Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Baku City Circuit, 2017

Has Mercedes lost its one second Baku advantage? Five Azerbaijan talking points

2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

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Mercedes were untouchable in qualifying for the first two F1 races on the Baku City Circuit. Has that changed in 2018?

Here’s five talking points for this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

If Mercedes can’t win here…

Out of the last six races, only one has been won by Mercedes. Is this a statistical anomaly or a sign of tougher times for team which has dominated F1 since the current engine regulations arrived?

It’s likely a bit of both. Their rivals have clearly closed the gap, but equally Mercedes would have won in Australia but for an error in their race strategy calculations and they were clear contenders for victory in the other two rounds. And there’s good reason to suspect their win-less record for 2018 so far will be over by Sunday evening.

The Baku City Circuit, which is holding its third F1 race this weekend, looked like it had been designed for Mercedes when it first appeared on the calendar. Its huge straights gave them a clear performance advantage last year – recall how Lewis Hamilton edged Sebastian Vettel back into the chasing Mercedes customer teams at every restart last year before the clash between the pair.

In 2016 they were 1.2 seconds ahead in qualifying, last year it was 1.1s. But do Mercedes still have this kind of advantage? Hamilton has drawn attention to the potency of Ferrari’s power unit more than once since the season began. If the balance of power really has shifted, Baku will demonstrate it very clearly.

Verstappen under scrutiny

Max Verstappen, Sebastian Vettel, Shanghai, 2018
Verstappen needs to stay out of trouble
In China Max Verstappen discovered what happens if you try to pass Hamilton around the outside of a fast corner like turn seven. The misjudgement cost him a chance to win the race, and a subsequent clumsy move on Vettel compounded the error.

It’s been a rough start to the season for Verstappen. In Australia he spun which, as with his China mistake, meant he followed team mate Daniel Ricciardo home. In Bahrain his uncompromising attitude to racecraft cost him when he tangled with Hamilton.

Verstappen has drawn a sharp distinction between incidents where he accepted blame (note how readily he apologised to Vettel) and those where he feels he was in the right. If he finds himself in a similar situation this weekend – and Verstappen often tends to – he will be under considerable pressure to reign in his more aggressive tendencies and bank some points.

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Another crazy race?

The saying ‘cautions breed cautions’ was never more true last year than in Baku, where a series of Safety Car periods led to the race being red-flagged due to the amount of debris on parts of the track. Run-off is very limited at several parts of the circuit, and the first two visits to the track taught us to expect practice will be punctuated by drivers disappearing into escape roads then slowly reversing out of them.

But while last year’s race was wall-to-wall thrills, the first visit in 2016 was a forgettable affair. Just what we’re going to see on Sunday is anyone’s guess.

Mercedes customers await updates

Sergio Perez, Force India, Shanghai International Circuit, 2018
Damage limitation for Force India and Williams
It’s been a slow start to the season for Force India and Williams, both of which have major chassis upgrades planned for the race after Baku. As a result they’re unlikely to enjoy the kind of performance they had at this track last year, when both were podium contenders and Lance Stroll reached the rostrum for Williams.

How will they cope in the meantime? Williams’ excess drag is likely to make this a tough weekend for them. Force India’s problems are more a lack of load at the rear of the VJM11, which may prove more manageable at a circuit where outright straight-line speed is a greater determining factor.

Force India’s race in Baku last year was ruined when their drivers collided with each other. It ultimately made no difference to their championship position, but with points at a premium this year they cannot afford a repeat of the same this weekend.

Passing problems

While the two most recent races proved livelier contests than the season-opener in Melbourne, concerns remain over the difficulty of passing under the post-2017 aerodynamic regulations.

Aerodynamic tweaks to the cars for 2019 to aid passing have been proposed but have not been agreed yet. Azerbaijan is the final race before the April 30th deadline for finalising changes to next year’s technical rules.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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43 comments on “Has Mercedes lost its one second Baku advantage? Five Azerbaijan talking points”

  1. ”While the two most recent races proved livelier contests than the season-opener in Melbourne, concerns remain over the difficulty of passing under the post-2017 aerodynamic regulations.”
    – ‘Post-2016’ aero regs to be precise. Furthermore, I still don’t get how this GP got rated the worst of the 2016 season. I found a couple of races worse than it at least.

    1. @jerejj

      I still don’t get how this GP got rated the worst of the 2016 season. I found a couple of races worse than it at least.

      The sport is still British-centric. They’ll deny it, but it’s true. Only in the UK is this sport top 3 in the country, just like Moto GP in Spain. British people still have that imperialistic view about the non-EU GPs (and still think e.g Donington wouldn’t be another Monaco) so they just dislike it. Of course bla bla bla, in general people dislike new circuits at first, dislike new countries, those are not all British of course, they don’t like such a long circuit (yeah, Hungary, Monaco, that’s what will keep an audience), ”human rights” (nah Tony Blair is still walking around, you don’t really care about that)… and more bla bla bla.

      It’s because they don’t foreign venues outside Europe. There you have it. Good luck with finding a more honest opinion of the beneath the exact same reactions I see you posting on 3 other F1 websites.

      1. @xiasitlo Nice to know ill-informed prejudice is still alive and kicking… ‘British people’ have plenty of appreciation for ‘non-EU’ races. Suzuka, for example… or Interlagos, COTA, Marina Bay, Sepang, original Mexico City, and so on. But like F1 fans from all around the world, ‘British people’ tend to dislike boring races.

        @jerejj I think one possible reason could be that there was a lot of expactation, especially after the GP2 chaos, that we’d have an action-packed race… but then the race arrived and nothing really happened, and there was no fight for the lead. And the radio regulations stuff (especially for Hamilton) probably pushed it lower still.

        1. @neilosjames
          Even after last year people still say this track is the worst thing since Hockemheim was axed. So it has nothing to do with boring.

          So nice to know you are speaking for all British people.
          Apart from Suzuka (which I didn’t hear a lot of people complain when Fuji came along)
          So you use…
          Sepang = off the calender. Didn’t hear you complaining.
          Mexico City = but not the current lay-out? So no..
          Marina Bay…? = don’t folks dislike it because you can’t overtake?
          Interlagos, COTA = Interlagos, go look up the article underneath this post, COTA is in the U.S…. isn’t that the country made by British folk?

          Watch this.
          So yes, keep denying it.

          1. @xiasitlo, well, you clearly seem to think that you are capable of speaking about all “British people” and categorising them in a way that speaks volumes about your own prejudices.

      2. @xiasitlo As a (paying) site supporter, I have chosen to ignore the garbage you post. Until this one, that I inadvertently read……. containing sweeping prejudice, and offensive stereotyping, please picture my middle finger raised in your direction towards your childish intellect and narrow-mindedness. Ciao.

        1. @ju88sy thank you, I’d like to second this. what a bizarre post from @xiasitlo. it’s almost like a bot, but it’s not coherent enough.

    2. My guess is that people were hating on the track before the first race even took place, so anything less than a great race was going to get rated really low.

      1. @pastaman I think the GP2 race overshadowed the F1 race in 2016. Perhaps that led to lower scores from the people who watched both.

        1. I think the GP2 race scared the F1 drivers into being overly cautious, which they appeared to have forgotten about last year.

    3. I still don’t get how this GP got rated the worst of the 2016 season

      I remember it being a complete snoozefest from beginning to end.

      1. @kanundra

        The fact I can’t even remember a single piece of the first race tells me it was definitely a contender for worst race of that season.

        1. @captainpie @kanundra @tonyyeb @pastaman @neilosjames
          I found the Russian and the Italian GPs, for example, worse than the Azerbaijan GP that season, and the quality of racing in Hungary wasn’t really any better either, so that race is a contender for the ‘worst race of the season’ slot of that season as well. The Mexican GP, for the most part, was relatively straightforward as well that season, and even the Canadian GP was below its standards that season quality of racing-wise.

    4. @jerejj

      Furthermore, I still don’t get how this GP got rated the worst of the 2016 season.

      Because it seriously was the worst. An absolute chore to watch and even worse than Sochi that year.

      1. Baku is a shocking circuit. 2016 was an absolute bore and made Hungary, Monza, Russia and even Monaco look good… Last years race wasn’t really much better…

        1. Yet almost everyone loved it.

  2. I love this circuit. I truly do. If only they’d make 15 flat out… and run this with a 25/26 round calender in November as rain would be great here.
    But Mercedes will make so many people do a 180 this weekend. It’s so fun to see how people turn around like circus animals per race. While Bottas made so many mistakes getting to the back of Vettel. Lewis got screwed with the Ozzie VSC, and China, even Bottas was set to win, if I was Toto I would not be in a German IKEA searching for new tables.

    But chances are quite high one second tier team…. Haas (STR will have struggles with overtaking in the race.)…. will get a podium here. The track will be immensely cold and slippery… on certain parts of the circuit particularly. You’ll easily gain a few spots in quali with the amount of data missing with the new GP date, along with the fact it will probably mean, with even longer wheelbases, FP can easily be red-flagged and with the expected gusts on Sunday, many of the drivers in the midfield will get caught out at least once. Haas has the most knowledge with Ferrari about their car at this point. Race will be crazy. If only STR would just bring a ICE update and said ”screw limits”.

    1. While if there’s a chance for a podium for a tier B team, this is certainly the biggest chance, you literally need something to happen to FOUR out of six of the tier A cars, that’s not happening imo, you need a crash that puts out 3 cars like singapore last year plus one suffering a mechanical problem for example.

  3. “Max Verstappen discovered what happens if you try to pass Hamilton around the outside of a fast corner like turn seven.”

    Yeah, when he was overtaking nice drivers it was fun. But now he got some of his own medicine.

  4. The news that Ferrari might be blowing the exhaust in corners can be pretty devastating in the development race. If FIA find some illegality in the coming two days, then Baku (and the year) is a forgone conclusion.

    1. Per Autosport, FIA has issued a fresh clampdown on exhaust blowing.

      1. @kanundra And this can affect Ferrari right away. We’ll know by Friday. Ferrari was affected by a clampdown last year as well; what was it? It escapes me. In any case, I hope not!

        1. @makana Oil burning maybe?

    2. Renault admitted they are using exhaust gases to create down-force, but what they are doing is legal. Never heard anything about Ferrari doing the same. Regardless a profile picture of the exhaust pipe and a close up of the rear wing should be telling if they are doing something or not

      1. We’ll have to see if this “clampdown” is to do with Renault’s setup. I don’t believe this has anything to do with Ferrari, people are just looking for an excuse because they’ve made some good progress in the last 2 years.

  5. I think you’ll find that any exhaust blowing going on now would have quite an insignificant benefit. Minuscule compared to when RBR had mastered it before but with far different diffusers and wings and exhaust positioning. If Ferrari is doing something questionable and it gets taken away it will make little difference.

    1. @robbie I’m waiting for the first interviews of the weekend… The faces should tell a lot.

  6. I find a little weird that Baku was the highest rated race of 2017. I understand it was an “exciting race” for the general public, but was it really an awesome race for the F1fanatic? For the real race fan?

    The race featured a lot of wrecks, safety cars resetting the field, unexpected car failures, “a driver using his car as a weapon”, a race winner coming from last, a last second overtake for second place, post race drama, etc. Sounds like just another weekend at some oval track hosting a NASCAR race.

    If we could have races like FE a couple of weeks ago, where the overtake for the lead never happened but it was worth watching them fight every lap, if we could have that in F1, that would be nice.

    Here hoping for a real fight between the top 3 teams for the win, and 6 teams fighting for the other 4 spots in top 10, even if it starts in a tense qualifying and has few positions changes in the race. I will always take this over NASCAR like races like 2017 Baku.

    1. You managed to make the Baku race sound even better than I remember. What a race!

    2. @dusty

      I’m with you. It was wacky. It was entertaining. But I wouldn’t call it a great race, and wouldn’t rate it as the best of the season.

    3. It was a chaos race, I really like those, and they’re also fairly rare!

  7. I forgot to post earlier: Since Garry Connelly will be one of the Stewards for this race, I’d be willing to bet that Max will get a penalty this weekend, LOL.

    1. @jerejj What’s the story behind this?

      1. That verstappen was rarely penalized in general, but garry connelly penalized him like every chance he got! There’s rumors he may be doing on purpose cause he hates verstappen.

        1. @esploratore @m-bagattini Of course, it’s nothing but a mere coincidence that Max has done something worthy of a penalty everytime Connelly has been on the panel, but a funny thought/theory nevertheless.

          1. Yes, and based on some analysis I saw on another site, it looks like that steward might be more strict than others in general, and due to verstappen’s racing style, he’s more likely to be involved in those situations.

  8. This time Ferrari will have 0.4 sec of qualifying advantage over Mercedes. It’s well-known fact of Ferrari engine are the most powerful since pre-season.

  9. Vettel fan 17 (@)
    25th April 2018, 17:30

    I think Mercedes will be back on top in qualifying, though not anywhere close to the gap they had the last two years. The two Ferrari’s could split them, though the Red Bull’s might struggle on the straights. As for the race, depends whether it’s a 2016 or a 2017 style Grand Prix.

  10. RB will drop Max for a race and give the seat to Kvyat. Max comes back on the next one and wins, we all know what happens when Kvyat loses his seat

    1. I think RB will demote Max to STR, push Hartley into reserve, and hire Sebstien Loeb to take over Max’s seat.

    2. @johnmilk

      I think Versappen will have an amazing race or two. He will have a few decent results peppered with memorable passes. People will talk about how fast he is and how he destined to be WDC.

      He will also have some weekends that “he just couldn’t get the car to work” and a few crashes that are forgotten by his fans.

      He’ll likely be outscored again by Riccardo, perplexing many fans.

    3. Note how now that kvyat can’t be demoted any more, or at best ferrari can do that, not red bull affiliated teams, everything is going wrong for verstappen.

      Instead, look at mexico 2017, daring pass on vettel at start, they touched, verstappen got no puncture, vettel touched hamilton, had to replace front wing and hamilton punctured.

      Later in the race every single renault engined car had issues except verstappen’s, this was a race where kvyat got fired!

  11. In the article it states: “As a result they’re unlikely to enjoy the kind of performance they had at this track last year, when both were podium contenders and Lance Stroll reached the rostrum for Williams.” at some point: if you consider how many drivers who are normally ahead had issues, they weren’t podium contenders, but at least legit podium contenders, unlike this year.

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