Bottas back on top

At the next race in Barcelona, all eyes will be on the Finn to see if he can sustain this form and for the sake of the World Championship battle, I certainly hope he can!

Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton completed a fourth straight one-two finish for Mercedes since the beginning of the 2019 season — the first time any team has done so.   -  Getty Images

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix wasn’t as action packed as in previous years, but in terms of the narrative of the World Championship fight, it was a really interesting race to watch and could prove to be a turning point in the battle. Coming into the weekend, all eyes were on Ferrari as they really needed to stop the Mercedes steamroller and take the win to get themselves back into the World Championship battle. As things transpired, it was Valtteri Bottas who delivered and put himself into the lead of the championship by a single point, which is a strong statement from him as we head into the main European season.

The track temperature changed a lot across the day in Baku. With the delays in qualifying and the temperature dropping away, the Mercedes drivers were able to get the ultra-sensitive Pirelli tyres into the window better than the Ferrari in Q3 and locked out the front row. It was clearly a challenge for every driver out there with the tyres being probably a step too hard for this track, and neither Mercedes driver really did a perfect lap, but it was Valtteri who made fewer errors and snuck in front of Lewis.

Ferrari and Charles Leclerc were left ruing his costly mistake in qualifying, but I do think that the team need to take some of the blame for that. Why they decided to use the medium tyre, which wasn’t working well in the cool conditions of Q2, I just fail to understand. Yes, they burnt up an extra set of softs in free practice, but they could have just done multiple laps on just one set like Max Verstappen did in Q3.

Ferrari were concerned about whether Charles Leclerc’s soft tyres would do 22 laps without too much graining, but I think it was worth a risk because at worst he would have been in fifth, which is where he finished anyway with their strategy.   -  Getty Images

 

Frankly, of all the rival team engineers I spoke to, not one person could come up with an explanation as to why you would bother with the medium when it was a disadvantage to start the race on that tyre anyway! The drivers also should have made the call after the first lap to say that the tyre just wasn’t working, boxed and put on a set of softs. On a street track, I always think it’s a big risk to give yourself a high-pressure final run because there’s a good chance there will be yellow or red flags at the end, and if you haven’t put a banker on the board, then you’re in trouble.

Ferrari’s pace in the race was similar to Mercedes, although Sebastian Vettel was never quite quick enough to challenge them. If they had managed to qualify in front, I do think they would have won the race as they still had a straight-line speed advantage, which would have made them hard to overtake.

Leclerc’s strategy in the race was also a bit confusing because I think they should have pitted him a few laps earlier before the Mercedes drivers got DRS on him. Charles basically gave the Mercedes cars and Vettel free lap time with DRS and cost himself a load of time. If he had pitted on lap 29, when he was two seconds ahead of Valtteri, he would have had only 22 laps to the end on the soft tyre on a lower fuel load. He would have rejoined only eight seconds behind Verstappen, who would have been on 14 laps older medium tyres, so the chance of catching and passing him would have been higher.

Ferrari were concerned about whether the soft would do 22 laps without too much graining, but I think it was worth a risk because at worst he would have been in fifth, which is where he finished anyway with their strategy. If it worked and he was able to attack, he could have got fourth and maybe even higher depending on the pace because the soft would have been a better tyre than the medium at the end of the race in the cooler temperatures. Either way, on the whole it was another weekend like Bahrain where Ferrari managed to not capitalise on having a car fast enough to win.

I think Lewis Hamilton will be kicking himself for being so generous at the opening corner of the race with Bottas. Yes, he didn’t get pole, but he made a much better start and had snuck in front on the run down to the first corner before braking earlier than I expected him to, which basically gave Valtteri a chance to stay with him around the outside. This may not be his strongest track, but if Lewis watches the replay back, I’m sure he would feel like he could have won if he was just a few metres later on the brakes into the first corner.

Pierre Gasly turned a bit of a corner at Baku. He had a catalogue of penalties to deal with, but in terms of pace, it does seem like he’s beginning to get his head around the Red Bull Racing car.   -  AFP

 

I thought Valtteri did a great job and at the end of the race when Lewis started to ramp the pressure up and get close to DRS, the Finn responded very well with pace of his own to match and that was a clear indication that he’s up for the title battle this year. Understeery tracks like China, combined with lower grip tracks like Baku and Sochi, seem to suit Valtteri more than Lewis. If Bottas can take the fight to Lewis at circuits like Barcelona and Silverstone, then that indicates to me this could truly be a championship battle that’s going to be a massive inter-team one like 2016.

Pierre Gasly was another driver that I thought turned a bit of a corner this weekend. He had a catalogue of penalties to deal with, but in terms of pace, it does seem like he’s beginning to get his head around the Red Bull Racing car. Yes, Baku is a bit of a unique circuit, so we’ll have to see how he gets on in Barcelona, but his fastest time in Q1 was faster than anyone managed in Q2 as well (I was reliably informed that there was no noticeable performance gain from the fuel flow error). In the race, running the same strategy as Leclerc, he was matching the Ferrari’s pace well. In fact from lap 14 to 30, once the other leaders had all pitted, Pierre only lost two seconds to Charles, which is very impressive considering he would have damaged his tyres more in the dirty air of other cars when coming through the pack on the opening laps.

On to Barcelona next and every team on the grid will be arriving with plenty of updates in the relentless F1 technical war. All eyes will be on Bottas to see if he can sustain this form and for the sake of the World Championship battle, I certainly hope he can!