The Ferrari team principal, Mattia Binotto, has been a picture of considered, affable and approachable calm this season. Indeed, in that respect his leadership has been a welcome breath of fresh air at the Scuderia. Come Formula One’s next round in Azerbaijan, though, it would be understandable if some nerves were beginning to jangle behind his Harry Potter spectacles. Ferrari are winless after three races and the question they face if they cannot perform next Sunday is ominous: if not in Baku, then where?
Ferrari had looked the team to beat in testing at Barcelona but at the opener in Melbourne they could not match Mercedes. At the next race in Bahrain, Charles Leclerc had a car with the form from Spain and a win was denied him only by a mechanical problem. Optimism soared as a consequence, only to take another beating in China, where Mercedes had clear distance in race pace.
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Baku is the final flyaway round before F1 returns to its European heartland. Across these first four meetings the cars are tested across a range of circuit layouts, track surfaces, temperatures and conditions. If Ferrari are on top in Baku they can take heart in having been quickest in two of the four. If Mercedes have them under the cosh again it will be a major blow.
On paper Ferrari should be strong in Azerbaijan. It seems they have a straight-line speed advantage, which should be a boon on the longest straight in F1, where the cars are at full throttle for 24 seconds. But it is not only horsepower that matters, as Binotto acknowledges.
“Baku is a circuit where you have a different aero configuration, so it’s not only power units and straight‑line,” he says. “It will be aero configuration, it’s not only the straight in Baku, it’s a lot of corners, it’s a city circuit and is very difficult in that respect.”
The street circuit features a tight, technical middle sector and it was through the twisty stuff in China that Mercedes held an advantage, so Ferrari need to improve there, and Baku requires a delicate compromise. The teams run lower downforce to maximise the straights but trade that against a loss of grip and the challenge of putting the tyres’ temperature in their operating window.
It is a tough test, acknowledged by Lewis Hamilton. The first race at Baku in 2016 was a pedestrian affair but since then it has thrown up absolute thrillers. In an incident-packed 2017 Sebastian Vettel suffered his road rage incident when he barged Hamilton, before the British driver lost places when he went into the pits for a loose headrest, while Daniel Ricciardo charged from 10th after a crash in qualifying to win the race.
Last year Ricciardo and his then Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen took one another out before Vettel lost places going in too hot after Valtteri Bottas on a restart. The Finn then suffered disappointment with a puncture costing him the win on the penultimate lap.
Hamilton took the flag but knows he has yet to quite master Baku and thinks Ferrari should be on the front foot this year. “It’s a great track and one that I have struggled at a little bit,” he says. “I go with a mindset that I have to improve on my previous performances. I was fortunate to win last year but I was not quick enough through the weekend and I expect Valtteri to be quick and the Ferraris to be particularly quick.”
Mercedes now have three consecutive one-two finishes to start the season, a feat last achieved when Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese dominated for Williams in 1992. There has been no little surprise Mercedes have done so against the expected threat of Ferrari, for whom the points table makes difficult reading. Hamilton leads Bottas by six points but Vettel is already 31 behind. At this stage last year the German had a lead of nine over Hamilton and at times a quicker car but he still lost the title.
In China last Sunday Ferrari did not challenge and Hamilton has identified the conundrum facing them. “They were quick on the straights overall but losing in the corners,” he says. “It will be interesting to see how long they keep that strategy. In some places it will be great, probably Baku will be good for them in that respect, but in others maybe not so much.”
Added to all of which there is Leclerc, who has now definitely proved he is a threat to Vettel. After being told to move over for the German in China, he has now received team orders in all three races. Leclerc did not look happy after Shanghai and is unlikely to continue to accept the whip if he repeatedly outraces his teammate.
Confidence remains high at the Scuderia but they are rapidly marching towards a crisis point. If Ferrari cannot ace Azerbaijan, staying calm and carrying on may prove tricky.
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