Winners in China, Red Bull looked strong again on Friday in Azerbaijan. Of course, the same was the case at the same track on the same day last year, before they fell back massively in qualifying. But as Lawrence Barretto explains, this year could be different…
Red Bull won last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix with Daniel Ricciardo, but that was down more to the good fortune of a chaotic race than outright speed. This year, they arrive in the Land of Fire on the crest of a wave, having sealed victory – again through Ricciardo – last time out in China.
Their pace was strong on Friday, with Ricciardo just a fraction off Valtteri Bottas’ leading time in FP1 before moving to the top of the pile in the second session. The Australian said he had the confidence in the car to attack, something that is crucial on a street track.
Mercedes and Ferrari usually find something a little extra in qualifying, when they turn their engines up, but the evidence suggests that even if Red Bull don’t make the front row, they have great race pace - and this is a track where it is, as Williams' Chief Technical Officer Paddy Lowe puts it, “relatively easy to overtake”.
And as Ricciardo proved in China, overtaking is an area where he’s one of the best – if not the best – in the business…
Red Bull haven’t made it onto the front row this season, their Renault engine lacking the grunt to compete with Mercedes and Ferrari in qualifying trim.
The figures from Friday provide pleasant reading for the team, but they will know that come qualifying, it will be tricky to replicate that performance.
Ferrari look rather handy over one lap. Kimi Raikkonen was pretty pleased with his efforts, though admitted there was still work to do overnight. There’s more pace to come from Sebastian Vettel, too, as the German admitted he struggled to find a rhythm and he didn’t get a clean lap.
The Prancing Horse will likely be the ones to beat, but that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise given they have locked out the front row in each of the last two races.
Mercedes have struggled on the ultrasoft tyres so far this season. They’ve also found it difficult to turn them on in cooler conditions.
Based on their form on Friday, it would suggest they still have work to do in both areas, with Valtteri Bottas a staggering 0.775s adrift of Ricciardo’s chart-topping pace.
“It’s up to us to master them [the tyres],” said Bottas. “It’s difficult and a challenge, especially when the temperatures are changing from one day to another, and different day times.
“We definitely have plenty of things to look at tonight to understand for tomorrow and Sunday.”
Best single lap (combined sessions, all ultrasoft tyres)
Fernando Alonso’s time looks impressive, but McLaren admitted it’s slightly unrepresentative given he picked up a tow from Nico Hulkenberg on that lap.
Alonso reckons he picked up “a couple of tenths” as a result. That would drop the team from fourth to sixth to suggest making it into Q3 will be challenging.
Ever wondered what a driver’s true pace would be if he managed to hook up his best three sectors? Well we’ve crunched the numbers for Baku – and all but four drivers could have improved...
Ultimate lap times
DIFFERENCE TO BEST ACTUAL LAP (S)
Both Red Bull drivers could have gone around three-tenths quicker in this scenario and would have finished one-two. It would have also ballooned their advantage over the next best team from 0.006s to 0.376s.
Kimi Raikkonen was just 0.006 off what was theoretically his best time. If only he could do that when it's qualifying, he might find himself on pole for the first time since Monaco last year…
Pierre Gasly has the most to gain – 0.597s. That would have put him 11th, rather than 15th in FP2...
While they lack something in qualifying, Red Bull have so far this season made up for it in race pace and judging by the numbers, that looks like the case again in Baku.
Of course, this data may not show the full picture – and it’s unclear what fuel loads everyone was running – but it can at least give us a hint as to what to expect. |
Long-run pace deficit
|POSITION | TEAM GAP | (S/LAP) |
|------ |------ |------- |
|1 | Red Bull | |
|2 | Ferrari | +0.2
|3 | Mercedes | +0.9 |
|4 | Renault | +1.1 |
|5 | Force India | +1.1 |
|6 | McLaren | +1.6 |
|7 | Sauber | +1.7 |
|8 | Haas | +1.8 |
|9 | Toro Rosso | +1.9 |
|10 | Williams | +2.3 |
Ricciardo admitted there was work to do on the ultrasoft for the long runs, but he’s confident the team have identified where they can iron out the issues.
On the supersofts, they look brilliantly quick. The Australian was on average more than half a second faster than Vettel on that compound during that run.
Mercedes’ pace on the ultrasoft doesn’t look good, while they didn’t do a long run on the supersofts. Technical Director James Allison said the team “have plenty of directions to head in” as they look to close the gap.
Further back, Renault appear strong. Technical Director Nick Chester said the long runs “looked encouraging, particularly for Nico”.
The team are running a new medium-downforce aero package in Baku, which includes a new rear wing, while both drivers reckon there’s more to come later in the weekend.
Force India are another team who look to have made a step forward. That’s down to a combination of understanding their package better, new parts working well and a more powerful engine mode being made available by power unit suppliers Mercedes.
There’s not much to choose between McLaren, Sauber, Haas and Toro Rosso, with the quartet separated by just three-tenths of a second per lap.
Williams find themselves at the bottom of the pile, but Lance Stroll was reasonably upbeat and said “there’s a lot more to come” this weekend.
Things are looking pretty rosy for Red Bull on the face of it and while they may struggle to beat the Ferraris in qualifying, their race pace suggests they will be in the fight for victory on Sunday.
Strategy-wise, it looks like a one-stopper is best option, despite reasonably high abrasion in Baku. A two-stopper is around 17 seconds slower.
If a team feels confident enough in their pace, they might try to get through to Q3 on the supersoft as they can then stretch the first stint in the race.
It’s also worth noting that it took several laps for drivers to get the optimum out of the ultrasoft. Ricciardo set his best lap on the sixth lap of a run that rotated flyers with cool-down laps.
Warmer temperatures are predicted for the rest of the weekend, which should in theory help Mercedes and could draw them back into the fight, while the predicted windy conditions could mix things up, too.
With no clear favourite emerging and a track that offers the potential for a feast of overtaking, the next couple of days should be pretty exciting. Buckle up!
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