2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix reportby Mark Hughes on 28th April 2019
The complete report on round four of the 2019 Formula 1 season: the Azerbaijan Grand Prix
All images: Motorsport Images
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.
Bottas likely could not have cared less about that, grabbing the win from pole and withstanding late pressure from his team-mate to regain a narrow lead in the world championship, Hamilton denied an extra point by Leclerc’s late second stop to fit the new softs he hadn‘t got to use in qualifying, with the inevitable fastest lap following on. That and a fifth place was so much less than it could have been and one wonders if the enormity of Leclerc’s Saturday error will form the final building block to the full formidable package.
When you peel back the layers, this was one of the most intriguing and nuanced qualifying sessions of all time. There are so many dimensions to the answer of how Mercedes beat Ferrari. The simplistic one of ‘the Mercedes was faster’ is riddled with holes, pre-conditions and circumstances. Then there are further answers explaining how Valtteri Bottas beat Lewis Hamilton to pole by half-a-tenth as game theory threw in a wickedly curved ball.
Here are those answers.
Leclerc’s crash into the Turn Eight tyre wall halfway through Q2 was central to how Mercedes locked out the front row. “I am so stupid,” you may have heard him radio in before banging his hands upon the wrecked Ferrari’s cockpit halo in frustration. Even later, after he’d calmed down, he was no less forgiving of his error which came as he locked the inner front wheel under braking for the thread-the-needle tight left of Turn Eight. The narrowest turn on the calendar, with only tyre walls to separate you from ancient stone walls as the lead-in to the picturesque Baku old town section of the lap, there is an escape road that sees heavy usage through a grand prix weekend.
But even though that left-hand wheel had locked as he began to put on steering lock, the thing was still turning, still responding. It encouraged him to stay with it rather than baling out, especially so given that he was within 0.01sec of his previous best and therefore still capable of improving. Maybe 1mph too fast. Crash.
Medium tyre and time delay
When Leclerc crashed he was on the medium tyre – as was team-mate Vettel. Only Ferrari was using this tyre – which has a higher temperature working range than the softs everyone else was on, ie it needs a hotter track to work. Vettel had almost had an accident at the same place just a lap earlier. Robert Kubica had crashed his Williams heavily here at the end of Q1, which had delayed things half an hour or so. Which took the session further away from late afternoon towards early evening. With the sun beginning to fall behind The Maiden’s Tower, so the track temperature steadily fell further away from the medium tyre’s ideal temperature window. But Ferrari was committed to running it, having used up two sets of softs each in practice that morning and one each in Q1. (In contrast to Mercedes, which had run one set each of softs/mediums in that morning’s practice). In order to have two sets of softs each for Q3 – and to get the longer range of the medium for the first stint of the race – the medium seemed an ostensibly logical Q2 choice for Ferrari. The car was comfortably fast enough to get through to Q3 on this tyre. But its more difficult warm-up made it easier to lock-up – especially in a session delayed by a red flag and tyre barrier rebuild into the cool of the evening. That turned out to be crucial.
Critically, Mercedes had specifically made that choice of not running the mediums in Q2 for a very sound reason. Because of the way the tyres behave here, there’s a very slow warm-up for the medium and even if you get out 1sec or so ahead of an old soft-tyred car, you’re still very vulnerable to being overtaken by it on the first lap out the pits. Plus, in qualifying on a cooling track that is invariably littered with yellow and red flags, it makes you very vulnerable to not getting it up to temperature in Q2 itself.
The Vettel/Leclerc dynamic
The tyre compound and its mismatch to circumstance was just a contributory factor to the accident; the driver is still controlling the car, after all. Another factor was the competitive tension between the Ferrari drivers and how things were poised between the proud multiple champion and the ambitious young ace coming into the weekend. With Ferrari openly favouring Vettel in 50/50 situations – and with Leclerc having been on the receiving end of team orders at all three races up to this one – Leclerc’s only way of breaking free of that is to out-qualify and comfortably put distance on Vettel. Easier said than done, of course. But if he was going to do it anywhere, it was going to be here. He’s dynamite around the place.
In his Formula 2 season he pulled off the unlikely feat of winning the main event in Azerbaijan and the reversed top eight sprint race. Last year, he produced that startling performance in the Sauber, lapping up to 2sec faster than his team-mate and briefly running with Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari on his way to sixth place.
“I love it,” he'd said on Thursday.
“To know exactly what makes the success here of the last two years, I don’t know; just confidence I think. I really enjoy the challenge of getting close to the walls, the adrenaline you get, the room for mistakes being very small, getting to the limit without going over it as there is not much margin for error.”
Sounds ironic in hindsight of course. So we had a super-fast driver at his best track, early in the season, feeling he absolutely must put distance on his (very fast) team-mate here so as to try to invert Ferrari’s driver priority. “That’s how it is at the moment,” he said of Vettel’s in-team status. “It’s up to me to prove what I’m capable of and then hopefully the situation will change at one point. I’m here for that because obviously every driver wants to be the quickest. So that’s my target and see what happens then.”
It only added further fuel to that combustible mix that the Ferrari – well off Mercedes' pace in China and only faster in Bahrain thanks to Mercedes under-performing there – should be a rocket ship around Baku. How did that happen?
Ferrari’s Baku speed
“In the practices, in the hot conditions, they were in a different league to us,” rued Toto Wolff.
Leclerc had headed Friday afternoon practice 0.324sec ahead of Vettel and a whopping 0.669sec faster than Hamilton. On Saturday morning he extended that gap to 1.4sec over Mercedes. “There was no way we could make that up,” continued the Mercedes boss.
How could the performance tables have turned so in just two weeks? The answer to that was the low-downforce aero packages Baku demands. In the first three races everyone was running their medium downforce packages – and the Mercedes simply has a lot more downforce which buys it more lap time than the Ferrari’s lower drag and greater engine power. At those sorts of tracks. The Mercedes is intrinsically a higher downforce/higher drag car than the Ferrari.
But come to the demands of a track with a Monaco middle sector sandwiched by two Monza sectors and you ideally need a low downforce/low drag car as you put on your low downforce package. Mercedes had to trim back the wing areas front and rear. Ferrari added wing area front and rear (but had them on flat settings). The Mercedes still had more downforce, but at Baku the greater engine power and lower drag of the Ferrari was worth more lap time – so long as its tyres could be kept in the right temperature window, of course. Should these two cars compete in a session where the track temperatures are taking the tyres out of their window, the one with the greater downforce will be less adversely affected. So the conditions, thanks to the delays caused by Kubica and Leclerc, absolutely played to Mercedes' advantage – even disregarding the fact that the faster Ferrari driver here wasn’t around to contest Q3. The swing between a straightforward, accident-free session running on time to what we got was probably over 1sec against Ferrari and in favour of Mercedes.
Such are the vagaries of this crazy place.
But Vettel’s Ferrari could still probably have contended for pole even with all these compromises. The reason it didn’t was:
Q3 track positioning
The plan at Mercedes had been hatched earlier that morning; because the tow on that final Caspian straight is so valuable here (anything between 0.3sec and 0.6sec), it wished to avoid the usual final Q3 scenario of everyone waiting for Mercedes to go out first, which potentially could see Ferrari benefit from Mercedes’ tow. One of the Mercedes would be towed by the other, but the lead one would try to pick up a tow from another team’s car, while trying not to give Ferrari a tow. But how to arrange that on the crucial final runs?
Bottas and Hamilton left early, just as usual. Three cars responded – those of Lando Norris, Antonio Giovinazzi and Vettel – to line up nose-to-tail behind the Mercedes up the pitlane. But then Bottas and Hamilton moved hard left into the practice start lane… and stopped.
“Were you guys doing dummy starts, or did you just stop?” asked Vettel afterwards, knowing full well the answer.
“Mmm?” replied Hamilton in mock innocence. “We just dummied you basically.”
“Clutch calibration,” offered Bottas.
“Yeah, definitely clutch calibration,” agreed Hamilton.
But that all still left an awkward choreography on the out-laps, as Norris, Giovinazzi and Vettel slowed things right down as they played their cat and mouse games. Eventually Vettel tired of it and decided he’d rather get his tyres up to temperature and passed the Alfa Romeo and McLaren. But as the Mercedes got going so they drew up to the back of the jockeying Norris and Giovinazzi – and that compromised their tyre prep lap, particularly that of Hamilton. Bottas let Norris go, so as to get enough distance on the McLaren that he wouldn’t be disturbed by its wake in the early part of the lap but could get its tow at the end. Hamilton in turn had to let Bottas go, which dropped his tyres even further out the window. “I had moments at Turns One and Three as a result,” he explained.
So as Vettel, Bottas and Hamilton each contested pole, it went like this:
|Driver||Sector 1||Sector 2||Sector 3|
|Vettel||35.3sec||40.4sec||24.9sec (no tow)|
|Bottas||35.3sec||40.4sec||24.7sec (tow from Norris)|
|Hamilton||35.6sec (on cold tyres)||40.2sec||24.6sec (tow from Bottas)|
That translated into Bottas’ eighth career pole, Hamilton half a tenth behind – and Vettel a disgruntled third, 0.2sec off. Up until his crash, Leclerc seemed to have between 0.2-0.3sec on Vettel. But Vettel hadn’t crashed…. Point being, even with the Ferrari taken out of its track temperature sweet spot and, even without a tow, Leclerc could probably have snatched pole.
“It was there for the taking,” as he rued afterwards.
Had the sessions not been interrupted, the picture would likely have been much as it had been at the same time in P2 the day before – with no one even seeing which way Leclerc had gone, revelling in the low-downforce pack of the updated Ferrari.
There was an intense bit of discussion between the Mercedes drivers in the collecting area, almost certainly about how Hamilton had been compromised in the tyre prep lap – but Bottas appeared to give him short shrift. It had been Hamilton’s turn this weekend to decide the running order between them and it was he who’d decided Bottas should run ahead (obviously with the intention of picking up Bottas’ tow). As it turned out, of course, that worked against Hamilton.
But there was one more thing that contributed to the Mercedes lock-out:
Mercedes rear steer effect
In the kinematics of the rear suspension and the compliance tolerance, there is scope to legally passively simulate rear wheel steering. Mercedes has been experimenting with it for a while and it was certainly visible in the car’s behaviour at the end of the Austin lap last year. Its benefits are marginal and it’s tricky to set up. But Hamilton is believed to have given feedback on Friday night in Baku that led to a set-up tweak that got it working much better into Saturday. It wasn’t worth a big chunk of lap time, wouldn’t have bought them the hot track deficit to Leclerc, but the result was felt to be positive.
Honda’s upgrade put it out of sync with the others and will probably mean grid penalties later in the season, but the more aggressive way the engine could be run and its lower mileage had it looking very good in Baku.
Max Verstappen slotted his Red Bull fourth, just 0.3sec off Vettel despite having no tow and only one set of softs. Daniil Kvyat got a Toro Rosso into Q3 for the first time this year – and qualified sixth there, just behind Sergio Pérez’s Racing Point. The other Red Bull of Pierre Gasly would be starting from the pitlane after he’d missed a weighing request on Friday afternoon. He headed Q2 but that time was later disallowed after it was found the engine had breached the fuel flow limit. Alex Albon in the second Toro Rosso didn’t make Q3, going 13th in Q2 after struggling to get the tyre temperatures on the cooling track and glancing a wall, but had intermittently been very fast in the practices.
This is always a great venue for Pérez (who is totally attuned to the place and the rhythm necessary) and the team formerly known as Force India. Fifth on the grid was a superb outcome, but team-mate Lance Stroll failed to make it out of Q1, back in 16th. The 0.38sec deficit to Pérez in that session was all that made the difference.
The McLaren was running more wing than most but that gave it good middle sector performance and was enough to get Norris through to Q3. Using Giovinazzi’s tow, he stuck the car seventh on the grid. Team-mate Carlos Sainz didn’t get out of Q2, 11th fastest and – for the second time this season – compromised by a car (Kevin Magnussen’s) having an incident in front of him, triggering yellow flags just as he was on a lap that would have got him through.
Both Alfas made it through to Q3 for the first time and Giovinazzi was perfectly placed to get a big tow from Vettel to out-qualify team-mate Räikkönen for the first time, the Alfas in eighth and ninth. Giovinazzi was, however, taking a 10-place grid penalty for the replacement of his electronics control unit. Räikkönen’s car later failed a front wing flexibility test, meaning he was disqualified from qualifying and starting from the pitlane. Leclerc’s best Q2 time before his crash was good for Q3 graduation but of course he couldn’t run there and so was nominally 10th, eventually eighth after the various penalties.
The Renaults were nowhere this weekend, blighted by lack of front end grip and poor braking. Daniel Ricciardo made a decent fist of it just to get through to Q2 and go 12th there but Nico Hülkenberg was stuck in Q1, in 18th, a full 1sec adrift of his team-mate. The Haas were struggling terribly for tyre temperature, with Magnussen and Romain Grosjean only 14th and 17th, respectively, in cars that normally make Q3.
Williams suffered a nightmare weekend. George Russell’s chassis was written off on Friday morning after it sucked up a manhole cover (something that led to FP1 being cancelled after just a few minutes of running). Then Kubica suffered his Q1 accident. They were separated by 0.5sec at the back, almost 4sec off the pace, Russell ahead. Kubica’s car was rebuilt to a different specification and would therefore start from the pitlane.
By 4pm that Caspian wind has really got some force behind it on a typical Baku late afternoon, blowing in the scent of petroleum from the refineries. The tyres throw up the dust from the city streets as the cars take off on the dummy grid. It’s hotter than yesterday though, by 10deg C on the track surface, party through less cloud cover, partly because the race starts 50 minutes earlier than qualifying had. This made the teams believe that the soft tyre most of them – but not Leclerc and Gasly – were starting on would not be quite as delicate as in the practices when both the fronts and rears were prone to graining. The general feeling was the sunshine would allow a good hard opening stint on these, with the more robust mediums then good for the rest of the race, so low are the degradation rates here.
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Smoke was rising from hot brakes as the pack waited for the gantry lights to go out. Anxious not to avoid his race-losing wheel-spinning start in China, Bottas was a little cautious with how he got on the power, Hamilton less so and so the Mercedes were side-by-side as they charged to the 90-degree left of Turn One. If they’d been in rival teams (or if it had been against Nico Rosberg!), Hamilton might’ve been expected to have tried hanging Bottas out to dry, forcing him to back off rather than making contact with the tyre wall there. But that’s not team etiquette here between these two, Hamilton taking care to steer plenty left on the exit to give the sister car room. Still side-by-side up past the old parliament building on the short chute to the tighter left-hander of Turn Two, where many a dicing pair have come to grief. Again, the onus here is on the inside guy not to demand too much track space – and Hamilton didn’t. It was almost like a demo race between them as they each desperately tried to get ahead of the other but without racing too hard.
“Selfishly I could have for sure pushed a lot harder and Valtteri would have lost position,” said Hamilton, “and 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. So 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.”
As they exited Turn Two, Hamilton’s car squirmed in third gear as he got the power down on the dustier inside line – and that’s all it took for Bottas to properly retain his lead. That done, he absolutely nailed his opening lap, forcing an aggressive pace down the screened-off boulevards, then up through the narrow, wall-lined old town section, plunging then downhill towards the sea before turning sharp left to begin that dramatic 200mph, 27sec-flat-out blast of the kinking ‘straight’. Bottas burst into view through that final turn out on his own. It would be almost 2sec before Hamilton appeared.
Vettel had retained his third place off the grid and was unchallenged from behind where Pérez and Verstappen were duking it out, Pérez using his inside starting slot to nail the Red Bull into the first turn, then ruthlessly chopping his Racing Point across Verstappen's bows when he needed to into Turn Two. This was F1’s toughest defender and its most audacious attacker and a couple of years ago Verstappen might’ve refused to have backed down. And the race might’ve come under a safety car. But not this time. Pérez was given an easier time later in the lap as Verstappen was forced to concentrate on keeping the eager young pup Norris behind him, with Kvyat and Sainz looking on.
Leclerc’s medium compound tyres had lost out on traction to the soft-tyred Ricciardo off the line and the second Ferrari completed the opening lap 10th, just ahead of Stroll’s fast-starting Racing Point and the second Toro Rosso of Albon who’d whacked the Turn One tyre barrier pretty hard as he attempted to go around Leclerc’s outside. The pitlane starters Kubica, Räikkönen and Gasly soon sorted themselves out into their natural performance order, with Kubica later serving a drive-through for having infringed a regulation about when you can line up for your pitlane start. Since Charlie Whiting’s passing, the new guard has, quite understandably, started off with a zero-tolerance policy on any transgressions.
Bottas was determined to get himself out of his team-mate’s DRS range in the opening couple of laps. Hamilton thereafter went with him, and it was clear the Mercedes had more initial grip than Vettel’s Ferrari. Here was that greater downforce paying back again, switching the tyre on more quickly around a track where that’s a limitation. By the fifth lap Hamilton, trailing Bottas by 2.8sec, had almost 6sec on the Ferrari.
“I really struggled to initially get the tyres to work,” confirmed Vettel. “I think they were too cold and I damaged them, and by the time they were hot they were damaged, so it was never really working.”
Leclerc on his tougher mediums was having no such trouble and had quickly sailed by Ricciardo on the 2.1km long front straight that runs parallel to the Caspian Sea coast – taking Stroll with him past the Renault. A lap later and both Stroll and Ricciardo were past Kvyat – but that was because Kvyat had rooted his rear tyres already, two ugly big strips of graining very visible. He was in for his mediums after just five laps. This was significant, for it underlined the fact that actually the hotter track had not helped keep the soft’s graining at bay at all. The Mercedes drivers were beginning to realise this too and so had backed away from their initially aggressive pace and were now just holding the gap back to Vettel steady. This was still a much better pace than that of a Racing Point and so Pérez was left trailing ever-further back but not allowing a chink of daylight in his defences for Verstappen to pierce. Had Verstappen not got stuck here, later evidence suggested he could have at least tracked the compromised Vettel very closely and probably have applied the undercut pressure on him.
As it was, it took until lap six before the Red Bull could DRS its way past the Racing Point, as the latter’s soft-tyred traction began to fade. Just as Verstappen was making that pass, Leclerc just behind was passing Norris and would be upon and past the Red Bull in the next lap. That put Leclerc fourth, 4sec behind his team-mate and using his tougher tyres to be gaining fast. Further back, on the same medium tyres, Gasly was making great progress through the midfield and by lap 11 lapping faster than his soft-tyred team-mate Verstappen.
Norris was another to be suffering graining rears after his spirited opening laps. Sainz was soon lined up behind the other McLaren and complaining that he was being held up. He passed into Turn One and Norris was brought in for his mediums at the end of the lap. Pérez was in a lap later as it became clear that no one’s softs were going to last much beyond a dozen laps. Norris’ early stop over Sainz put him back ahead after the latter made his stop. Sainz began catching him again as the pair hovered not too far away from the back of Pérez.
Vettel was just about to be in the way of Leclerc’s advancing sister car when Ferrari brought him in for his mediums on lap 11. This obliged Mercedes to react with Bottas and Hamilton on consecutive laps. Hamilton had been sufficiently clear of Vettel not to be vulnerable to the undercut. Verstappen pitted the lap after Hamilton. This frenetic few laps of pit activity had left Leclerc in the lead, set to run for a long time yet. With the lack of durability the softs had just shown, even with a lower fuel load and a rubbered-in track Ferrari couldn’t even think of bringing him in for another 20 laps or so yet. The hard tyre was just too slow to be considered, so Leclerc’s first stint therefore had to be long.
For a long time, he maintained great pace around 12sec ahead of the newer-tyred Mercedes pair. Mercedes then guided its charges into upping the pace to get into Leclerc’s safety car gap and after that they just kept gaining. Hamilton was gaining faster than Bottas and cutting the gap to his team-mate as well as to the Ferrari. “Are we racing?” Hamilton had asked, having got what was a 4sec gap down to 1.9sec by lap 21. The reply came that they were as yet unsure whether the mediums would last until the end if run flat out, so best back off – and they would be free to race each other at the end. Hamilton duly slowed up a little. But they both continued to reel-in the older-tyred Ferrari.
Vettel meanwhile was much happier with his car on the medium tyres. “I’d been expecting a really difficult time on this tyre,” he said, “but actually the car was really good in this stint.” He’d closed up on the Mercedes as they were closing down Leclerc. And after a while, Verstappen was closing on them all – albeit from around 10sec behind Vettel. The Red Bull was hanging onto its tyre performance best of all. At this point, the closing laps were promising to be epic, with the top four all closing on each other.
Leclerc’s pace was beginning to fall away after 30 laps and the Mercedes had him within range, with Verstappen not far behind either. Gasly – on the same strategy as Leclerc – was by now running sixth, half a minute behind the leader but lapping now at a very similar pace. As with Verstappen versus Vettel, it illustrated that the Red Bull was hanging onto its tyre performance longer than the Ferrari. With a pitstop costing around 20sec, Ferrari was judging Leclerc’s gap over Gasly as the decider of how long to stay out. The longer the better, it figured, as it was nervous of the soft tyre Leclerc would need to have on for the remainder of the 51-lap distance.
That forced Bottas and Hamilton to pass Leclerc on track so as not to get bottled up and be vulnerable to Vettel and Verstappen. Bottas retook the lead to begin lap 32, with Hamilton going by the Ferrari a lap later. After pulling aside to ease Vettel’s passage, Leclerc was finally brought in on lap 34.
It was a lap too late: Leclerc’s last two laps were way off the pace that Gasly was still able to maintain. Combined with an indifferent 2.8sec Ferrari stop, it meant Leclerc exited behind the old-tyred Red Bull. It took a couple of laps for Leclerc to find his way by – not that it made much difference. He lay fifth but half-a-minute off the lead, 20sec behind fourth-placed Verstappen. Only a safety car might have brought him any more than that.
Gasly was on-course to exit well ahead of the Pérez/Norris/Sainz train after stopping, with a gap then to the dicing Kvyat and Ricciardo, then Stroll, Räikkönen, Albon (who had dropped almost to the back after Toro Rosso left him out way too long), Giovinazzi and Magnussen. A lap down were the struggling Grosjean (later to retire with a long brake pedal) and Hülkenberg (who at no point in the weekend was anywhere near the pace of Ricciardo), well clear of the Williams pair Russell and Kubica.
Ricciardo tried a dive down Kvyat’s inside but locked up and took to the escape road, forcing Kvyat to go with him. The Renault then reversed into the side of the Toro Rosso! Both cars were soon after retired.
Gasly never got to make his pitstop. A driveshaft failed as he was accelerating between Turns Two and Three on the 38th lap. He made it to the escape road and the race was neutralised with a virtual safety car.
This was potentially tricky, late enough in the race that the worn tyres might take an age to switch back on after being driven at 40 per cent off the pace for a few minutes while the Red Bull was pulled to safety. McLaren – with its cars running nose-to-tail in seventh and eighth, and more than a pitstop’s-worth of gap to Stroll – decided to split its strategy by bringing Norris in for a new set of softs, with a stop costing just 12sec rather than the usual 20sec. He rejoined 12sec behind his team-mate but on much newer tyres. Turned out that Sainz’s old tyres switched on just fine – so in hindsight Norris had been unnecessarily sacrificed.
But there was variation in just how well everyone’s tyres switched on. Those on the Mercedes were fine, those on Vettel’s Ferrari slightly less so, those on Verstappen’s Red Bull not well at all. So that building crescendo of a late scrap that had been promised by everyone catching everyone else was rather broken up. The Mercedes eased away from Vettel, while Verstappen fell away from the Ferrari. Leclerc was too far back to catch the Red Bull and with enough of a gap over Pérez for a free pitstop he was brought in and fitted with a new set of softs with three laps to go for an assault on the fastest lap for the extra point that goes with it. He achieved it with ease.
But that was not the main excitement. As promised, the Mercedes guys had been let off the leash near the end and were free to race. Hamilton closed Bottas down as they thread their way through the lapped runners. With three laps to go Hamilton was within DRS range of his team-mate but not quite close enough to make it work. Where the backmarkers fell alternated their favours between them. Hamilton was in full attack, Bottas was coolly concentrating on judging the gaps, keeping momentum and not locking up. It was high-pressure stuff for a couple of laps and going onto that long straight for the penultimate time, Hamilton threw his car through Turn 16, but ran just a little wide over the kerb coming out, kicking up the dust. This came at just the time that Bottas had got a DRS-assisted tow from Kubica’s Williams. That sealed the deal and, a couple of minutes later, Bottas was taking the chequer for win number two from four.
“It’s been a good start personally for me for the season,” he said. “But it’s a long season ahead. I do realise that. But something I’m really proud of is the level at which the team is performing. It’s, for me, incredible. We need to be really, really proud of that – but not think about it too much.”
Third place for Vettel was damage limitation from which he could take some encouragement. “It seems that for us it’s more of a conscious effort to get the car in the right window, whereas maybe for them it seems to click a little bit easier. Especially a place like around here, you need the confidence in the car. I’m not yet there.
I can feel that I’m not driving at my best because simply the car does not answer or does not respond the way I like. And then I think it’s unnatural. I think everybody’s been there. I think all drivers know that sort of feeling: when it’s not there, then your judgement is normally right, to not go there because you end up losing the car.
“So, yeah, I seem to be more sensitive at the first races than at the test. The test was really good but that’s a long time ago now.”