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How Mercedes turned issues round so shortly in Baku

Mercedes seemed to be genuinely struggling for tempo on Friday afternoon in Baku — quick ahead 24 hours and Lewis Hamilton had certified second for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, one place forward of title rival Max Verstappen.

So how did the world champions flip issues round so shortly?

Hamilton on type

On Friday night, Mercedes was bracing itself for the worst.The post-practice engineering briefing stretched lengthy into the night, with the staff decided to seek out a solution to its poor observe efficiency. The automobile had so little grip on Friday afternoon that had qualifying taken place there after which, a Q3 look would have required a big diploma of luck.

Fast fixes in F1 are as uncommon as hen’s tooth, however in some way Lewis Hamilton managed to place his automobile among the many entrance runners and, with a modicum of luck within the type of a late crimson flag, discover his manner onto the entrance row of the grid.The actual fact the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc was nonetheless forward of him and Max Verstappen was vastly annoyed to be left in third after a scrappy first lap, informed you that Hamilton’s second place end result flattered the true efficiency of the automobile.

However generally in F1 you make your personal luck.

The Mercedes’ efficiency over a single lap had been poor all weekend. The issues the staff confronted two weeks in Monaco had been current once more as Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas struggled to get, and preserve, all 4 tyres on the proper temperature to unlock their efficiency. Each drivers had been hemorrhaging lap time within the gradual corners in the course of the lap, and the staff explored some excessive choices in closing observe to discover a answer.

“In FP3, we worked through some sort of really thorough engineering programme, and we were not shy of trying extreme things, which at the end were extreme as we have expected and weren’t a silver bullet but it was just crunching through the numbers, trying things, getting the feedback of the drivers and eventually we had the car in a more decent place,” Mercedes staff boss Toto Wolff defined.

“So it was the last run in FP3 where we tried to confirm the step and the car was there or thereabouts.”

However a giant chunk of Hamilton’s lap time in each FP3 and qualifying got here from a completely completely different supply. If a lap may very well be timed in order that the automobile in entrance would provide a slipstream alongside the lengthy pit straight, a big straight-line pace benefit may very well be gained.

Getting the timing proper with a rival automobile can be pure luck, as Hamilton managed with Sergio Perez in closing observe, however utilizing a pleasant teammate to do the towing can be a manner of producing a bit of little bit of your personal luck. And as luck would have it for Hamilton, it was his flip to go away the pits behind Bottas this weekend and, subsequently, he would profit from the slipstream.

For the very motive {that a} tow might be so advantageous at sure circuits, Mercedes alternates the choice of who will depart the pits first between the drivers at every race.

In Monaco it was Bottas’ alternative, in Baku it was Hamilton’s. Unsurprisingly, Hamilton selected to exit behind his teammate.

When it was put to Wolff that the staff used Bottas to assist Hamilton, he responded: “No.

“At the start of the joint journey of Valtteri and Lewis, we tossed a coin to see who had the selection to determine if he is working first the second [in qualifying].

“And this weekend it was Lewis’ turn to choose whether he runs first or second on the road and he choose second obviously.

“So this is identical system. It alternates from race to race between the drivers.”

Leclerc on pole

For the second race in a row, a red car was on pole position following a red flag at the end of qualifying. Once again, it was Charles Leclerc who secured the top spot with a quick lap on his first run in Q3 before his rivals were stripped of the chance to respond by a premature end to the session.

The big difference, however, was that Yuki Tsunoda — and not Leclerc himself — caused the red flag this time round. That should mean Leclerc’s driveshafts and transmission will be in a better state to start the race on Sunday, although it has to be said that his chances of winning still look slim.

As impressive as Ferrari’s single lap pace has been at the last two races, its race pace still appears to be lacking compared to Red Bull and Mercedes. Ferrari’s big advantage in Baku came in the tight middle sector in which this year’s SF21 is particularly nimble.

But that advantage did not translate so impressively when the car was full of fuel during Ferrari’s race simulations on Friday. In those conditions, the Ferrari’s average lap times were as much as 0.6s slower than pace setters Red Bull and about 0.4s slower than Mercedes.

That kind of disadvantage on a track like Baku will likely present Hamilton and Verstappen with the opportunity to overtake, but at least promises an exciting race as the fastest race car of the top three starts third and the slowest starts first.

Yet Ferrari still deserves credit for working its way back into the conversation about race wins this year. Consider where the team was last year and where it is now, and it’s clear significant progress has been made.

As a side note, had the Australian Grand Prix taken place as planned at the start of the season, it would have been Bottas, not Hamilton, who had the choice at this round. And to underline just how much lap time a good slipstream is worth, a team radio message relayed to Bottas in FP3 said Hamilton gained 0.6s as a result of the tow off Perez.

It’s not an exact science, but add 0.6s to Hamilton’s Q3 qualifying time and he would have dropped to eighth on the grid, just two places ahead of Bottas.

From second place, Hamilton is now in a very strong position to win in Baku.

The problems Mercedes experienced over a single lap in qualifying were not present over long runs on heavy fuel during Friday practice, where the car looked very close to pace-setters Red Bull. Ferrari, on the other hand, struggled massively with tyre degradation, meaning Leclerc will need a lot of his own luck to keep Hamilton and Verstappen behind on Sunday.

Four red flags

Baku’s street circuit should be a blueprint for what F1 needs in new additions to the calendar. It’s a genuine challenge for drivers and has several spots where a mistake leads to contact with the wall.

A handful of drivers pushed a little too far past the line on Saturday. Verstappen hit the barriers at the end of final practice and was fortunate the incident didn’t impact his participation in qualifying.

There were then four stoppages in qualifying due to red flags. In Q1 Lance Stroll and Antonio Giovinazzi hit the wall at Turn 15, while Daniel Ricciardo and Yuki Tsunoda missed the braking point and hit the wall at Turn 4. Tsunoda’s crash prompted Carlos Sainz, who was running directly behind the rookie, to spin into the wall shortly afterwards.

It’s curious to see the amount of incidents in the fifth year of Baku’s F1 tenure, but also quite refreshing after so many discussions around ‘track limit’ penalties in the opening four races of 2021. We’ve had back-to-back races at punishing street circuits where there is no grey area.

Valtteri Bottas wasn’t one of the drivers to hit the wall but he gave a quote which summed up the challenge of Baku, whilst talking about his confusion over why he’s been struggling for pace.

“I am dropping [time] each nook,” he said. “If I push more durable, I am within the wall. So that is the restrict.”

The red flags raise an interesting discussion, first prompted two weeks ago when Charles Leclerc crashed out of qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix, ending the session prematurely and giving him pole position.

This week, after the chaotic Baku session, Fernando Alonso suggested any driver causing a red flag should have their fastest lap time deleted, similar to the rule in IndyCar.

Speaking to Sky Sports F1, Alonso said: “[It is] unfair in all probability that the those who crashed, they restore the automobile and so they begin in that place tomorrow. All the opposite automobiles, we’re in parc ferme till tomorrow, we can not contact the automobile, so why they will change all of the components that they triggered the crimson flag?

“Maybe one day we are in that position and we take advantage of the rule. I think the people need to calm down a little bit and drive 98% in a street circuit because if you crash and you start last in the race, maybe you don’t drive over your possibilities.

“And I feel right this moment with so many individuals driving over the chances of their automobile or their talents.”

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