2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix: The Rookie Report

by Sudha Sundararaj

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix brought to an end the first leg of the flyaway races of the season. As the teams and drivers head back to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix, the rookie contingent will take stock of their performance across the four races and ways to accelerate their learning curve for the season.

After the first four races of the 2019 FIA Formula 1 World Championship, Lando Norris heads the rookie class with two impressive point-scoring finishes.


LANDO NORRIS (MCLAREN F1 TEAM)

QUALIFYING: SEVENTH, RACE: EIGHTH (4 Points)


Credit: McLaren Media Center

Lando Norris qualified in seventh position at Baku. This is the best qualification position of his short career. The Briton went on to script another well-crafted race to finish in eighth position on a good weekend for the McLaren team.

Norris got a good start to move past Daniil Kvyat for sixth position. After a short first stint of nine laps on the soft compound tyres, the Briton pitted for the medium compound tyres and rejoined in fourteenth position.

Norris progressed to eighth position and shadowed Racing Point’s Sergio Pérez for many laps in his second stint. In a bid to help Norris overtake Pérez, the McLaren team pitted him for a second time under the Virtual Safety Car to put on used soft compound tyres.

Norris rejoined in eighth position behind team-mate Carlos Sainz with twelve laps to go. In the late evening, the track temperature had fallen and the soft tyres were not in their optimal temperature window and the strategy did not work.

Norris was at peace with the McLaren strategy that lost him a position in the end. It was a gamble worth taking for the team which secured a double-points finish in the race. The Woking-based team has shown signs of revival after a disastrous 2018 season.

“Overall, it’s a good race for us as a team,” said Norris.

“A double-points finish, the first one of the year, which is a good thing. The whole race was pretty good. My start was probably the best I’ve done all year and I made no mistakes. I lost the tyres a little early in the first stint so boxed onto the Mediums, had a good middle stint and we took the decision to try the Softs after the VSC. 

“The thinking was that the other tyres, the Medium, while not worn, had done a lot and wouldn’t be able to turn on as well. It looked like they did, so it was the wrong decision. It could have worked, maybe if it had been a bit colder, but it didn’t and that’s just something we have to look back on.

“It always happens in racing! A good weekend altogether.”

Norris continues to shine and leads the rookie class of 2019 after four races.


ALEXANDER ALBON (SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO)

QUALIFYING: TWELFTH (Started ELEVENTH), RACE: ELEVENTH


Alexander Albon - Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda - Baku City Circuit

Credit: Peter Fox/Getty Images

Alexander Albon has a good record at the Baku City Circuit. He took his maiden victory in the FIA Formula 2 series in 2018 at this track. The Anglo-Thai driver was in good rhythm and drove well during the third free practice session.

But a small mistake during the second qualification session put Albon in the drop-zone and he could only manage twelfth position. He started eleventh in the race due to Antonio Giovinazzi’s penalty.

In a good first stint of twelve laps on the soft compound tyres, Albon progressed to ninth position. But after the first pit stop he rejoined at the back of the grid and proceeded to again overtake and move forward. Albon finished just outside the points in eleventh position at the end of the race.

After two consecutive point scoring finishes, this race did not go Albon’s way. The STR14 had good pace as his team-mate Kvyat’s sixth position in qualification showed.

Even if Albon did not secure any points, it was a measured drive from him once again.

“Finishing just outside of the points isn’t what I wanted,” said Albon.

“Our pace was decent but I think we stayed out too long and lost some time. We fell behind the whole pack after we pitted, and the problem is that everyone is so close in the midfield that we needed a bigger pace advantage than we had to make up some ground.

“At the end, I was able to make a few overtakes and I had some fun out there, that’s the main thing!”


ANTONIO GIOVINAZZI (ALFA ROMEO RACING)

QUALIFYING: EIGHTH (Started SEVENTEENTH), RACE: TWELFTH


Credit: Alfa Romeo Racing Media

Antonio Giovinazzi has been in the wars in the first three races of the season. The Italian driver has a formidable team-mate in Kimi Räikkönen. Even as Räikkönen has scored points in all the races so far this season, Giovinazzi is searching for his first points.

Giovinazzi qualified in eighth position, just ahead of Räikkönen. The qualification performance is the first bright spot for Giovinazzi this season. The 10-place grid penalty for being fitted with his third control electronics unit saw him start only 17th on the grid.

After a short first stint of just seven laps, Giovinazzi rejoined in last position. He made steady progress through the crowded midfield, but could get only as far as twelfth position.

Team-mate Räikkönen who was excluded from qualification scored a point after he started from the pit lane. So Giovinazzi is still in search of his elusive first point of the season, but a much more encouraging outing for the young driver in this race.

“It was a challenging race,” said Giovinazzi.

“We started from P17 on the grid due to my 10-place penalty. I lost too much time to stay out in the first stint and got stuck in traffic. It’s a shame because I had a good pace but unfortunately there was no safety car and I couldn’t challenge for a place in Top Ten.

“Now I have to stay focused and keep working for the next race in Barcelona.”


GEORGE RUSSELL (WILLIAMS RACING)

QUALIFYING: SEVENTEENTH (Started SIXTEENTH), RACE: FIFTEENTH


George Russell in Baku 2019

Credit: Williams Racing Photos

George Russell suffered a massive jolt early in the first free practice session as he ran over a loose drain cover. The incident resulted in serious floor damage to his car and he missed the second practice session.

The Williams team is lagging behind at the back of the grid. For a team low on morale and resources, Russell’s accident was another blow. The only saving grace was Russell escaped without any injury and was able to participate in the third practice session.

Russell scored a small moral victory as he outqualified his team-mate Robert Kubica again. The exclusion of Pierre Gasly and Räikkönen from qualification saw Russell promoted to 17th position. The Briton started 16th because of Giovinazzi’s penalty.

Russell progressed as far as 12th position during his long first stint. In a two pit stop race for him, Russell finished just ahead of Kubica. The gap in performance between Williams and the other teams has confined Russell to racing his team-mate Kubica at the back of the field.

“It didn’t seem like anything was going our way,” said Russell.

“It’s not been a smooth weekend for us, but once we got going after qualifying I felt fine. I am quite relieved that this weekend is over, it didn’t seem like anything was going our way.

 “Moving on to the next race, we are still pushing and hopefully, Barcelona will be more positive.”

The teams and drivers will reassemble for the Spanish Grand Prix (10-12 May 2019) in Barcelona.

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