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Six key questions ahead of the Baku race

19 Jun 2016

Will there be carnage at the first corner? Can Sergio Perez make Mexico F1 winners once more? We consider these and four more crucial talking points ahead of Sunday's 2016 Formula 1 Grand Prix of Europe...

Is Rosberg ready to redeem himself?

On Friday it seemed that Nico Rosberg’s poor form from Monaco and Canada was still with him as Mercedes team mate Lewis Hamilton ruled the roost. But while the Englishman can stamp out fast laps straight away in difficult conditions, the cerebral German has a habit of working his way up to things, and so it proved here.

As Hamilton struggled in FP3, it was Rosberg who seemed stronger, right up until the closing moments when the world champion went ahead. But Rosberg had the advantage right from the start in Q1, beating his partner by a healthy 0.574s as Hamilton went down the escape road in Turn 15.

Rosberg was again faster in Q2, astonishing everyone with his lap of 1m 42.520s as Hamilton again struggled and was lucky to get his lap of 1m 43.526s done before the flag.

Q3 looked grim for both, after Rosberg had to back out of a good lap – albeit already four-tenths slower in the first sector, when Hamilton went off in front of him in Turn 15. Keeping his cool, Rosberg then lapped in 1m 42.758s to rescue the day for Mercedes and set himself up for a much-needed big points score.

Having squandered 34 points to Hamilton in the last two races, he needs a big result here. Will he win the inaugural Grand Prix in Azerbaijan? Let’s just say that starting where he is, in a Mercedes, it’s his race to lose.

Can Perez be Mexico’s first winner since Rodriguez in 1970?

Sadly Sergio Perez’s front-row qualifying place was spoiled by the five-place grid penalty he incurred when his Force India required a new gearbox following his big Turn 15 shunt in FP3.

For sure that won’t help the Mexican’s quest to become his nation’s first F1 victor since Pedro Rodriguez took his BRM to triumph in the 1970 Belgian race at Spa-Francorchamps.

Perez said P2 felt like the pole, but admitted he was still upset about the mistake he made which led to his drop from second to seventh.

“Obviously I’m a still a bit angry, but very happy - I think it’s a mix of feelings today! I think the lap that we put together in Q3 was very, very strong. It was a very difficult session for me, because obviously there is not a lot of time. After a crash you obviously lose some confidence. To get it back, to get in the rhythm again was great. I think the team deserves more, and hopefully tomorrow we can put together a strong race.”

The team admit that the pace of the VJM09 has been a pleasant surprise, which surpassed expectations, and on qualifying form it looks faster than either the Red Bull or the Ferrari. Interestingly, the qualifying speed trap revealed the Mercedes to be the fastest on the main straight at 334 km/h, with Williams and Manor next on 333, with the Force India matched by Verstappen’s Red Bull at 331 but still some 5 km/h up on the Ferraris that Perez must pass.

“I think we were expecting ourselves to be strong around here but not that good,” Perez said. “So to come away with P2 in quallie on this track… I think we have to look forward to tomorrow and do a strong race.”

There are rarely any fairy stories in F1 racing these days, but don’t rule Checo out, even starting from the fourth row instead of the first. If any race is likely to throw up a surprise result, it’s going to be this one.

Will Ricciardo finally get that elusive victory?

With Sergio Perez dropping from second to seventh, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo found himself boosted even further up the grid.

Prior to that final scramble when the red-flagged qualifying session was resumed with only two minutes and five seconds remaining, the Australian was down in seventh place and hoping for any sort of improvement after what he described as an indifferent first run. Instead, he vaulted to third, then was promoted to second. And he knows better than anyone that you can do a lot from there. Especially if you can get off the line well and then pressure the man in front into out-braking himself in tight Turn 1.

“My first run in Q3 was pretty average to say the least. I made a few mistakes. Then obviously I thought I had one more chance but then the red flag came out. I thought that was looking like that was it. They got me out in front and then I put in the lap, so it was good. I knew not everyone would get a lap, so I was just trying to think “do a good enough lap to at least jump up from seventh”, but in the end it was third. I think Seb… I maybe gave Seb a little bit of a tow, I don’t know how close he was to me, but it was good, very close and I’m really happy to bounce back with top three.”

Since Spain, let alone Monaco, the ‘Honey Badger’ has been a very ‘Hungry Badger’, and here he is in with an unexpected chance to have a very strong race. Don’t bet against a guy who has specialised in winning against the odds, finally snatching the success he believes he should have had in Barcelona and Monte Carlo. If he succeeds, few wins will be more popular or deserved.

Isn’t it time Ferrari made the breakthrough?

“Guys, you’re kidding me!” Sebastian Vettel exclaimed when told that Daniel Ricciardo had just snatched away his third place on the grid. Or second place, if you factor in Sergio Perez’s drop for a gearbox change.

That isn’t the end of the world for Ferrari, especially as Vettel showed in Montreal how quick the red car can be getting off the line. You can bet that the vision of him sprinting past the two Silver Arrows in Canada will still be imprinted indelibly in Mercedes’ minds. But the German makes no bones about the disappointing performance of the SF16-H here, where it’s 1.2s shy of Mercedes’ pace.

"We were a long way off but I think we improved the car, but yeah, overall obviously still not great if you look at the gap to Mercedes,” he conceded. "So that's something we need to try and understand. We know the car is quick and the pace is there from last week but obviously it's a different circuit, different conditions. It's not ideal. Nevertheless, we put both cars in a very good position to have a good race tomorrow and anything can happen."

The four-time champion believes that it’s the slow corners in which the car is losing round, and maintains that the engine with its revised turbocharger introduced in Canada last week is strong, even if he was nearly 10 km/h down on straight-line speed compared to Rosberg.

The ace up his sleeve could be starting on the clean side of the grid, and getting the sort of getaway he managed in Montreal could be the key to a better showing tomorrow.

Can Hamilton perform a miracle?

If ever there was an example of how things can change in a day, it was the difference between the world champion’s Friday and his Saturday. On the first day he could do little wrong; on the second it seemed he could do little right.

So what on earth went so wrong?

“It's a fine line between being on it and not being on it - and I just wasn't on it today,” he said. “I had a fantastic rhythm yesterday but none whatsoever today. There's no specific answer or excuse. I wasn't hitting the right apexes or the right braking zones... it was just one of those sessions. Sometimes it happens. It was my fault, so I'll apologise to the team and try to make up for it tomorrow.”

He may, however, be selling himself short, since it’s believed that an overnight set-up change altered the feel of the F1 W07 Hybrid for the worse.

What chance does he have in the race, in a car that is again so much quicker than its rivals?

“It's always difficult to come back from this kind of position so it'll be damage limitation tomorrow,” he confessed. “I highly doubt I can challenge for the win - but I'll give it my best shot and try to bring home as many points as I can. The car is good here and we've got more pace than most of the others. I've just got to make my way through any tangles at the first corner and see where I go from there.”

On previous race performances this year that might be easier said than done, but you never write this guy off.

What is the chance of first-corner carnage?

As we saw in the GP2 race on Saturday, there is going to be a lot of action in the first corner. It’s a distance of 202m from the start line to the turn-in point. That’s not the longest of the season - Barcelona holds that record at 730 m - but everybody is going to fancy his chances of out-braking the man ahead of him. And the leader will have to judge it all for them, and has an excellent chance of out-braking himself!

In GP2, Pierre Gasly tipped Norman Nato into a spin in the tight left-hander, triggering chaos behind which saw Sergio Canamasas left with nowhere to go but over the back of Gasly’s Red Bull car, and the DAMS cars of Alex Lynn and Nicholas Latifi and Marvin Kirchhofer’s Carlin machine eliminated too.

Even more so than the first corners in Shanghai and Sepang, Turn 1 here is tailor-made for incident…

Expect several safety car interventions too, if GP2’s five were any guide in what ended up a 25- rather than 29-lap race. That’s less than half the Grand Prix’s scheduled 51.