Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Baku City Circuit, 2021

Hamilton and Red Bull’s race pace looks ominous for Leclerc

2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix pre-race analysis

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Charles Leclerc and Ferrari achieved an unexpected sequel to their Monaco Grand Prix pole position after a red-flag disrupted qualifying session in Azerbaijan.

But their chasing rivals – notably Red Bull and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes – have the long-run pace advantage.

Unlike in Monaco, Leclerc has a much better chance of actually starting the race at the front of the field, not having crashed his car on Saturday, a feat which distinguished him from several of his peers. However, he noted after qualifying that it was going to be hard to stay at the front, with overtaking extremely possible in Baku.

Red Bull perhaps should have been the pole sitters, having shown serious pace over Friday’s practice sessions. But from the moment Max Verstappen smacked the turn 15 barrier on Saturday morning, the day seemed to get away from them.

Mercedes will be looking at the starting grid with some relief, Hamilton having contrived to stick his W12 on the front row. The team’s line has been that their pace over a stint is considerably better than a single lap.

But while they and Red Bull may be faster than Ferrari on high fuel, McLaren and AlphaTauri also look likely to have a say in how this one unfolds.

Missed opportunities in shortened Q3

Lando Norris, McLaren, Baku City Circuit, 2021
Ninth-placed Norris ha a quick car under him
After qualifying, Pierre Gasly noted that there was “nothing to Max” in their final times. The AlphaTauri driver might have been surprised to top third practice and to find himself battling for pole position in Q3, but he was quick to catch on that his team had shrunk the deficit to sister squad Red Bull.

McLaren’s Lando Norris noticed it, too. “Some of the cars ahead of us were just definitely quicker, considering Pierre did a 42.1 in FP3 already, they seem definitely quicker than us.”

Speaking before the penalty which dropped him from sixth to ninth, Norris expected McLaren would fare better against Hamilton’s Mercedes than the Ferraris.

“The Ferrari is on pole,” he said, “they’re quicker than us.”

“Hamilton definitely seems maybe a bit more within our reach,” Norris added, “but the Red Bulls are quicker, they have been all weekend. I think we’re third or fourth quickest but there was more potential for us today.”

The Mercedes-powered McLaren compared well against the factory team’s times earlier in the weekend. Both McLarens were ahead of Valtteri Bottas in final practice, the Mercedes driver having such a disappointing weekend that trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin said the team would need to “pick through his car” to try and find the root cause of a total lack of grip.

Hamilton grabbed second place on the grid with some luck, along with well-timed lap with a good tow from Bottas, while using a different rear wing to his team mate. Although Norris did set a lap faster than either Mercedes during third practice, it’s likely he would have been able to beat his time if Q3 hadn’t been red-flagged during the final runs.

At the point the session was neutralised, after only one corner, Norris was already a tenth up on his sixth-placed time and was running on fresh tyres, rather than the used soft set he had set his original time on. Norris’ penalty for red flag procedure violation has undoubtedly given Mercedes a bit of breathing space, pushing him back to ninth.

All-weather tyres

Turn 15 has caught out many drivers already
Saturday’s qualifying session was run roughly over the same time period as the race – thanks to the forty minutes it took to get through Q1 – and showed quite how significant track evolution can be around Baku. Expect more of the same on Sunday, when the race is forecast to be dry.

The race starts at 16:00 local time, by which time the afternoon heat will have begun to subside and the buildings surrounding Baku City Circuit are already beginning to cast long shadows. The wind will also be a major factor; the two points on the track most vulnerable to drivers being caught by sudden gusts are turns three and 15, where breaks in the buildings mean sudden direction changes can catch them out.

The wind direction graph across qualifying looked like someone has shaking a seismograph, swinging virtually every possible compass orientation and never staying in one for very long, which when drivers are trying to manage fuel and tyres over a race distance could cause issues.

However Nicholas Latifi – driving the notably wind-sensitive Williams – said Saturday’s conditions were a considerable improvement on Friday’s running. “The wind has died down a bit today, but even yesterday, it was a bit of a non-issue really,” he said on Saturday. “I guess on the city tracks it kind of blocks out the wind and kind of have a bit of shelter from it.”

Safety first

The Safety Car has had a busy weekend already
As the Monaco Grand Prix showed Safety Car periods are not entirely inevitable at street circuits. And as we have seen in previous events at this track, just because practice and qualifying sessions see a series of red flags does not mean the race will similarly be disrupted.

Formula 2’s 21-lap second sprint race had three safety car periods over its first nine laps, each restart tending to prompt another neutralisation. As shadows lengthened, drivers were unable to keep their brakes or tyres warm.

“It was quite hard to keep the brakes [warm] because the Safety Car is not fast enough to warm up the carbon brakes,” explained David Beckmann, who finished second.

The position of the Safety Car line presents another complication at restarts. If the lead driver leaves the restart late then there is little chance for those behind to plan into the hard braking zone at turn one, which saw attrition at each F2 restart.

F1 drivers are known to pay attention to the tactics used by F2 drivers and will no doubt have spotted the differences in approach from Beckmann and winner Juri Vips. Beckmann, in the lead after the second Safety Car, waited late and found himself almost instant prey to Vips. When the latter led the third restart he wasted no time in getting the race restarted as soon as he could, catching his rivals unaware and speeding away quickly.

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Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Qualifying times in full

DriverCarQ1

Q2 (vs Q1)

Q3 (vs Q2)
1Charles LeclercFerrari1’42.2411’41.659 (-0.582)1’41.218 (-0.441)
2Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’41.5451’41.634 (+0.089)1’41.450 (-0.184)
3Max VerstappenRed Bull1’41.7601’41.625 (-0.135)1’41.563 (-0.062)
4Pierre GaslyAlphaTauri1’42.2881’41.932 (-0.356)1’41.565 (-0.367)
5Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’42.1211’41.740 (-0.381)1’41.576 (-0.164)
6Lando NorrisMcLaren1’42.1671’41.813 (-0.354)1’41.747 (-0.066)
7Sergio PerezRed Bull1’41.9681’41.630 (-0.338)1’41.917 (+0.287)
8Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri1’42.5211’41.654 (-0.867)1’42.211 (+0.557)
9Fernando AlonsoAlpine1’42.9341’42.195 (-0.739)1’42.327 (+0.132)
10Valtteri BottasMercedes1’42.7011’42.106 (-0.595)1’42.659 (+0.553)
11Sebastian VettelAston Martin1’42.4601’42.224 (-0.236)
12Esteban OconAlpine1’42.4261’42.273 (-0.153)
13Daniel RicciardoMcLaren1’42.3041’42.558 (+0.254)
14Kimi RaikkonenAlfa Romeo1’42.9231’42.587 (-0.336)
15George RussellWilliams1’42.7281’42.758 (+0.030)
16Nicholas LatifiWilliams1’43.128
17Mick SchumacherHaas1’44.158
18Nikita MazepinHaas1’44.238

Sector times

DriverSector 1Sector 2Sector 3
Charles Leclerc35.413 (2)40.555 (2)25.161 (3)
Lewis Hamilton35.508 (7)40.683 (6)25.018 (1)
Max Verstappen35.365 (1)40.525 (1)25.310 (11)
Pierre Gasly35.432 (3)40.598 (3)25.426 (15)
Carlos Sainz Jnr35.478 (5)40.672 (5)25.195 (4)
Lando Norris35.567 (9)40.641 (4)25.365 (13)
Sergio Perez35.534 (8)40.720 (7)25.281 (10)
Yuki Tsunoda35.627 (10)40.768 (8)25.259 (7)
Fernando Alonso35.676 (12)41.076 (9)25.395 (14)
Valtteri Bottas35.447 (4)41.082 (10)25.277 (9)
Sebastian Vettel35.480 (6)41.173 (12)25.118 (2)
Esteban Ocon35.830 (13)41.096 (11)25.327 (12)
Daniel Ricciardo35.646 (11)41.218 (13)25.440 (16)
Kimi Raikkonen35.919 (14)41.220 (14)25.249 (6)
George Russell36.028 (15)41.321 (15)25.274 (8)
Nicholas Latifi36.248 (17)41.570 (16)25.246 (5)
Mick Schumacher36.542 (18)41.961 (18)25.499 (17)
Nikita Mazepin36.117 (16)41.948 (17)25.520 (18)

Speed trap

PosDriverCarEngineSpeed (kph/mph)Gap
1Sebastian VettelAston MartinMercedes317.3 (197.2)
2Carlos Sainz JnrFerrariFerrari315.4 (196.0)-1.9
3Valtteri BottasMercedesMercedes314.6 (195.5)-2.7
4George RussellWilliamsMercedes314.1 (195.2)-3.2
5Charles LeclercFerrariFerrari314.1 (195.2)-3.2
6Lewis HamiltonMercedesMercedes313.9 (195.0)-3.4
7Max VerstappenRed BullHonda313.7 (194.9)-3.6
8Esteban OconAlpineRenault313.6 (194.9)-3.7
9Sergio PerezRed BullHonda313.5 (194.8)-3.8
10Kimi RaikkonenAlfa RomeoFerrari313.2 (194.6)-4.1
11Nicholas LatifiWilliamsMercedes312.8 (194.4)-4.5
12Fernando AlonsoAlpineRenault312.7 (194.3)-4.6
13Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauriHonda312.3 (194.1)-5.0
14Nikita MazepinHaasFerrari310.1 (192.7)-7.2
15Mick SchumacherHaasFerrari309.8 (192.5)-7.5
16Daniel RicciardoMcLarenMercedes309.8 (192.5)-7.5
17Pierre GaslyAlphaTauriHonda309.1 (192.1)-8.2
18Lando NorrisMcLarenMercedes308.8 (191.9)-8.5
19Antonio GiovinazziAlfa RomeoFerrari300.0 (186.4)-17.3
20Lance StrollAston MartinMercedes293.0 (182.1)-24.3

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Over to you

Can Leclerc turn a surprise pole position into a surprise win? Who will be the strongest rival to the Ferrari in Baku?

Share your views on the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in the comments.

2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Browse all 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix articles

Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a freelance journalist who roams the paddocks of Formula E, covering the technical and emotional elements of electric racing. Usually found at...

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14 comments on “Hamilton and Red Bull’s race pace looks ominous for Leclerc”

  1. Two stop or one stop? Pit lane time loss is not that high here compared to other tracks.

    1. @krichelle, I assume partly dependent on degradation and possible race neutralizations.

    2. @krichelle Pirelli said absolutely a one-stop but if there’s a red flag or a safety car it could be anyone’s guess, which was why I didn’t get too far into that.

      If it does turn out that there are stops to be played with, then tyre choice will be important. Mercedes and AlphaTauri both have two new sets of hard and one new set of medium tyres on each of their cars, while Red Bull only have one hard and one medium.

  2. Can Leclerc turn a surprise pole position into a surprise win? – Maybe if everything goes well for him and something happens to the two closest behind.

    1. Race pace wise Ferrari is not there yet, but I am glad that their single lap pace has picked up and they are more and more getting in the mix. After Schumacher, Vettel and Lewis racking them up as a result of regulations and dominant cars it is time we return to the F1 glory days with a technically more balanced field and drivers earning wins rather than getting it presented to them.

  3. Mercedes tyre activation is going to be key

  4. Which tyres do Merc have left? Is it only 2 sets of new hard and the rest are all used? I believe RB have quite a few fresh softs and mediums left which will be interesting for strategy and safety cars.

    1. AJ (@asleepatthewheel)
      6th June 2021, 10:40

      They had to go out thrice in Q1 because of red flags, and each time they put on new softs. So theoretically speaking, they have no ‘new’ softs left, but they have a pair which have done only an out lap and a partial push lap.

  5. Seeing the sector time table. In Max’s last qualifying lap setting two fastest sector times, only to be nullified by Yuki and Carlos in the last sector.

  6. Mercedes’ better tyre deg is surely going to see them through

    1. @balue ah, but with a SC or two, that won’t matter as much.

  7. I think I have asked this question numerous times in this pre race analysis articles. Hope I get an answer this time.

    Is the sector time data of the best lap done anytime during qualifying? Or simply the best sector of any lap (including out and in laps) done at any time during qualifying.

    1. It’s the driver’s best attempt at that sector, irrespective of which entire lap it was part of.

  8. So far this season Ferraris disadvantage was roughly 3-5 tenths in Qualifying an up to twice as much in the race.
    If this continues he’ll have no chance and will be swallowed up pretty quickly as passing should not be that hard.
    On the other hand they didn’t drop off the pace in Monaco and the type of corners is kind of similar.
    So let’s wait and see but I still fear we’ll see rather Leclerc going backwards than Sainz going forward

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