The Azerbaijan Grand Prix lacked the fizz of controversy compared to past editions, but Baku still served up a breathless race for the win that held genuine tension almost to the flag. Let’s consider some of the talking points.
1. Mercedes: the best team we’ve ever seen
It’s been the case for a while, but Baku just enforced what is becoming an unarguable truth: the Mercedes-AMG F1 team is the most well-drilled, efficient and devastatingly effective outfit ever seen in the World Championship era – and that includes the Michael Schumacher-era Ferrari.
The new record of four consecutive one-two finishes from the first four rounds is only the headline. The real story is how calmly this squad manages its strategy calls and how it consistently shows up today’s Ferrari for its lack of conviction on the pit wall. Ferrari’s pace had been strong through Friday and Saturday in Baku, but Merc works towards race day – and when it came to it, the result was never really in doubt.
But which of the silver cars would win? That question was only answered on the penultimate lap when Lewis Hamilton made a small mistake at the final turn and Valtteri Bottas made the most of George Russell-triggered DRS.
As boss Toto Wolff pointed out in the aftermath, Bottas’s mental strength has got to be phenomenal. Imagine checking your mirrors and seeing Hamilton looming fast. Had he wilted, few would have been surprised – but on this day the opposite was the case. Lewis was not coming past.
Wind back to the start and Hamilton clearly made a better getaway than his pole-sitting team-mate. They were side by side through Turns 1 and 2, but the mutual respect and self-discipline was palpable. During the Hamilton-Rosberg era, would the two cars have avoided contact?
Hamilton knows he’s in a real battle with his team-mate for the world title – for the first time in three years. You wouldn’t blame him if he privately backs himself without a shred of doubt, given how many times he’s beaten Bottas. But he will never forget 2016, when Rosberg mustered enough force to defeat him over a season.
We’ve asked it before, and we ask it again: could team-mate lightning be about to strike twice for Hamilton?
2. Ferrari under Mattia Binotto is still a work in progress
On Saturday, 21-year-old Charles Leclerc made a “stupid” mistake. Had it been Sebastian Vettel, the criticism would have been quadrupled from what the new boy faced, but that’s because Seb is a four-time world champion – Leclerc has a period of grace with the acknowledgement that at this early stage he’s going to drop it from time to time.
But like Vettel, his famous team really doesn’t have the same excuse. Once again, Ferrari lacked strategic teeth on Sunday afternoon. What was happening in Baku?
Mark Webber mentioned the old “half-pregnant” cliché when it came to the length of time Leclerc was made to run on his medium Pirellis. All his good work to make up some of what he lost on Saturday was blown by the pit wall’s lack of conviction. In truth, all he lost was fourth place, but once again Ferrari tied itself in knots on strategy.
“I don’t want to speak too early…” said Leclerc afterwards, but the inference is his patience is already wearing thin. He’s got plenty in common with Max Verstappen, even if he’s more polite at this stage about his frustrations. Let’s see how he copes as the season continues.
What is crystal clear right now is that Mattia Binotto hasn’t been able to make up all the team’s inadequacies that existed under his predecessor. In fairness, he’s had little time, but you don’t tend to get much at Ferrari and great leaders make big decisions quickly. If he hasn’t already, Binotto needs to act to address the naivety that characterises his team right now.
Wonder what big cheese John Elkann made of it all from his perch in the garage?
3. Daniel Ricciardo looks a shell of his former self
The sunny optimism and big cheesy grin have made Daniel Ricciardo stand out from most of his peers as a natural guy who is impossible not to like – and it helps that he’s also a hugely talented racing driver.
But the risky big move to Renault has bitten him hard so far, and the uncharacteristic error on Sunday – when he misjudged a dive up the inside of Daniil Kvyat, with both being forced to miss the corner – smacked of increasing desperation. And the subsequent reversing error that has cost him a three-place grid penalty next time out only exasperated his frustration.
The haunted look afterwards showed how the strain is taking its toll. He doesn’t appear to be in a great place right now – we’re talking psychology now, not the team he’s with.
But it’s not just Ricciardo who’s having a nightmare. Team-mate Nico Hülkenberg was in the doldrums in Baku too, expressing his own frustrations at his inability to harness anything meaningful from his Renault. A distant 14th on Sunday was as depressing for him in its own way as Ricciardo’s self-inflicted wound.
This team looks beleaguered, and you have to wonder how the Renault board will be responding. What might the future hold for the team from Enstone?
Could McLaren finally be showing that Tiger Woods isn’t the only one capable of a Lazarus act in world sport?
Seventh and eighth for Carlos Sainz Jr. and Lando Norris, on merit could be taken as signs of green shoots at this once-great team. Consistency race to race is still lacking, but McLaren does appear to be clawing its way back into a semblance of competitiveness.
Early days on this one, so let’s not get carried away. After all, Racing Point has just as much reason to be cheerful following Baku specialist Sergio Perez’s excellent sixth place finish and Lance Stroll’s points for ninth.
But the new tone of humility at McLaren might be paying off. The team lives in hope.