits after his car failed a post-qualifying technical inspection, chucked his soft tyres after half-a-dozen laps and drove a huge stint on mediums to take tenth.
Alexander Albon narrowly missed out on a third consecutive points finish in 11th. He didn’t help his cause by clipping the turn one barrier at the start, and felt he stayed out too long on his soft tyres on lap one.
His team mate Daniil Kvyat reached Q3 and therefore had to start on old rubber, and had even greater tyre trouble in the first stint. He was passed by several cars and later fell victim to an over-optimistic lunge by Daniel Ricciardo. Bizarrely, Ricciardo then reversed into Kvyat’s car as they tried to rejoin the track, leaving both with race-ending damage.
Renault never got on top of their car in Baku and nor did Haas, both drivers struggling with the team’s now customary poor race pace. Romain Grosjean retired with brake trouble, and remains yet to score a point this season.
Williams capped another miserable weekend by picking up a thoroughly needless penalty for Robert Kubica by sending him to the pit lane exit too soon, having seemingly forgotten that since the beginning of last year races have started at 10 minutes part the hour.
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Advantage Bottas by a point
“So I guess the championships standings is now looking like it should again?” said Bottas as he drove back to the pits, now leading the title race by a single point.
It’s doubtful his team mate would agree. But if Mercedes are going to keep crushing their opponents as effectively as this, at least there’s some competition between their drivers.
After the first four ‘fly-away’ races he holds the advantage in the championship by a single point. But when the season resumes in Europe in two weeks’ time, will anyone be able to challenge Mercedes?
2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix
- Leclerc impressed by Binotto’s handling of Baku crash
- Hamilton: Leclerc was two-tenths quicker than Vettel and would have dominated in Baku
- Haas overheated Grosjean’s brakes trying to warm his tyres
- Top ten pictures from the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix
- Ferrari are “struggling more with tyres than in previous years”, admits Vettel
2019 F1 race reviews
- Untouchable Hamilton ends season with 11th victory
- Verstappen’s ruined masterpiece becomes Hamilton’s latest triumph
- Verstappen’s win, Hamilton’s title in tyre-dominated Mexican GP
- Error-free Raikkonen shows Vettel how it’s done
- Hamilton on cusp of fifth title as Vettel throws in the towel