10 things we learned at the 2022 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Alex Kalinauckas

The 2022 Formula 1 season has passed the one-third point following Max Verstappen’s win in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix last weekend. That leaves the Dutchman with a 21-point lead over teammate Sergio Perez, which is a stunning turnaround from the 46 he was in arrears of title rival Charles Leclerc after round three in Australia.

Much of that swing has come from Ferrari’s recent implosion. This continued into a third race thanks to Leclerc’s engine expiring just when it looked like a sharp decision to pit under the virtual safety car – triggered by Carlos Sainz’s own reliability nightmare in the other F1-75 – had put him back into victory contention after losing out to Perez at the start.

Leclerc’s latest points loss is the key takeaway from Baku, but there were plenty of other stories worth paying attention to from across the field last weekend. Therefore, here are 10 things we learned from the 2022 Azerbaijan GP.

Carlos Sainz walks back to his garage after retiring from the race

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

1. Ferrari’s reliability concerns are huge

“I would prefer to have good performance and try to fix reliability rather than vice versa,” Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto said after the Baku race.

He’s not wrong, but Ferrari’s engine fragility has not only cost Leclerc at least 43 points in two of the last three events, plus the 13 he lost dropping from pole to fourth in the Monaco strategy shambles. It means he will almost certainly face engine-related grid penalties later in 2022, given he’s already on the maximum limit for turbo parts alone.

At the time of writing, Ferrari can’t say what caused Leclerc’s engine issue in Baku, but it is understood to be separate to Sainz’s car dropping out with a hydraulic problem. Zhou Guanyu’s customer Ferrari power unit retirement was put down to a team-specific cooling issue at Alfa Romeo, but Kevin Magnussen’s Haas also coming to a smoky stop on Sunday shows the scale of the Scuderia’s power problem.

It is at least fast, and Leclerc seemed to be having an easier time than expected against Red Bull’s straightline prowess running the “depowered” (lower drag) rear wing Ferrari had introduced but not raced in Miami. His pace post pitstop, where front and rear jack issues cost Leclerc time, was strong. But whether it was enough to take on and prevail against Verstappen either wheel-to-wheel late in the race on a brave one-stopper or with an aggressive two-stopper to go back to the mediums will never been known.

Max Verstappen celebrates his victory among the glittering ticker tape

Max Verstappen celebrates his victory among the glittering ticker tape

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

2. Verstappen reasserts Red Bull’s 2022 narrative, but still isn’t totally happy in the RB18

As good as the last three races have been for Verstappen considering Leclerc’s various and many woes, things could’ve been even better. This mainly centres on Monaco, where the story was dominated by Perez’s impressive recovery from the team orders row in Spain.

But were it not for his teammate crashing in Q3, it’s conceivable that Verstappen would’ve gone on to qualify ahead of Perez – even if Leclerc was likely untouchable on pole. Perez’s strong form continued in qualifying in Baku, where he made the intra-Red Bull qualifying record 5-3 to Verstappen, even after the late fire up drama ruined their final run plans.

Verstappen just still isn’t happy with the RB18’s understeer tendencies, which are particularly exposed on street tracks and that Perez loves. This means Verstappen is lacking the ultimate car balance he’s after for the quickest laps of each weekend.

But the world champion’s Baku race performance was brilliant. He kept his medium tyres in better shape and hot enough early on and during the first VSC, then drove away on the hards to win by over 20s. As good as Perez has been in 2022, Verstappen has overall been better and by a pretty big margin.

Leclerc has dazzled in qualifying, but needs more from the Ferrari in the race

Leclerc has dazzled in qualifying, but needs more from the Ferrari in the race

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

3. Leclerc can keep this title fight interesting

Although it won’t come as much of a comfort for Leclerc given how things have gone since Australia, the Monegasque driver has so far produced a stunning 2022 qualifying record. Not only does he now possess the only 8-0 qualifying record in a teammate head-to-head, but he has so far not qualified any lower than second.

Leclerc’s qualifying performance in Baku was sensational for the second year in a row, as he skipped between the walls with impressive commitment and precision – nailing the track evolution and grip level changing as the temperature dropped through the elongated qualifying. Taking similar risks did for Sainz’s challenge and Leclerc was there to capitalise when the late-Q3 refuelling drama scuppered Red Bull’s tow plan. But that the former championship leader was running solo and so sans tow made his pole lap even more impressive.

Things could turn around in the title stakes for Ferrari, but Red Bull’s recent form for improving over a season’s duration will be tough to beat even with Verstappen’s sheer tenacity theoretically discounted. But if Leclerc can keep qualifying at the front, then that will at least force Red Bull to make a race of each event and enliven what could end up being a more straightforward title challenge than seemed on after the opening rounds.

All smiles for Russell and Hamilton - but for how long?

All smiles for Russell and Hamilton – but for how long?

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

4. The first chapter of Russell vs Hamilton isn’t over yet

Another team with a 5-3 qualifying head-to-head record is Mercedes (Pierre Gasly also leads Yuki Tsunoda by the same record at AlphaTauri), with George Russell heading teammate Lewis Hamilton. Although the 2022 season has been far from the campaign either driver envisaged thanks to the W13’s ongoing porpoising problem (more on that later), Russell being the lead Silver Arrows driver in the qualifying stakes is still an unexpected result so far bearing in mind Hamilton is statistically F1’s best qualifier.

Mercedes explained that much of the 0.2s difference between the pair in Baku qualifying was down to Hamilton running a floor update that did not work as expected, combined with wing set-up choices not paying off and Russell benefitting from getting the qualifying tows at this event.

In the race, Russell was relatively untroubled on his run to third once the Ferraris had retired, which means he’s now on three podiums to Hamilton’s one. Meanwhile, the seven-time world champion had to produce a series of passes on Esteban Ocon, Daniel Ricciardo and both AlphaTauris after an early double-stack stop where he was jumped by Sebastian Vettel.

Eight races in and Russell is seriously impressing at Mercedes even in such tough circumstances for the team – which, to be crystal clear, isn’t a dig at Hamilton, but a simple summary of the facts. Circumstances have come to him, but a driver can only deliver on them and Russell really is right now. Before too long, we’ll know if this is the story of his first Mercedes season, or merely the first act.

The lengthy straight caused some of the cars to bounce uncontrollably

The lengthy straight caused some of the cars to bounce uncontrollably

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

5. Porpoising is hurting the drivers…

One of the certain stories of the season is the porpoising problem, which is impacting cars across the grid to varying degrees. Although it’s been there since the filming days that preceded pre-season testing, the Baku weekend was dominated by talk of how much pain some drivers were experiencing across longer stints as a result of their cars repeatedly bottoming out at top speed.

The Mercedes drivers in particular were having difficulties, with Hamilton making a radio call shortly before half-distance in the race to say: “My back is killing me”. But even the McLaren, which has been pretty porpoising-free so far in 2022, was bouncing like “being professionally dribbled by Stephen Curry”, colourfully, per Daniel Ricciardo.

The issue was exacerbated in Baku by the high-speed nature of the track, which meant the cars’ suspensions were quickly at maximum compression and so when striking the many surface bumps in the long, fast final sector there was just no more give. And so, the energy was transferred to the driver’s bodies even more than usual.

Gasly said the drivers should ask the FIA to “find solutions to save us from ending up with a cane at 30 years old”. That, combined with Russell suggesting “it’s a recipe for disaster”, “it’s just a matter of time before we see a major incident” and “I don’t think we can sustain this for three years or however long these regulations are enforced for” meant the issue took on a significant political element.

Even though Russell claimed Mercedes overall wasn’t in favour of a rule change, it’s a hot-topic given doing so would potentially advantage some teams’ car performance and harm others.

With the Mercedes' bouncing on the straights, Lewis Hamilton struggled with severe back pain

With the Mercedes’ bouncing on the straights, Lewis Hamilton struggled with severe back pain

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

6. …but it’s far from clear how it might be resolved

It was notable how, once the drivers had started to air their views on the matter ahead of the race, that there was a certain amount of briefing to the media regarding the porpoising issue. None of it solves the problem, but it serves to highlight just how divided the paddock is on the issue.

The severe porpoising in Baku was raised at the drivers’ briefing, with reports later suggesting Fernando Alonso was the sole hold-out over the issue (although to be clear it was not indicated how a unanimous driver statement would’ve resulted in any changes).

This must be read in line with the understanding, pushed by certain quarters, that a proposed rule change to the 2022 regulations that would’ve led to the cars being run higher than they are currently was dropped because consensus could not be reached. And then there’s the suggestion from Red Bull team boss Christian Horner that the current complaints about safety are “part of the game” from certain squads.

No one wants driver safety to be compromised and its especially worrying that drivers are suggesting porpoising could lead to long-term injuries. But this must be balanced against there already being something of solution for the worst effected teams: give up performance to reduce the bouncing.

Lance Stroll twice hit the wall in qualifying, producing a red flag in Q1

Lance Stroll twice hit the wall in qualifying, producing a red flag in Q1

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

7. Baku can still bite the unwary

Although the Baku race was a tame affair compared to some of the explosive races that have occurred since it joined the calendar back in 2016, there were still plenty of incidents around what is a pretty thrilling high-speed street track.

Aston Martin put Lance Stroll’s lack of pace compared to teammate Vettel down to an engine configuration issue that apparently cost him 0.6s a lap in qualifying, but the Canadian made the issue irrelevant given he crashed twice in Q1 – the second one causing a red flag and resulting in the hectic dash for his remaining rivals to get in one more lap.

Although Vettel didn’t crash, his off while battling the yet-to-stop Ocon demonstrated how on the edge things are around Baku, as he decided bailing down the Turn 3 escape road was the better choice than hanging on to the outside line with the walls so close.

Ricciardo showed improved form in Baku, amid rumours regarding his McLaren future

Ricciardo showed improved form in Baku, amid rumours regarding his McLaren future

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

8. Ricciardo’s recovery can give McLaren another problem, if it can be sustained

Ricciardo left Monaco having endured another chastening weekend on one of his favourite tracks and so the topic of his future at McLaren beyond 2022 duly came up again in the pre-practice Baku press conferences.

But after that, he put in a solid overall weekend performance to match teammate Lando Norris’s level, really, for the first time since Australia. Ricciardo put this down to being able to find the confidence to take the necessary risks around the Baku layout, which bring healthy time rewards by getting close to the walls. This suggests his recent work to address the ongoing issues he has with corner entry confidence with McLaren’s package paid off – at least this time.

Ricciardo started the race on what was clearly the better tyre – the C3 compound the teams know so well, it was just the hard this time around. But this meant he was bearing down on Norris and asking to be let through before his medium-shod teammate pitted, which ignited a team orders saga both drivers played down afterwards, as Norris was correspondingly fast late-on, when Ricciardo had gotten ahead under the Magnussen-stoppage VSC.

Having both drivers at the same level is ideal for any team, but it also means strategy calls can get complicated when there’s no clear driver to prioritise and tactics are split across the cars.

Zhou Guanyu had to retire his Alfa Romeo while in the points

Zhou Guanyu had to retire his Alfa Romeo while in the points

Photo by: Alfa Romeo

9. Zhou’s strong start to F1 life going unrewarded

Although he’s currently only 18th in the drivers’ standings with a single point, Zhou has made a very impressive start to life in F1. It’s just he’s endured an appalling run of luck since scoring first time out in Bahrain, with reliability retirements in Miami and Spain being followed by another last weekend.

This time, Alfa’s cooling problem scuppered what looked like being his best weekend yet in F1, as he was running strongly behind Ocon, who ended up scoring the race’s final point, in the first stint. This means his fine weekend form to out-qualify and pull away from teammate Valtteri Bottas early in the race will not be recorded by the history books.

Bottas felt his struggles stemmed from there being some “fundamentally wrong” with his car, although it is unclear so far if this was damage or set-up related. But while Baku didn’t suit the Alfa package as well as some other courses, his enormous experience advantage over Zhou highlights just what a good job the rookie was doing last weekend.

Latifi was a frequent target for blue flags in Baku

Latifi was a frequent target for blue flags in Baku

Photo by: Williams

10. FIA can act on blue flag infringements

This entry bridges the two most recent races, but its pertinent given how several drivers expressed frustration at on-going problems with F1 officiating ahead of the Baku race. It centres on the blue flag penalty Nicholas Latifi picked up when being lapped by Gasly, which meant the Williams driver was handed a five-second time addition and a licence penalty point.

The stewards said Latifi “was shown the blue flag on multiple occasions and the blue lights were displayed for 12 panels, between Turns 7 and the finish line, prior to car 10 [Gasly] being able to pass”. The explanation justifies the penalty, but it doesn’t explain how no sanction was sent down for Alex Albon passing 17 marker boards ahead of Leclerc, and Latifi seven when running ahead of Sainz, at separate critical points of the Monaco race.

Once again, transparency is lacking, and it is understandable why the drivers continue to be exasperated by seemingly inconsistent decision making in race control and the stewards’ rooms.

#learned #Azerbaijan #Grand #Prix

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