Friday, a typical choice day in Baku, the teams tried to find the best level of downforce for the polarizing circuit layout and the best combination of tire compounds on which to base the ideal strategy. Neither choice was clear.
Nor the competitive order in this wild and windy place. Red Bull looked comfortably quicker than Ferrari in the opening session, as Sergio Perez picked up where he left off in Monaco with blistering speed around a track he invariably shines on.
But in the final session, as Ferrari switched to a low downforce rear wing, the roles were apparently reversed. The Ferrari no longer gave up between two and three tenths in Sector 3 to the Red Bull, as it had in FP1 – but was still super fast through the tight corners of the central ‘Old Town’ sector.
The Red Bull remained quickest at the end of the straight by a significant margin but for much of the length of it there was little choice between the two cars.
Around this long track where full ERS deployment is not available on demand throughout the lap, part of Red Bull’s late-stretch advantage seemed to come from the capability of its power unit. to unfold longer. The Ferrari, as usual, hit better in the corners, in line with the theory that it uses a smaller, more responsive turbo than its rival.
Max Verstappen has had quite a troubled time, with an imbalance in Red Bull and a floating DRS flap in FP1 – very much like the one that troubled Red Bull last year towards the end of the season.
In theory, it was a faster wing than that used by Perez, with a more deeply bulged section at the bottom of the flap. But the DRS mechanism wasn’t powerful enough to hold that flap fully open as the car approached top speed. For the second session Verstappen reverted to a Perez spec wing, but was still unhappy with the balance of the car.
He spent a lot of time in the garage making adjustments, so much so that he only did three long race laps at the end of the session. He was also unable to complete his ideal lap on the soft tires – ironically due to yellow flags from teammate Perez taking the exit lane of Turn 15.
The fastest lap came on lap three of his tires around a track where the ultimate performance came on lap one.
“Yeah, for once on a street circuit we were running the tires straight away, I mean for everyone it looks like,” Verstappen said. “The Ferrari looks fast over a lap, but luckily over the long stints it looks a bit more consistent.”
Baku Friday Long Run Rhythm
|ten||To stroll||1m50.221s||7 rounds||mediums|
Verstappen’s place at the head of these long times is much flattered by the short duration of his run on softs. Most teams split their long run, with one car on the mediums, the other on the softs. Charles Leclerc’s average in the Ferrari on softs is derived from a seven-lap race.
Comparing Sergio Perez’s medium tire runs with Carlos Sainz, it seems to be extremely tight between the two top cars. Both are six-lap races and they are separated by 0.096 seconds, in favor of Perez. The medium seems to be the slightly better tire on a stint, but the soft holds up well enough that a one-stop strategy seems like the theoretical optimum.
“It didn’t go as well for us in the second session,” Perez said. “We haven’t been able to sort out our issues, but we have the data, with both tires long term. We’ll go through that tonight and hopefully we can put it all together tomorrow.
Ferrari raced the first session with their conventional rear wing but switched in FP2 to the low downforce version that first appeared in Miami but did not race there.
The mainplane is less extravagantly spoon-shaped than the usual wing, with a straighter leading edge and less bottom surface. It seemed a very significant improvement, even taking into account Red Bull’s troubled second session. Leclerc’s best lap was more than 0.25s behind the peloton, while in the first session he was around 0.15s slower than Perez.
The fastest times in session two were skewed somewhat by Perez’s Turn 15 yellow flags as they denied Verstappen and Sainz what would have been their best laps. In fact, excellent towing from Lewis Hamilton helped Fernando Alonso’s updated Alpine with its new sidepods to the fourth fastest time.
“I don’t think anyone really made the final lap,” Leclerc said, “including us. But I’m very encouraged that our pace in the long stints was good and the tires seemed to be holding up well.
Sainz pointed out how tough the spot is in the latest generation of cars, which are more physical in slow corners, bounce you around the straights while demanding extreme precision to be fast without hitting walls or getting surprised by sudden gusts of wind.
All of these point to the usual incident-filled race day in Baku and as such the result might not be in the last tenth of outright performance. The rebound, in addition to being physically uncomfortable, made it difficult for Sainz to be fully confident on the brakes.
Visually, Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes seemed to have settled on an equally low level of downforce. Mercedes used their low-downforce Miami wing, but wing levels weren’t the team’s primary concern.
As expected, the same suspension-induced mechanical rebound issues experienced in Monaco were detrimental to its performance in slow corners. This contributed to the extreme bounce seen at the end of the straights, but did not require a compromise in ride height. The Ferrari was also plagued by late-stretch rebounds and the Merc’s lack of pace – it was 1.3s down – was in slow corners and on the straights.
“I can’t tell you where 1.3s is,” said a somewhat crestfallen Lewis Hamilton. “A lot of it happens on the straights.”
George Russell felt that part of the problem was how the car used the tyres. “You see with a number of drivers, their laps come right at the end of a race whereas Ferrari and Red Bull seem to be able to turn it on straight away. But that’s not all. They just have cars that are faster than us. Even if we had perfect control of the tyres, that’s only 50% of our problem.”
With Montreal made up of corners just as slow as here and Monaco, Mercedes suspects it will be Silverstone before a Barcelona level of performance is within reach, when mechanical limitation is less punitive. Around Baku it will be a case of trying to qualify ahead of the midfield pack – with the most likely threats coming from Alpine and AlphaTauri. The first is very strong on the straights, the second good in slow corners.
Hamilton was the fastest Mercedes in FP1, Russell in the last session.
“We tried something experimental on our car in the second session,” Hamilton said, “which wasn’t very nice to be honest and I think we’ll probably be back tomorrow.”