Everyone was thrilled as the Formula 1 circus moved to Baku City Circuit in Azerbaijan last weekend. From the very first moment it was obvious that the new 6-kilometre long circuit was a tricky one; the walls were near, and making a mistake at braking was too easy. It was absolutely breathtaking to see Bottas in his Williams run 378 km/h on the 2-kilometre-long finish straight!
It seemed as if Mercedes was even more dominant at Baku than at any other venue this season. I couldn’t believe my eyes in the qualifying; how was it possible that Ferrari was two seconds off Mercedes’ pace? In spite of the speed, Hamilton had difficulties to put together a flying lap. Both in Q1 and Q2 the Briton went down on Turn 15 escape road.
In Q2 Hamilton had a lock-up, which caused severe flat spots on both of his front tyres. In the decisive Q3 the Briton had even bigger problems - he walloped the inside wall at Turn 8, which damaged the suspension, making he was out of the session; it was red-flagged with two minutes and five seconds remaining in the clock. Hamilton had lost his momentum in a heartbeat! P10 in the qualifying was a huge disappointment for the Briton.
Hamilton’s mistake meant that his teammate Rosberg absolutely owned the qualifying. Force India had been impressively fast the whole weekend; Perez was literally flying, and the Mexican made it second in the qualifying. The Mexican, however, had been handed a 5-second grid penalty for a gearbox change, which dropped him down to P7. Ricciardo in his Red Bull set an identical lap time to Sebastian’s and qualified 3rd; the Australian had set his time only a fraction before the German Ferrari ace! Sebastian couldn’t believe his ears when he was told on the team radio about setting an identical lap time to that of Ricciardo! And so it was P4 for Sebastian, and P5 - for Kimi. Due to Perez’s penalty, both red-suited drivers got to start the race with one grid slot higher.
I was absolutely amazed at how clean the start was. No collisions in the first corners, and no safety car at any stage of the race. Rosberg was able to maintain his lead, Ricciardo kept his second place, and the Ferraris of Sebastian and Kimi followed closely the Australian. Perez in his Force India, however, was right at the Iceman’s tail. It was obvious right from the beginning that Red Bull suffered from heavy tyre degradation due to low downforce.
Already on lap 6 Sebastian made a stunning overtaking move on his ex teammate Ricciardo; there was nothing the Australian could have done to prevent it. Ricciardo pitted already on lap 7 for a fresh set of soft tyres, and Ferrari reacted immediately.
On lap 9 Sebastian was asked to pit, but the German Ferrari ace questioned the team’s call by asking whether the team was sure about that. Sebastian trusted his own instinct strongly that pitting so early wouldn’t be the right strategy. Sebastian didn’t pit; instead it was Kimi, who pitted also for the yellow-marked soft rubber. At this point I was very suspicious. Would it be possible to run 40 laps on the same set of soft tyres or would Kimi have to pit for the second time?
Lap 12 was an unfortunate turning point for Kimi; the Iceman inadvertently crossed the white line at the pit entry. The Finn was immediately taken into investigation by the stewards. Penalty was inevitable, and Kimi got a 5-second time penalty for his infringement! It was such a shame, as Kimi’s pace was extremely good.
Towards the halfway point of the race, Sebastian had closed the gap to Kimi due to having much fresher tyres. We saw a classy team effort from Kimi; the Iceman didn’t even try to prevent his teammate from passing him. After the move we heard a legendary team radio message from Kimi; he strongly advised his team to tell Sebastian to push, as he didn’t want to have his teammate right in front of him. Sebastian replied by setting the fastest lap time in the race!
This year’s restriction in terms of team radio communication became an issue in the race for both Mercedes and Ferrari. Hamilton had something wrong with his engine settings, and the Briton kept asking his team how he could change the settings. Due to the new regulation, however, the team wasn’t allowed to help the driver. Hamilton didn’t have full power, and it took him over 10 laps before the problem suddenly fixed itself.
Kimi, too, asked about a handle in his car whether it was similar to that in the previous race, but, again, the team wasn’t allowed to give Kimi the answer. The technology in the modern Formula 1 cars is so complicated that it’s quite unreasonable to expect the drivers to know all two hundred different settings! Due to his technical issues, Hamilton was unable to fight for a podium finish.
Absolutely nobody could challenge Rosberg for the victory at the inaugural Baku City Circuit, although Rosberg had suffered from a similar issue with the engine settings. The German cruised to his fifth win of the season. Sebastian was the brilliant runner-up; the later pit stop had definitely been the right call!
Force India’s Perez had closed the gap to Kimi on the closing laps; Kimi’s SF16-H was already in a fuel-saving mode when Perez passed the Iceman on the final lap. It wouldn’t have made any difference, although Kimi had been able to keep Perez behind, as he had been given the 5-second time penalty! Because of Kimi’s own mistake, he had to settle for P4. It would have been such a joy to see both red-suited drivers on the podium! Nevertheless, the Iceman had driven an impressive race. And, quite amazingly, Kimi had been able to drive 40 laps on the same set of soft tyres! Hamilton, on the other hand, was unable to finish higher than P5 due to his issue with the engine settings.
This time Rosberg was able to increase his lead in the championship standings! Ferrari still has some work to do. I’m already looking forward to the Austrian GP. Would it finally be the race dominated by the red team? I’m sure Ferrari’s time will come!
With passion for racing red,