The longest straight in F1, a track twisting round an old castle, yellow flags galore, it can only mean one thing. F1 has returned again to the Baku street circuit for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Free Practice One was for many a disjointed but surprising opening session. The newest street circuit on the F1 calendar certainly threw up some surprises. Including the resurgence of Red Bull. As Max Verstappen used the quickest compound of tyres here this weekend, the supersoft tyres, to finish the session top of the timesheets with a best lap of 1:44.410. There was further good news for the team as well as Verstappen’s team mate Daniel Ricciardo was just over four tenths slower, leading to the team’s first 1-2 of the season during a practice session.
Current Championship leader Sebastian Vettel finished the session in third place on the soft compound tyres, and was under a tenth slower than Ricciardo. His rival for the championship, Lewis Hamilton was further adrift in his Mercedes, managing fifth place over a second off of the fastest time of the session. The two of them were split by the Force India of Sergio Perez. While the Mexican enjoyed a good result from the session he didn’t get things all his own way, as he was the first driver to bring out the red flag for this weekend.
Entering the tightest section of the track up by the old castle, the Force India driver ran slightly wide over the kerb which resulted in a clout into the tyre barrier, ripping off the car’s right-front wheel and doing substantial damage to that side of the car. The car also lost the right rear tyre with the wheel tether failing resulting in the rouge tyre going for a wonder. Luckily the tyre didn’t hurt anyone. The small saving grace Perez had from the accident was that he was not running his intended race gearbox at the time. Meaning he will not have to face a grid penalty for the wrecked gear box
Hamilton’s team mate Valtteri Bottas finished the session in sixth place despite being on the supersoft tyres, though it was unknown if his lap time was affected by the many yellow flags that came out in the session while drivers found the limits of the track and then some. With every driver it seemed taking to the escape roads at one time or another.
Esteban Ocon made it two Force India’s in the top seven, while the Williams of Felipe Massa showed that once again thanks to the long straight here, Williams are a potential threat for some serious points this weekend. The sister Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen finished the session ninth behind his former team mate Massa. While the Toro Rosso of Daniil Kvyat rounded out the top ten.
Meanwhile, McLaren came into the race weekend knowing they would have to take grid penalties for changes to parts of the engine, as Honda brought some much needed updates to their power Unit. The team made a very low-key start to the weekend in the lower midfield of the timesheets. This is mostly due to the deficit the team are suffering from their power unit when it comes to the long main straight. With Alonso’s MCL32 trailing the fastest cars in P1 by around 20mph in the speed traps. They finished the session 15th and 17th respectively.
Free Practice Two saw a similar story emerge of a difficult to read session thanks to the disjointed nature of the session. Though despite this fact the Red Bull of Max Verstappen was once again able to top the session on a 1:43.362.
The teenager did not have it all his own way though, as like Perez in FP1 he was caught out towards the end of the session and crashed into the barriers at Turn One in the closing seconds. The smack into the barriers caused some significant damage to the left-hand side and rear of his RB13, leaving his team with a fun repair job.
The Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas finished second behind the Red Bull of Verstappen, just a tenth of a second off of his fastest time in the session, while Verstappen’s team mate Daniel Ricciardo in the sister Red Bull managed third in the session. Just over a hundredth of second slower than the Mercedes. The results from both practice sessions are promising for Red Bull. Suggestion that they could also be a factor in qualifying tomorrow, barring any penalties Verstappen may pick up if he needs a gearbox change.
The Two Ferrari’s finished the session fourth and fifth, with Kimi Raikkonen finishing ahead of Sebastian Vettel in that particular battle. Much like in FP1 the team seemed to suggest there is more to come from the car, but that traffic and yellow flags cost them a significant chunk of lap time. Meanwhile it was a much more positive session for Williams rookie Lance Stroll, who seems fresh with confidence after scoring his first F1 points last time out at his home Grand Prix in Canada. He finished the session an impressive sixth.
The Force India’s meanwhile showed once again they have some serious pace round here with both cars in the top ten again. Sergio Perez finished the session in seventh while his team mate Esteban Ocon was ninth, the two being split by the Toro Rosso of Daniil Kvyat who also managed two appearances in the top ten for his team. The final top ten position was taken by the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton, who was over a second off the pace. The Briton’s time was set on the soft tyre as his running was disrupted by yellow flags for incidents around the track. A fact team principal Toto Wolff was quick to point out.
“I think you need to get into a rhythm in Baku, do laps to gain confidence and have the tyres in the right window,” Wolff said. “We had a bit of a messy session, a lot of traffic, a lot of yellow flags and we didn’t put him out at the right time.”
Hamilton was not the only driver struggling with finding the rhythm of the Baku street circuit, as Haas driver Romain Grosjean particularly struggled, describing his brake problems as “ridiculous” and ending the session with the slowest time. The Frenchman suffered many offs into the run off areas, and seemed to be incredibly frustrated by the whole thing. Letting his team know about his dissatisfaction via the team radio on several occasions.
However if there was one driver out there who could have done with a good session, it was under pressure Renault driver Jolyon Palmer, who arrived in Azerbaijan in the wake of Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul saying he had to start delivering. Alas it was not meant to be for Palmer as he caused the second red flag of the day when he crashed out at Turn Eight and hit the barriers, damaging his front wing and front suspension.
He was not the only driver to have to retire his car in the session, as like clockwork once again there were yet more problems for McLaren-Honda. Fernando Alonso ground to a halt yet again out on track mid-way through the session. Although Alonso said “engine, engine” over the radio after stopping with smoke coming from the rear of his car, team principal Eric Boullier later said a gearbox failure had been the cause of the stoppage. Meaning that at least for now Honda is off the hook.
The main issue with today was the disjointed nature of the sessions. With so many yellow flags out it was hard for drivers to put together a lap where they were fully on the pace the whole lap round. Meaning drivers like Hamilton and Vettel may still have a lot more to give, but simply could not show that today due to the messy laps they had where they had to slow constantly for yellow flags.
With two red flags and a whopping 113 yellow flags in both FP1 and 2 today. Expect a lot of drama in qualifying tomorrow with laps likely having to be aborted especially in Q1 due to incidents. And a possible six car shoot out for pole between the Red Bull, Mercedes, and Ferrari teams. With qualifying well here an absolute must for the race on Sunday. Expect a big battle tomorrow.
Azerbaijan Grand Prix Practice One Results
1. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, 1:44.410
2. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, +0.470
3. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, +0.557
4. Sergio Perez, Force India, +0.988
5. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, +1.087
6. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, +1.327
7. Esteban Ocon, Force India, +1.342
8. Felipe Massa, Williams, +1.558
9. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, +1.590
10. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, +2.207
11. Lance Stroll, Williams, +2.239
12. Kevin Magnussen, Haas, +2.311
13. Romain Grosjean, Haas, +2.427
14. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault, +2.807
15. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren, +3.036
16. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso, +3.091
17. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, +3.141
18. Jolyon Palmer, Renault, +4.115
19. Pascal Wehrlein, Sauber, +4.638
20. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, +5.527
Azerbaijan Grand Prix Practice Two Results
1. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, 1:43.362
2. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, +0.100
3. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, +0.111
4. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, +0.127
5. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, +0.253
6. Lance Stroll, Williams, +0.751
7. Sergio Perez, Force India, +0.944
8. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, +0.959
9. Esteban Ocon, Force India, +1.122
10. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, +1.163
11. Felipe Massa, Williams, +1.247
12. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, +2.153
13. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso, +2.371
14. Kevin Magnussen, Haas, +2.469
15. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault, +2.641
16. Jolyon Palmer, Renault, +2.699
17. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren, +2.812
18. Pascal Wehrlein, Sauber, +3.788
19. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, +3.985
20. Romain Grosjean, Haas, +4.360
Feature Image Credit: Red Bull Racing Press Release.