Ferrari keeps handing Mercedes the advantage

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Wow, another Mercedes one-two… how on earth did that happen? Unfortunately it involved a red car and a rather embarrassing mistake, two things which we are becoming increasingly used to seeing together. Therefore, our round-up of the good, the bad and the ugly from qualifying can only start in one place.

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Leclerc’s big Baku blunder: Charles Leclerc’s frustration said it all after his Q2 crash. The youngster had looked like the man to beat until the moment his car smashed into the Turn 8 barrier, given how quick he had been in every session until then.

He branded himself “stupid” immediately afterwards and then tweeted that he had been “useless”. Leclerc is known for being very hard on himself and he made no excuses for what had happened — an impressive maturity for someone still so young.

“I deserve what happened today,” he said in the TV pen while Q3 was taking place without him. “I’m very sad for what happened but I deserve it, I’ve been stupid. I will push to learn from this and come back stronger and hopefully have a very good race tomorrow.

“I don’t want to say anything stupid but I think after FP1, FP2 and FP3 and Q1, pole was possible today and I throwed [sic] all the potential in the bin.”

There’s no escaping the fact that it was a very silly mistake for someone with such talent and promise, but Ferrari can at least be satisfied that Leclerc responds to these setbacks with disappointment rather than anger. It’s a measured response we haven’t always seen from the man driving the other red car in those situations.

A gamechanger at Ferrari?: In the context of the whole season it is also a fascinating moment. Replays showed Sebastian Vettel nudging the inside wall at that same point on what must have been the lap before, meaning it could easily have been the No.5 Ferrari which ended up in the barriers. Leclerc’s mistake had a much higher consequence.

We’ve talked a lot this year about team orders at Ferrari and whether they’ve been wrong to back Vettel over Leclerc in the close situations. Sunday’s race will be a long one and Leclerc should have a quick car (and, now, a big point to prove) but his Q2 error will be a hard memory to shake if Ferrari does not leave Baku with a winners’ trophy.

Ferrari president John Elkann was shaking his head shortly after the incident and Leclerc watched the rest of qualifying while stood sheepishly alongside him. Leclerc has the mental fortitude to bounce back but tomorrow is a big chance for Vettel to open up a points gap to his young teammate and strengthen the argument that he remains the man worthy of priority treatment.

Tomorrow will be another fascinating afternoon for Ferrari and given how the season has gone so far its hard to escape the feeling this team needs a good news story to break itself out of this funk it appears to have got itself in to.

Mercedes’ curious Q3: The final moments of Mercedes’ qualifying session were very interesting indeed. Its two drivers went straight out on the track at the beginning of the last attempts, but pulled over on the pit exit to allow everyone else out. That left them at the back of a train of cars all making their way around the circuit.

In the press conference, Hamilton joked to Vettel that the team had “dummied” Ferrari, but it probably didn’t work as well as the reigning drivers’ champion would have liked. A tow — in layman’s terms, a slipstream from a car in front — can be crucial down Baku’s long, long back straight and Bottas credited one for his dramatic pole position.

Hamilton might well question how slowly Bottas drove on the out-lap, a moment which is crucial in helping drivers get tyre and brake temperatures required for an optimised lap. When you consider Hamilton seemed to lose most time in the first sector, where those two factors are crucial, it’s worth considering the role that played and whether Hamilton hid any frustrations at the situation during his post-race media commitments.

What happened to Vettel?: Vettel’s pace seemed to disappear in the final qualifying segment and it’s worth asking how much Leclerc’s incident — and his own brush with the wall — had rattled him. The four-time world champion got a tow to start his lap but finished it with no cars around him, something he felt played a part in missing out on a place on the front row.

“The session was tricky and long, the sun is going down and the track was cooling down so it was difficult to find the right balance of pushing on the outlap and playing with the tow trying to get something. At the end, I had a good lap but I had no tow to close the lap so that cost a bit.”

How many consecutive Q1 eliminations does Lance Stroll have now?: Eight…

…And? Well, that’s starting to look pretty bad, especially when Sergio Perez has days like today. The Mexican driver has always been very good at Baku and would be a safe bet to snatch a podium from fifth on the grid. The Racing Point has also always been quick around this circuit and the fact Stroll was so far away from delivering what his teammate did would ordinarily lead to a quite awkward debrief afterwards.

That awkwardness must disappear quite a bit when the other team members involved in it know they are dealing with the son of the man who pays the bills. Lawrence Stroll is entitled to sign who he wants to his race team but at the moment his son isn’t doing anything to end the stigma that has always followed him since arriving on the F1 grid. Stroll scored his only F1 podium at the Baku City Circuit, however, so let’s see if he can prove a point on Sunday afternoon in that fast pink car.

Kubica question compounds Williams’ weekend from hell: Williams’ mechanics probably can’t wait for their return flights home. The team probably thought things couldn’t get worse than Friday, when George Russell’s car was torn apart by a loose drain cover, forcing the team to fit its only spare chassis to his car for Saturday. But they did at the end of Q1, with Kubica misjudging the turn in to Turn 8, bumping the inside wall and going straight on into the barrier.

Claire Williams looked like she had seen a ghost after the incident and probably had several questions flashing through her mind. The team has confirmed it has enough spare parts to fix the car in time for tomorrow’s race, but Williams has accumulated a pretty hefty repair bill in just two days here. Claire dismissed suggestions the team is up for sale ahead of this weekend but Baku 2019 is turning into a rather expensive chapter in this team’s recent history.

But perhaps more pressing in the context of the season will be about Kubica himself. The Pole would have been eliminated from Q1 anyway, but it was a fairly embarrassing session for him before he had gone into the wall – he was 0.4s down on Russell, who came into the day playing catch-up in terms of track time. The Kubica comeback story had a great feel-good factor when it was announced, but that has faded quickly this year when it’s become apparent how off the pace he has been.

Williams is in a bit of a Catch-22 situation — the Kubica experiment has clearly failed, but who on earth is there to replace him?

Baku is bonkers: This weekend has been quite mad. Friday was incredibly chaotic, with the drain cover incident mentioned above. A fairly crazy Formula 2 race kicked off the day and included two cars crashing during a Safety Car restart, but a fairly normal FP3 followed.

Qualifying was back to the Baku norm, with the shunts for Kubica and Leclerc keeping the marshals down at Turn 8 pretty busy. I’m not a betting man, but I would stick a chunk of money on some more craziness in Sunday’s grand prix, which is fast becoming the most eagerly anticipated of the F1 calendar.

Other points worthy of mention:

  • Pierre Gasly starts tomorrow’s race from the pit-lane for a rather silly FP2 infringement, but he looked absolutely rapid in Q1. Will be fun to watch him fight through the field.
  • Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi will drop to 18th on the grid when his power unit penalty is applied. Alfa Romeo fitted a third set of control electronics to his car ahead of the weekend.

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