Azerbaijan Grand Prix preview – a must win for Ferrari around the streets of Baku?

With only three rounds of the 2019 FIA Formula One World Championship gone, it shouldn’t really feel like a must win for Ferrari in Azerbaijan, and yet somehow it does.

Following on from the disappointment of Bahrain, when Charles Leclerc seeming had the race in his pocket until misfortune intervened, Mercedes then stamped its authority on the Chinese Grand Prix to record a third successive 1-2 finish.

It all means that the Silver Arrows already holds a 57-point advantage in the constructors’ standings with Sebastian Vettel already 31 points behind Hamilton, Leclerc a point behind his teammate.

Add into the mix that Ferrari is also in something of a tangle regarding team orders after Leclerc was told not to race Vettel in China, Mercedes certainly appears to hold the whip hand going into Azerbaijan. Lewis Hamilton won around the streets of Baku last year and Nico Rosberg in 2016, suggesting that Mercedes is dialled into the vagaries of the circuit, which is unusually fast for a street race.

Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel in Bahrain
Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel in Bahrain

“Coming off the back of three races that definitely didn’t go the way we wanted, this GP is another important moment for us,” commented Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto in his team’s race preview. “We have prepared for it very well, analysing all the data we have acquired up until now, looking at areas where we can improve and working on adapting the car’s set-up and the power unit management to the characteristics of the track. In fact, Baku features a very long straight, which places special demands on the engine, both the internal combustion part as well as the hybrid elements.”

The Baku City Circuit features a 1.3-mile pit straight where cars can top out close to 215mph but has an interesting mix of challenging tight corners, not least the spectacular Turn 8 where drivers get close to the wall at the picturesque castle section at the start of a tricky zig-zag style chicane.

“It’s relatively easy to overtake on this track, partly due to the DRS, especially this year as it has a greater effect than in the past,” added Binotto. “The track surface is very smooth, which means tyre wear is generally low, but as the tyres therefore generate less energy, it can be difficult to get them in the right working temperature range. We know from past experience that there’s a high probability of the Safety Car appearing on track in Baku and therefore it’s an important aspect to consider when looking at the race strategy. We are bringing a few updates to Baku, as the first step in the development of the SF90.”

If Leclerc has any say in the matter, Mercedes may not have it all their own way. Driving for Sauber in 2018, the exciting Monegasque enjoyed one of his very best days, finishing a superb sixth place.

“Azerbaijan is one of my favourite tracks of the season, I simply love it and I’ve always performed very well there, having won and got another podium finish in Formula 2 and also scored my first Formula 1 points last year,” said Leclerc. “I always enjoy driving on it, especially the castle part with all those tight corners. It’s a unique track, you cannot find anything like it anywhere else in the world, so it’s pretty special. The rule is quite simple: never lose focus during the race otherwise at the first mistake you’re in the wall.”

In between Mercedes Baku victories, Daniel Ricciardo came out on top in 2017 but the now Renault driver will struggle to repeat that feat this time around, although his former Red Bull team could well be in the mix for the race win, the chassis is working well and Max Verstappen is already a force to be reckoned with this season.

Following back-to-back points finishes, Acronis partner team Racing Point is also optimistic of more success in Azerbaijan, especially as Sergio Perez knows what it takes.

“I’ve been on the podium in Baku at two of the three races so far and I think my podium last year was one of my best races,” said Perez. “I remember getting ahead of Vettel and then keeping him behind me during the final laps. I had to concentrate so hard and I drove some of the best laps of my life. Each lap was like a qualifying lap!

“This team has always been competitive in Baku so I am hopeful the same is true this year. For a number of reasons the track layout has always suited our cars. It’s a track where you need good top speed and confidence on the brakes. I was happier with our performance level in China, especially on Sunday, and we need to find the same rhythm in Baku.”

Like Perez, teammate Lance Stroll also enjoys the challenge of a circuit he has enjoyed his fair share of success at.

“I’m really pumped for this weekend in Baku,” added Stroll. “It’s a circuit I enjoy and a race with happy memories for me. I scored my first podium there in 2017 and I picked up points last year too. Baku is one of those races where you have to take your chances and make those opportunities count.

“This weekend is a good opportunity for us to score some more points. I think the track layout will suit us better than Bahrain and China, and we’ve done lots of preparation work in the simulator. I think we will see plenty of slipstreaming down the main straight again this year so I would expect some close racing.”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.