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ANALYSIS: 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Assessing the field

7 Mins read
Credit: Mercedes Benz Archive/ Steve Etherington

The fourth race of the 2019 FIA Formula 1 World Championship is done and dusted. The Mercedes team secured their fourth consecutive 1-2 finish at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix to set the early pace. In a season in which Formula 1 fans expected the other teams to catch up and challenge the Silver Arrows five-year reign, this early dominance is ominous.

Top of the class…

Valtteri Bottas  – Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport

Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.059s
Race margin to team-mate: -1.524s

This win at the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix is particularly sweet for Valtteri Bottas as he lost a sure win with a puncture in the final laps at this race last season. Bottas is tied with Lewis Hamilton in the qualification battle at two apiece after four races. The Finn clinched pole by the slenderest of margins (0.059 seconds) as he was aided by a tow in his last gasp flying lap at the Baku City Circuit.

This season has been all about the starts and Bottas knows it. A nerveless wheel-to-wheel combat with Hamilton through the first few turns on lap 1 allowed him to take the race lead from pole position.

A flawless race thereafter saw him fend off Hamilton in the final laps to finally take that win at Baku. Bottas has a slender one-point lead in the Drivers’ Championship.

The Finn has won two of the four races of the 2019 season. Bottas has the same number of wins as his five-time world champion team-mate Hamilton. For a driver who was winless last season, this indeed is a very strong start to the season. Bottas 2.0 has shown intent and delivered so far this season.

Sergio Perez  – SportPesa Racing Point F1 Team

Qualifying margin to team-mate: -1.037s
Race margin to team-mate: -27.4s

Sergio Pérez is a Baku specialist with two podiums in the three races since this race joined the Formula 1 calendar in 2016. Perez qualified in fifth position, his best qualification performance in 2019.

A good start saw the Mexican climb up to fourth position. But Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc overtook him as the race progressed. Perez held on to sixth position by fending off the challenge from the McLaren duo of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris.

Pérez was ‘best of the rest’ at this race. Pérez has scripted three point scoring finishes in the four races in a Racing Point car that appeared to be under par at the start of the season. The updates the team will bring to the next Grand Prix in Spain will definitely propel the team and Pérez forward.

Carlos Sainz – McLaren F1 Team

Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.512s
Race margin to team-mate: -16.442s

Carlos Sainz finally scored the first points of the season when he finished in seventh position. The Spaniard has struggled to find his feet with his new team McLaren in the first three races.

But a strong qualification at Baku saw him just miss out on the top 10 shoot-out. Sainz’s flying lap in Q2 was ruined by a yellow flag and he qualified in eleventh position, but was promoted to tenth position after Kimi Räikkönen’s exclusion. Sainz started ninth on the grid.

A good start and a strong race saw him gain two-places and finish in seventh position, just ahead of team-mate Norris. The two young drivers have pushed McLaren to fourth position in the Constructors’ Championship.

Sainz has his work cut out for the rest of the season with his rookie team-mate Norris performing well. This could be the start of a good run for Sainz this season.

Kimi Räikkönen – Alfa Romeo Racing

Qualifying margin to team-mate: N/A
Race margin to team-mate: N/A

Kimi Räikkönen has performed well with his new team Alfa Romeo Racing. The reticent Finn appears to have found his comfort zone with the smaller Alfa Romeo team which does not have the high-powered trappings of a top team like Ferrari.

Even as team-mate Antonio Giovinazzi is yet to open his account, Räikkönen has been the model of consistency. He has scored points in all four races. The tenth-place finish in this race is a standout performance as he started from the pit plane.

Räikkönen qualified in ninth position but was excluded from qualification as his front wing failed the deflection test. A long second stint of 44 laps on the medium tyres saw him reel off consistent lap times and clinch tenth position and the valuable point. The oldest driver on the grid is showing the young guns how it is done.

Homework to do…

Charles Leclerc – Scuderia Ferrari

Qualifying margin to team-mate: +1.198s
Race margin to team-mate: +57.368s

Charles Leclerc was the fastest driver on display during the heavily curtailed free practice sessions at Baku. Leclerc had pole position within his grasp, but an unfortunate crash in the second qualification session reduced him to despair.

The young Monégasque driver started eighth on the grid and his progress was eagerly watched throughout the race. Leclerc had a long first stint on the medium tyres that saw him lead the race over many laps as the front-runners pitted for the first time.

But in the second stint, the expected challenge on the faster soft tyres to the drivers in front at the end of their long stints on worn tyres did not materialize. In the colder temperatures, Leclerc could not switch on the soft tyres and close the gap to fourth-placed Verstappen.

Leclerc pitted with four laps to go for another set of soft tyres and succeeded in setting the fastest lap and snatched an extra point. For good measure, he was voted as ‘the driver of the day’ for the second Azerbaijan GP in a row. But fifth-place was small consolation for a driver who was expected to win this race or at the very least be on the podium.

Leclerc has shown his raw pace and hunger in the first four races. He was hard done by when victory slipped through his grasp due to an engine reliability issue in Bahrain. Leclerc has to avoid mistakes and be consistent to take the fight to the Mercedes drivers and Sebastian Vettel during the rest of the season.

Pierre Gasly  – Aston Martin Red Bull Racing

Qualifying margin to team-mate: N/A
Race margin to team-mate: N/A

Pierre Gasly has to contend with the formidable Verstappen on the other side of the garage. A measure of Verstappen’s mature performance this season is the fourth-place he occupies in the Drivers’ Championship, between the two Ferrari drivers.

Gasly has struggled in the RB15 built around Verstappen’s driving style. The sixth-place in the Chinese Grand Prix was a vast improvement on the previous races for Gasly.

But the bizarre happenings at the Azerbaijan GP saw Gasly’s progress halted. The first penalty to start in the pit lane was imposed for not stopping at the weighbridge at the end of the second practice session. Gasly topped the first qualification session, but was excluded from qualification and penalized for exceeding the permitted fuel flow rate.

Gasly fought back in the extended first stint on the medium compound tyres and progressed to sixth position. But before the Frenchman made his first pit stop his race ended due to a gearbox issue.

It was a rather unfortunate end to a decidedly strange race weekend for Gasly. But he seems to be coming to terms with the RB15 car and has his work cut out for the rest of the season as he tries to stay close to his mercurial team-mate Verstappen.

Daniel Ricciardo – Renault F1 team

Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.945s
Race margin to team-mate: N/A

Another wretched race weekend unfolded for the ever-smiling Daniel Ricciardo at Baku with his new team Renault. Ricciardo finally opened his account at the Chinese GP with a hard-fought seventh-place finish in the previous race. The “honey badger” started in tenth position after the penalties to the other drivers at Baku.

The Renault team was not able to find the sweet spot in setups around the street circuit in Baku. The car was neither fast in a straight line nor did it have the downforce in the slow corners. Ricciardo has wrestled with braking issues in the Renault R.S.19 car from the start of the season.

But the seven-time Grand Prix winner appeared to be coming to terms with the car in Shanghai. But a poor weekend all-around for Renault halted Ricciardo’s progress in Baku.

To make matters worse, it was a rather embarrassing end to the race for Ricciardo as an ill-judged overtake on Daniil Kvyat saw him go down the escape road. In his haste to get going again, he reversed into Kvyat’s car by mistake.

Ricciardo will start on the backfoot at the Spanish GP as he has incurred a three-place grid penalty for the move. The consistent podium finishes and occasional wins with his old team Red Bull Racing must seem very distant for Ricciardo as he struggles to come to terms with his new team and car.

The rest…

Antonio Giovinazzi had a much better race weekend in Baku. The Italian qualified in eighth position, but a 10-place grid penalty saw him start 17th on the grid. A solid performance saw him progress to 12th position. Giovinazzi is yet to score points in the 2019 season.

Toro Rosso was fast in the practice sessions and Kvyat secured sixth position in qualification. But a poor first stint saw Kvyat go backwards and the unfortunate incident with Ricciardo ended his race. No points scored for the Toro Rosso team on a weekend that promised a lot.

The McLaren and Racing Point drivers maximized the potential of their car as both teams secured a double-points finish. Haas F1 and Renault F1 teams are grappling with a number of issues and this was another race that highlighted their weaknesses.

That Romain Grosjean is languishing at the bottom of the drivers’ championship, just above the Williams drivers, is a measure of the struggles of the Haas F1 team.

All the teams will bring major updates to the Spanish Grand Prix (May 10-12 2019) as the season returns to Europe. Ferrari fast-forwarded their updates in a futile bid to halt the run of Mercedes 1-2 finishes in Azerbaijan.

The Maranello-based team will hope a return to the track in Barcelona where they enjoyed a great run of form in winter testing will revive their title hopes.

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