The results of Azerbaijan’s first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix was overshadowed by the appalling violence that had broken out outside the Baku Circuit following a protest at the total lack of a separate pit lane for the safety of the local racing community.
The Formula 1 World Championship had all the excitement of a sporting event, with drama, disappointment, and much more besides.
On Saturday night in Baku, Azerbaijan, the referee came down from the elite level to the ATP where the world’s best tennis players compete. Tennis is a fast-paced, high-level sport that requires speed and precision. In order to be part of the elite group of players, you must be able to control a ball in that same precise way, and be able to hit it at the exact speed and direction. However, while all these skills are important, it is the fine-tuning of your own game that really matters.
As Lewis Hamilton blocked the front tyres of his Mercedes and drove into the exit zone at Turn 1, shouts from the Red Bull garage echoed through the walls of the pit complex in Baku. In a nearby garage, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff took off his headphones and pressed them between his palms in frustration. The heads of several mechanics fell around him. On a circuit where the performance of the Mercedes W11 rendered him unfit for victory, Hamilton picked up almost 25 points from his main rival, but he crashed out at the final corner due to a rare driver error. Meanwhile, Red Bull, who fully deserved their first one-two finish since 2016, only managed to cross the line first when Sergio Perez’s car lost hydraulic pressure in the final two laps. The emotions in both garages were audible, visible….. almost palpable. At the first corner, Hamilton understood what had gone wrong. As Perez pushed him towards the inside barrier on the restart, Hamilton’s left hand accidentally touched the switch on the back of the steering wheel, the brake. The change, normally reserved for laps in formation or laps behind the safety car, is used to prepare the car’s tires and hybrid system for maximum attack before the race begins. The exact function is kept secret, hence the magical name, but we do know that braking shifts forward, forcing the front brakes to stop, while braking behind is left to the hybrid engine system’s harvest mode. Pushing the brakes before doing the heavy lifting leads to one of the most common byproducts of physics: Heat. This heat is not only useful for ensuring that the brakes are in perfect condition for their first use after launch, but it also transfers energy to the main body of the tire. Formula 1 tires are fickle, and if they don’t corner at speed, they lose temperature quickly. A certain temperature threshold must be reached for the tyre rubber to provide optimum grip. Therefore, a tire cooling down before the start of the race or, as in this case, before the race resumes can be very bad news. That’s why you see racers making their way across the grid – it’s a way to simulate cornering and transfer the energy of the car’s movement to the rubber. By occasionally using the front brakes, the driver can convert the kinetic energy of the vehicle into heat energy from the brakes, which in turn contributes to the warming of the front tires. If magic… Lewis Hamilton came into Turn 1 on the straight after making a mistake with his brake adjustment. Clive Rose/Getty Images The only thing to remember is to turn off the magic setting before the race starts, because the front brakes alone cannot stop an F1 car when the driver brakes hard and to the limit. It seems that Hamilton did turn off the magic switch for the restart on lap 50, but touched it again with his hand before turn 1. A small but costly mistake. Perez did not understand what was happening in the Mercedes cockpit and could not have foreseen that he could force Hamilton into such an unusual mistake, but he deserves credit for forcing the world champion to make a mistake – whatever it was. If Perez hadn’t been so aggressive in defense, Hamilton wouldn’t have had to pass to the left and he might not have accidentally hit the wrong switch. Perez won the race, while Hamilton finished 15th after an inspection of the Turn 1 exit zone and received no points.
Who was the biggest loser in Baku?
The result in Baku ended Mercedes’ worst race weekend since the one-two finish at the 2018 Austrian Grand Prix and its worst run of two wins since the end of the 2012 season, when Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg each scored six points at the US and Brazil Grands Prix. Mercedes have scored just seven points in Monaco and Baku this year. Valtteri Bottas’ failed pit stop probably cost him and the team 18 points in Monaco, while Hamilton’s mistake in Turn 1 cost him a potential victory. In the same two stages, Mercedes’ main rival in the championship, Red Bull, scored 62 points. Speaking to reporters on Sunday night, Wolff said the two races were the hardest of his Mercedes career, adding: We can’t keep losing points like we did in Monaco and here. This is just unacceptable to all of us. But if Mercedes turned out to be the biggest loser on paper in Baku, Red Bull’s victory was rather hollow. Nothing should distract attention from Perez’s victory and what it means for the Mexican. There is a chance Baku could be a breakthrough race for Perez, who became the first driver since Daniel Ricciardo to win a race in the second Red Bull at the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix. Of course Perez would not have won if Verstappen had not suffered a puncture on lap 46 of 51, but he was in the right place at the right time to take the lead and also lost time at the pit stop due to a slow tyre change compared to his teammate. Max Verstappen has withdrawn from the Azerbaijan Grand Prix after a puncture Evgeny Safronov/Getty Images But looking only at the two title contenders, Verstappen’s puncture was perhaps more catastrophic to his title chances than Hamilton’s mistake in Turn 1. If Verstapen’s left rear tyre had held out for another five laps, he would probably have won the race, set the fastest lap and increased his championship lead over Hamilton by a further 11 points to 15. Red Bull completed its first one-two punch since 2016, increasing its lead over Mercedes from 29 to 30 points. Instead, Verstappen remained where he had started the weekend in Baku, just four points ahead of Hamilton. The gap between Red Bull and Mercedes is 26 points – a good gap, but still smaller than it would have been without the puncture. Of course the result could have been much worse for Red Bull and Verstappen if Hamilton hadn’t stalled in Turn 1. But at a track where Red Bull had a clear performance advantage, Verstappen really should have – and deserved – more. It clearly looked like we would do a bit more damage today than we did, but we just have to take our chances when they come, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said on Sunday night. This day was a real rollercoaster, I feel like I’ve aged a few years! We controlled the race, led 1-2, and then suddenly losing Max and his chance to increase his lead in the championship by 11 points by driving the fastest lap was a real shame – but at least Hamilton didn’t take the lead and claw back his 18 points or so, which he could have done. Clive Rose/Getty Images The problem for Red Bull is that it could have hurt Hamilton and Mercedes even more than it has over the past two race weekends, and there will be few opportunities to do such damage this year. Although Mercedes is seriously concerned about the drop in results during the last two races, it is quietly confident that things will improve during the next race in France and the next two races in Austria. The Mercedes car has not lost any downforce or power since its dominant performance in Spain last month, but the nature of the circuits in Monaco and Baku has made it difficult for the drivers to appeal to the car’s true performance. On both tracks, Mercedes struggled to get all four tyres at the right temperature at the same time, and especially in time to drive a qualifying lap. In Monaco Hamilton struggled more than Bottas, and in Baku Bottas struggled more than Hamilton. Compromises were made in both races to remedy the lack of performance in practice, but they were clearly not satisfactory to the team or the drivers. On the other hand, both circuits are anomalies on the Formula One calendar, and the upcoming circuits before the summer break in August are much closer in style to Spain, where Mercedes was clearly the fastest. That doesn’t mean Hamilton will win the next five races easily, but Mercedes should be in a better position to give Red Bull a run for their money in those stages. We knew these two circuits would probably be the worst for us and I hope I’m right with that assessment, Wolff said. Let’s see how the European races go. Clearly, these two absolutely did not meet the standards and expectations we had set for ourselves. I think there are a lot of things that don’t work as well as they have in recent years. From an operational standpoint, it’s not our game. We haven’t found the right place for the car in qualifying and in the race to have a fast car in qualifying and in the race. We still have a lot to improve and that’s what I want to look at now to make sure we’re really in a position to fight for the championship, because we can’t keep losing points like we did in Monaco and here. This is just unacceptable to all of us.
To be delivered
Based on the six races so far, Mercedes will benefit more from the recent changes to the Formula One calendar. The Canadian Grand Prix, which was due to take place this weekend but was cancelled, has many similarities to Baku and could put Mercedes in the same trouble, while Singapore, another road circuit with little grip, was also cancelled at the end of the year. The Australian Grand Prix – which is run on a semi-road circuit with little grip – is unlikely to go ahead, while possible substitute races, such as a second race at the Circuit of the Americas, the return of the Turkish Grand Prix to Istanbul Park or the postponed China Grand Prix, are likely to work in Mercedes’ favour. Expect the title fight to keep going back and forth. Gabriel Buice – Pool/Getty Images If so, it could cost Red Bull even more that they didn’t take full advantage of Mercedes’ poor form in the last two races. But what perhaps angers Verstappen the most is the fact that it wasn’t his fault he crashed out of the race in Baku. A preliminary post-race investigation linked the puncture to debris on the track and ruled out Red Bull using the tire too long. But whether it’s bad luck or a mistake, the lost points will be just as painful at the end of the season as they make the difference between winning the championship or finishing second in the standings. It’s a back-and-forth thing, isn’t it, Horner said Sunday, pleased with the result. Max could have ended the weekend with 10 or 11 points if the race had ended like this with five laps to go and he could have been 15 positions higher. He’s only four years old. But at one point, it looked like he would be at 21. …if Lewis wins. It’s the twists and turns and I think even though the performance of the car is so close, that’s how the whole championship will be and that’s what makes it so exciting and motivates everyone on the team to a whole new level of energy. And that may still be the key. Just because there was some momentum at some tracks in the first six races doesn’t mean it will stay that way all year. Red Bull and Mercedes have been incredibly close at most tracks this year, and major mid-season updates are still expected at the British Grand Prix. That, combined with the brilliant skills of both drivers behind the wheel of both cars, will be the deciding factor in this championship, as Verstappen and Hamilton are just four points apart after three quarters of the season.
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