In a race uneventful by Azerbaijan Formula 1 Grand Prix standards Mercedes conjured a fourth 1-2 from as many races, Valtteri Bottas ahead of Lewis Hamilton this time and putting right the late puncture wrong of last year. They did it from a front row lock-out, what’s more.
Yet… they are squeezing these results over Ferrari only from a more sure-footed operation. Had any one of a number of things happened just slightly differently, Mercedes would have been the chaser here, not the dominator. The biggest of these differentiators was undoubtedly Charles Leclerc’s disastrous crash in qualifying just as he looked set to blitz the entire weekend. But even with Leclerc restricted to an eighth-place starting slot and inverted tyre strategy, Ferrari might have rescued its weekend through Sebastian Vettel. He wasn’t as quick as Leclerc here but with the cars in their low downforce packages for the first time this season, Ferrari was inherently faster. So long as the track didn’t become too cold. So long as he could get as good a tow in qualifying as the Mercedes. The track did become too cold – ironically partly thanks to Leclerc and the delay that brought as the sun went down over the ancient city – and Vettel did not get a tow, partly thanks to a tactical masterstroke pulled by Mercedes at the end of Q3.
Mercedes needed every one of those three things – Leclerc’s crash, falling track temperatures and the denial of a tow for Vettel – for that 1-2 to have slotted into place. Ferrari, as a younger, less annealed team, did not deal quite as well as Mercedes with a couple of left-field demands and made an error in its tyre run programme that Mercedes specifically avoided. Further, Ferrari, with a more volatile driver chemistry, could not control the internal tensions as well. Give or take a bit of post-qualifying niggle, Bottas and Hamilton by contrast tip-toed with respect around the other’s competitive desires, never more plainly than on the first two corners of the race.
These things are all that are differentiating Mercedes and Ferrari at the moment, despite the outright dominance of the former in the results.