By Sean Kelly, C4F1 statistician
If Ferrari are going to wrest the 2019 world titles from the grasp of arch rivals Mercedes and their dominant drivers, they’re going to need to turn the tide sooner rather than later.
The Mercedes team now have four 1-2 finishes in the opening four races, a run of results not seen in the opening races of a Grand Prix season since Ferrari took six consecutive 1-2 finishes in the first six World Championship Grands Prix in 1952 (although that run was interrupted midway through by the Indianapolis 500, which was not a Grand Prix but counted for the championship).
“I don’t think we have ever performed at this level before and I’m really grateful for all the hard work from everyone.”— Mercedes-AMG F1 (@MercedesAMGF1) April 28, 2019
Lewis’ Baku debrief https://t.co/3nwxOy0GqY #AzerbaijanGP pic.twitter.com/UN4wwML8vE
Four in a row is only one short of Mercedes’ best ever run in what has already been a period of overwhelming dominance in the hybrid era, and they will head for Spain and the first European round with a mammoth 74-point lead over the Scuderia.
Although “Mercedes dominate Grand Prix” is not exactly groundbreaking news, Valtteri Bottas is changing the narrative with his continued pace this season. A second win in four races saw him retake the championship lead on Sunday, basely solely on the bonus point he scored for the fastest lap in Melbourne. How important will that prove to be at the end of the year?
Karma owed Bottas for the cruel way he denied victory in Baku twelve months earlier, when debris cut a tyre with only three laps remaining. Hamilton was the only person to pressure him, although without getting close enough to attempt a pass.
A fourth consecutive 1-2 was the team’s 48th overall, surpassing McLaren for second on the all-time table, with only Ferrari (83) having more. It also extended both drivers’ finishing streaks to 16 in a row, the longest active streaks. Mercedes possess that rare double whammy of the best performance AND the best reliability.
It says much for Sebastian Vettel’s lacklustre season that he moved into the top three in the championship (aka “the best non-Mercedes”) for the first time this season on Sunday. The German has finished in the top four in every Baku race ever held without ever winning it, but without a top two finish in 2019 and with only six laps led all season, he’ll be hoping that the next race in Catalunya delivers the same performance that made Ferrari the fastest team in winter testing.
Max Verstappen may have entered the campaign with slightly lower expectations, but he’s finished in the top four in every race in 2019, and although teammate Pierre Gasly suffered a technical failure on Sunday, Verstappen’s performances have been a strong rebuttal of the notion that Honda power units would prove to be either fragile or uncompetitive.
We maximised our result today by finishing 4th. Our race pace on the medium tyres was really good, but after the VSC we couldn’t get the tyres up to temperature anymore. We’re getting closer #KeepPushing #AzerbaijanGP pic.twitter.com/sKzujSiMwS— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) April 28, 2019
Sunday could even be considered a slightly disappointing result given that Red Bull topped both Q1 and Q2 – the first time any session or qualifying segment had been led by anyone outside of Mercedes or Ferrari in 2019.
Perhaps Ferrari’s biggest hope of breaking the Mercedes bulwark this weekend was Charles Leclerc, who had led all three practice sessions before costly crash in Q2 that left him only eighth on the grid. Another curious strategy call from the team meant that when he eventually stopped for soft tyres – theoretically the quickest tyre – he was too far behind to affect any change among the leaders.
A late second stop in order to help him take the fastest lap bonus was scant reward, and he’s now finished fifth in three of his first four races for Ferrari.
The “best of the rest” race was firmly won this weekend by Racing Point’s Sergio Perez, on a track that has consistency brought him his best results. Prior to Sunday, the Mexican was the only driver to have finished on the podium more than once in Baku.
He was not to reach quite such heights this weekend, but he ran fourth early on, and a sixth place finish gives Racing Point their best-ever result in Formula 1 (yes, the car and the team bear a striking resemblance to Force India, but they are officially a new constructor in 2019).
Excellent job from all the team the whole weekend. A perfect weekend where we came out with an unexpected result. Great points for the championship where we rank 6th in the drivers championship and 5th in the constructors. Thank you everyone for your support, this just begins!!! pic.twitter.com/KZCzEeZwv2— Sergio Pérez (@SChecoPerez) April 28, 2019
Perez’s teammate Lance Stroll added more points with ninth place, despite being eliminated in Q1 at the last eight consecutive races (the worst run for any driver on the grid at present). In addition to finishing on the podium in 2017, Stroll has finished in the points in all three of his visits to Baku, the only circuit on which he possesses such a record.
The Racing Point drivers sandwiched the McLaren drivers of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, as the team scored points with both cars in the same race for the first time since the same event in 2018. For Sainz it was the continuation of his past form in Baku (he’s finished eighth or better in Azerbaijan for the past three years running).
With rookie Norris right behind him in eighth place, McLaren have now snuck into the top four in the Constructors’ Championship, a height they have not scaled in any season since Lewis Hamilton left the team at the end of 2012.
The only man outside of the “big three” teams to have scored points at every race this season is Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen, and he maintained that distinction on Sunday by finishing tenth, despite having been relegated to a pitlane start only a couple of hours before the race, the consequence of a front wing infringement.
Other, less-envied streaks continued beside the Caspian Sea this weekend. For instance, Romain Grosjean maintained his run of never scoring a point in Baku, having already been knocked out in Q1 for the third consecutive season! With three retirements in the first four races, he’s now had an even worse start to 2019 than he had in 2018, when he had to wait until Austria to score his first points.
Daniil Kvyat started 6th on the grid for the first Baku F1 race back in 2016, but he had never started that high on the grid again until he matched that performance on Saturday – a great belated birthday present having turned 25 years old the previous day.
Sadly that pace could not be maintained in the race itself, and his afternoon ended in slightly farcical fashion when a mistimed pass by Daniel Ricciardo sent both up the escape road, with Ricciardo adding terminal injury to insult when his attempt to reverse back onto the circuit instead saw him reverse into the Russian instead.
“We must absolutely see the start of the European season as an opportunity to reset.”— Renault F1 Team (@RenaultF1Team) April 28, 2019
And now a word from the boss on the #AzerbaijanGP.
Full report https://t.co/xLg3jTEnfK #RSspirit pic.twitter.com/Pce5w7FZ9y
Ricciardo’s move to Renault may have seemed like inspirational thinking at the start of 2019, but the pace of the car is yet to bear that out. Ricciardo’s teammate Nico Hulkenberg was knocked out in Q1 for the second time in the last three races, and Ricciardo’s incident with Kvyat meant the Australian has only seen the chequered flag once in four starts for the team.
Should Ricciardo be a superstitious type, his only finish in 2019 was when he wore his Jack Brabham tribute design in the 1000th championship event in China. Perhaps he should use it again in Barcelona, a circuit on which Mercedes both started and finished 1-2 last season.
Mercedes will go there this season having scored more points in the first four races alone than they managed in their entire 2011 and 2012 seasons. Can they be stopped? So far, the answer appears obvious.
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