Azerbaijan GP Preview: Battle in Baku

2018-04-25 06:01

THE Formula 1 paddock is set for Baku this weekend as it jets into Azerbaijan for the fourth round of the 2018 season.

On the back of the first three races, the teams will arrive at this weekend’s Grand Prix with a varying degree of mindsets. Ferrari should arrive in a fairly decent frame of mind, but all is not up to par in the Italian team’s stable.

The general assumption would be that Ferrari would have learned from several dubious strategy calls in 2017 but, again, the calls in China left a lot to be desired.

It is an area that in 2017 cost them race wins and if they are to genuinely take the fight to Mercedes, they cannot fall into the same hole this season.

Notorious for taking Ferrari to task, the Italian media has delivered a scathing rebuke of the team’s treatment of Kimi Raikkonen.

The Finn has started the 2018 season in fine form but was still, shamefully, used as a blocker for his teammate during the Chinese GP. It’s a slippery slope Ferrari find themselves on. If they continue to sacrifice Raikkonen in aid of Sebastian Vettel, they will, undoubtedly, forfeit any chance of winning the constructor’s title too.

And if Ferrari is in the market for a replacement of their last world champion, say someone like a Daniel Ricciardo, it must be careful as to what image they are projecting to prospective drivers.

For Mercedes, Baku has turned into a must-win grand prix. The German team finds itself in unprecedented territory having not yet won a race in the 2018 season. Regardless of the circumstances that led to Ferrari, and Red Bulls’, victories, the fact remains that Mercedes finds itself needing to respond.

More so, Lewis Hamilton has looked decidedly off colour even in comparison to teammate Valtteri Bottas. Nevertheless, the team seems confident that it can bounce back.

“We just need to stick our heads together, stay calm, get the head down and come up with some solutions. Huge confidence in the team, they’ve proved that in the past,” says Toto Wolff.

The Baku circuit is one where Mercedes should do well. The circuit in Azerbaijan is the third longest on the calendar as it comprises a rather unusual layout for a street circuit. The tight and twisting middle sector is bookended by long, power-hungry straits, which combines in the first counter-clockwise lap of the year.

While the track hasn’t shown too much tyre degradation in the two years that it’s been on the calendar, it may prove a factor this weekend.

In particular, Ferrari has taken an aggressive approach by selecting ten sets each of the ultrasoft compound while Mercedes has gone for nine and Red Bull for eight set of the softest compound this weekend. “Baku is a bit strange,” says Pirelli F1 boss Mario Isola.

“Because it’s a street circuit but with a very high speed straight. You have some sectors that are very, very fast, but, also, you have some parts of the track in the sun and some parts in the shadow.”

The long straits may put Red Bull into some difficulty with overall laptime when compared to Mercedes and Ferrari, but they should in no way be discounted this weekend.

The probability of a safety car around the exceedingly tight mid-sector is high and Red Bull’s strategy calls have already netted them a race win. Max Verstappen’s performance this weekend will be worth noting as the young Dutchman has not only been shown up by his Aussie teammate, so far, in 2018 but also has to iron out some recklessness from his own driving.

The chances are good that this will be the weekend that Lewis Hamilton bounces back into form. The question is will Ferrari have the speed and more importantly the composure to stop him in his tracks, no pun intended.

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