Formula 1’s row over ‘flexi-wings’ is likely to come to a head at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Here are this weekend’s top talking points.
Flexi-wing protest coming?
At Baku, where F1 did not race last year, the potential performance benefit from such wings is much greater. The enormous acceleration zone leading to the pits is just one of several points on the track where the cars approach the highest speeds seen all year. Teams running wings which flex will have the advantage of being able to increase the wing angle to improve cornering performance in the knowledge they won’t be compromised by suffering more drag on the straights.
Lewis Hamilton said the wings could be worth six tenths of a second around a six-kilometre lap of Baku, where the pole position time two years ago was a whisker over 100 seconds. New tests aimed at preventing their use will come into force after this race weekend, but the delay is a major bone of contention for the teams not using such wings, chiefly Mercedes and McLaren.
Red Bull, Ferrari and Alpine are among those who have indicated they will have to change their wings when the new test comes into force. Could they face a protest from a rival? That will firstly depend on where they finish. Mercedes is unlikely to protest Red Bull if the W12s finish ahead on Sunday, ditto for McLaren if they take points off Ferrari.
The potential for a protest could deter the likes of Red Bull from using their flexi-wings. Depending how accurate Hamilton’s ‘six tenths’ figure is, they may deem the benefit they gain from running their wings does not justify the risk of being protested, which could lead to them losing all the points they gain this weekend. The vocal complaints from the ‘have-nots’ is no doubt intended to add pressure on their rivals to play it safe and leave their “bendy” wings in the garage.
The more outlandish possibility remains that Mercedes or another team in the same position has decided ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, and produced a ‘softer’ wing as a one-off for this race. In which case, of course, don’t expect to see a protest from them. But in a season where teams are constrained by a financial cap for the first time, this is clearly the less likely outcome.
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Can Verstappen extend his advantage?
Max Verstappen may have taken only two wins to Hamilton’s three so far this year, but his more consistent points-scoring has put him ahead in the standings. Baku presents a good opportunity for him to put a little more daylight between himself and the reigning champion.
While Mercedes should find Baku is more favourable to their car than Monaco, they have not been as competitive of the softer rubber so far this season, and Pirelli has brought its softest tyre mix again this weekend. How well Red Bull’s Honda power unit matches up against the Mercedes on the straights – plus, of course, the role played by those ‘flexi-wings’ – will be decisive.
Baku is the biggest test of outright power unit performance so far this year. It also comes slightly later in the season than usual – most drivers will be on their sixth race with the same unit – so we could see some making early switches to fresh hardware to ensure optimal performance at this power-sensitive track.
Previously manufacturers used this race to introduce upgrades, as Honda did in 2019. However teams are unable to do so this year due to rules changes – the next opportunity to revise their hardware comes at the start of next year, when engine specifications will be frozen.
Following their switch to the class-leading Mercedes power units this year, McLaren will be one to watch. After Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix, Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jnr talked up the performance of Lando Norris’ McLaren on the straights, calling it a “rocket”.
Queues in Q3
Baku’s long straights means running in the slipstream of another car is essential to set the most competitive lap time possible in qualifying. But of course not all drivers can necessarily do this at the same time, especially when there are just 10 cars on track in Q3, and anyone unable to follow another rival around the lap will be at a disadvantage.
In F1’s last visit to Baku, Mercedes played a strategic masterstroke in qualifying which put their main rival Sebastian Vettel at a disadvantage by duping him into running without the slipstream of another rival. Watch out for any similar shenanigans on Saturday.
Leclerc’s qualifying slips
Part of the reason Vettel was left running on his own in qualifying two years ago was because his team mate Charles Leclerc had crashed out in the second round. Leclerc also crashed during qualifying at the previous race in Monaco – though that secured him pole position, rather than costing him it.
Like Monaco, Baku’s limited run-off means yellow and red flags are triggered easily, so qualifying could be disrupted again by a driver making a mistake. Don’t be surprised if the debate over merits of IndyCar’s qualifying rules resurfaces again on Saturday evening.
As for Leclerc, with Ferrari locked in a close fight with McLaren for third place in the constructors championship, he may need to rein it in to avoid another costly qualifying crash at a street circuit.
Perez’s time to shine?
When the season began, Sergio Perez said it would take him around five races to get up to speed in the Red Bull. This is round six. Moreover, he has delivered some excellent results at Baku in the past, including podium finishes for Force India in 2016 and 2018.
Although Perez is looking forward to a return to more typical grand prix circuits to master the RB16B – especially the recently-announced double-header at the Red Bull Ring – Baku should be a stronger venue for him. However he may discover his Saturday job is ensuring Verstappen gets a tow in Q3.
Another drain drama?
Baku’s temporary track is one of Formula 1’s newer venues. Its last race weekend got off to a less than ideal start when George Russell clouted a loose drain cover, causing huge damage to his Williams. It wasn’t the first such problem at the track – in 2016 Valtteri Bottas (in another Williams) also picked up damage due to a broken drain during practice.
Having had a year off last season due to the pandemic, hopefully the organisers have been able to eradicate any such operational problems this year.
Last fan-free grand prix?
Will the Azerbaijan Grand Prix be the final time a Formula 1 race held behind closed doors due to the pandemic? After this weekend the championship returns to Europe, where race organisers expect to be able to allow at least limited numbers of spectators into their races.
After this weekend, hopefully the days of races without fans can be put behind us.
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Over to you
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2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix
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