Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, Baku City Circuit, 2019

Bottas retakes championship lead after Leclerc’s costly crash

2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix review

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On lap seven of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix it became clear just how seriously Charles Leclerc damaged Ferrari’s chances of winning with his crash in qualifying.

The race hung on the wildly differing performances of Pirelli’s soft and medium tyre compounds. When Leclerc hit the turn eight barrier during Q2 he didn’t just end his own chances of taking pole position, he compromised their strategy for the race as well.

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.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Baku City Circuit, 2019
Leclerc started eighth but pole had been possible
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

Start, Baku City Circuit, 2019
Bottas and Hamilton kept it civilised at the start
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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Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, Baku City Circuit, 2019
Vettel was “shitting himself” on soft tyres at the start
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

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Baku City Circuit, 2019
Hamilton gave chase but had to settle for second
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

Sergio Perez, Racing Point, Baku City Circuit, 2019
No podium for Perez, but he was first home in ‘Class B’
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.

Daniel Ricciardo, Daniil Kvyat, Baku City Circuit, 2019
Ricciardo forgot to ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’
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?

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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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33 comments on “Bottas retakes championship lead after Leclerc’s costly crash”


    A great summary of what the Williams team did in Baku … and how different Robert and George are treated.

  2. Seeing the performance of the Ferrari’s in the race y’day, I’m not quite convinced that Ferrari would have been able to convert a pole to a victory.

    Williams […] seemingly forgotten that since the beginning of last year races have started at 10 minutes part the hour.

    (insert expletives) Is this why they got the penalty? I thought it was something a little more esoteric that there was some fine point of a regulation that they messed up on, not something as blatantly obvious as “whoops, the clocks changed”.

    Virtuous cycles and vicious cycles at the opposite ends of the grid.

    1. The narrative is already wide-spread, it is too much to be contained now. Ferrari will be favourite even if Mercedes win all races.

      Also, for the first time this season I don’t see what Ferrari could have done better strategy wise. The soft tyres were a complete joke, pitting at the time that the article suggest would be putting Leclerc on a two stops strategy

      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.

      What is so baffling about emerging behind a yet-to-stop Red Bull? And if it it, didn’t Red Bull cost time to Gasly by waiting even more so than Ferrari to pit their driver?

      1. sorry, I meant a complete yoke, a yoke

        1. Yuck …. Yuck ….

      2. I was surprised that no one even tried how those hard compound tyres during fp2.

        1. Me too. Especially considering how the softs were working. Maybe they were all expecting carnage?

          Even so, Ferrari had less softs than everyone else, don’t know why they didn’t try different things. But they are Ferrari, so probably it wouldn’t have worked

  3. Mercedes now need to get rid of the obviously burnt out Hamilton and let the Stroll circus join them.
    The cash thus gained from Papa Stroll can be used to increase Valtteri’s pay packet helping to cement his continued determination to win.
    and let’s face it, as so many fans will tell you “Anyone can win in a Mercedes” these days so Lance will be right up there as well!

    Ferrari could only counter this by employing a strategist instead of the chicken bone casting Voodoo Priest that they appear to be consulting at the moment and giving Lewis the seat that he has often said he would quite like so that he can support Master Seb as he pirouettes his way to glory.

    For the rest of the field – well.
    Start feeding Max raw red meat and just let him loose.
    Tell Ricciardo to take off the daft looking hat and get driving.
    Stare at Gasly with a look of vague disappointment.
    Ask McLaren if they fancy a new deal with Honda.
    and someone get Kimi another drink …. now!

    1. Most excellent use of the phrase “chicken bone casting Voodoo Priest” @nullapax – and the rest is COTD material too.

  4. I’m not convinced that Leclerc could have won, even if starting from pole.
    His Sunday wasn’t that spectacular. The best evidence of that is that he did have a slower stint that Gasly on the same strategy between lap 10 (when Gasly passed most of the midfield) until Leclerc’s stop.

    1. I tend to agree.
      I wanted him (or Max) to win, but I think we may be in a season of Merc dominance.
      However, I do think that with a better qualy he could have been on the podium in front of Seb.

  5. I think Ferrari has no intentions of beating Mercedes and their powerful engine this year. Putting a rookie in the second car to keep the lead driver happy is not the way to go racing. Give Perez that Ferrari and the gap in Baku would have looked like the gaps Ayrton had with the MP4/4.

  6. Mercedes pace is astonishing. The fact that Bottas is fighting this year makes everything more interesting, another dominance of Hamilton would have been disastrous for F1. Someone here is saying he’s burnt out, I don’t agree at all @nullapax. The only one I’m seeing really bad is Vettel, he doesn’t bite at all.

    I was ready for a proper fight with Ferrari this year but as always our year is the next one… or the one when we’ll have a decent strategist and not someone who’s using a magic 8 ball to make decisions. So better concentrate on the overall show: again, seeing such perfection in Mercedes is fascinating. I’m really enjoying how much Verstappen is matured in the last year: it’s only now that I see him as a good title contender. These are the years where you can’t win only with b**ls, you need a solid head.

    I’m loving the rookies this year: here was Lando’s turn, he already delivered a lot in quali before and now a really good race. Happy for Carlos too. Too bad Russel is in such a bad car, but he’s showing great maturity. Hope he’ll get a proper F1 in 2020.

    Barcellona will be interesting, hope the race will not be as dull as last year’s tho: Force India will bring the 2019 car, Ferrari will be under extreme pressure because of their preseason. The midfield once again will reshuffle, the battle for 6th to 10th is really tight (sorry Gasly).

    1. Mercedes-Benz seem to be the only team able to extract performance from the soft tires. That’s were most of there advantage comes from, with mediums both Ferrari and red bull seem to be a match for them, but they struggle massively with tire temperature with the soft tires,as most of the midfield teams. It’s quite strange that almost every race this year, the medium seems to be a much faster tire then the soft.

  7. Josh (@canadianjosh)
    29th April 2019, 15:24

    Can anyone confirm the upgrades Renault are bringing to Spain? A backup camera and backup beeper is what I’ve heard but can’t confirm.

  8. I initially thought Kvyat had a problem when he suddenly started to lose positions quickly dropping from the latter half of top-10 all the way to last place within a few laps until I found out it was about the tyres, but strange nevertheless, that without any apparent reason he suddenly started to get overtaken from left and right.

    1. After the t bone of Ricci?
      He lost 60% downforce at that incident.

      1. Ivan B (@njoydesign)
        1st May 2019, 9:44

        no, he is talking about the first part of the race. I saw it too. He visibly lost pace, and after he pitted early for mediums, the pace was good enough to get him up into the top 10, but then the tires dropped off again and that allowed Ricciardo to catch up and do his banzai move…

  9. I can’t help thinking that if Rosberg were in the other Mercedes, Toto would have been pounding his console after the first corner. Whoever was on the inside would have taken his “line” on the exit.

    Similarly, how many times was Hamilton told that “opportunities will come at the end” but attacked Rosberg anyway? It was an injustice requiring immediate remedy.

    1. BlackJackFan
      30th April 2019, 6:44

      I don’t understand this comment…

  10. The Mercedes statements (Toto, Lewis, etc) about Ferrrari’s dominance, superiority, and Mercedes’ luck are becoming sickening and insulting by the day. Right now, the mercedes cars are 0.3 to 0.5 seconds faster per lap. Anything else, is a lie!

  11. Woulda Shoulda Coulda
    With the best recipe showing since Free Practice – Ferrari as fastest car, Leclerc as fastest Baku driver. Vettel coulda lend the tow to Leclerc during Q3, Leclerc shoulda got the pole, Leclerc woulda winning his first race… Just saying ~~~

    1. BlackJackFan
      30th April 2019, 6:43

      Feel better now..? ;-)

  12. Selfishly, I could have for sure pushed a lot harder and Valtteri would have lost position.

    There’s the Hamilton I know and remember. Definitely could have for sure been better than him.

    So I guess the championships standings is now looking like it should again?

    Yes Valtteri, yes it is. It’s time to shave your goatee and turn your beard into chops.

  13. Don’t underestimate Bottas performance as well during the race. The Ferrari shenanigans hurt him much more than Hamilton, by messing up his stint and by allowing Hamilton to conserve his tires. And not to mention that Baku is one of the easiest tracks to overtake at some points with DRS, which Hamilton had at the final laps

  14. I don’t think the Mercedes car is that effective but the team certainly is. They’ve been so far ahead of the competition in strategy, sandbagging, press talk, even those tricks like fooling Vettel in qualy. That’s how you win championships, not just building the fastest car.

    I hope Bottas keeps the momentum but I’m worried that his typically bad second half of the season is going to hit him hard. With Ferrari being such a horrible mess (and I like that) at least I hope to see some kind of fight for the WDC… But Hamilton still has the upper hand, Bottas not shown his teeth enough like Nico did, so far…

  15. Stephen Higgins
    29th April 2019, 19:42

    As long as Ferrari spend time and energy trying to manipulate the results in Vettel’s favour they’ll never win the championship.

    Let Leclerc and Vettel race for now and see what happens later in the year.

    1. Josh (@canadianjosh)
      29th April 2019, 21:25

      Agreed 100%

    2. OmarRoncal - Go Seb!!! (@)
      29th April 2019, 22:29

      Yep, destroying one of their cars in Q2 is Ferrari’s fault too? So every time Lecrerc ends behind Vettel antifans will cry conspiracy?
      Lecrerc was faster in Australia and Bahrain; I would say both Seb and Charles were matched in China. And here Ferrari had to try to extend Charles tyre life, a problem originated by the Q2 crash.

      1. BlackJackFan
        30th April 2019, 6:50

        OmyRonson – Mo Zeb!!!… I think you’ll find it’s: “Leclerc”… ;-)

  16. Go back to testing. Merc shows up to the second test with a heavily revised car and it was believed that they have finally got it wrong and are on the back foot. They claim they are behind Ferrari and put on such a show that even Docmarko said that RedBull are on par with Merc and just a little behind Ferrari . . LOL

    German Engineering guys!!! Gotta love it!!!

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