Red was the dominant colour for the first day of the FORMULA 1 SOCAR AZERBAIJAN GRAND PRIX 2019, with the two Scuderia Ferrari Mission Winnow drivers topping the time sheets in both sessions on the enthralling Baku City Circuit which wends its way along the banks of the Caspian Sea and beneath the Walled City of the Azerbaijan capital, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The first session result was largely irrelevant, given that it only lasted 12 minutes before the decision was taken not to restart it. It was all due to a manhole cover between Turns 2 and 3 coming loose as George Russell drove over it. It caused considerable damage to his Williams. However, the outcome of FP2 was very significant, with Charles Leclerc being the only driver to get below the 1m 43 second (1.42.872) lapping 324 thousandths of a second faster than his team-mate Sebastian Vettel.
Next up on the theoretical grid, was third placed Lewis Hamilton, who posted a best time of 1.43.541 for Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport, with Max Verstappen fourth for Aston Martin Red Bull Racing with a 1.43.793. No other driver broke the 1’44 barrier, with a group of six drivers, led by Valtteri Bottas who got very close with a 1.44.003, all within less than three tenths of one another, making up the rest of the top ten: Daniil Kvyat sixth for Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda (1.44.177,) Carlos Sainz seventh for McLaren F1 Team (1.44.183,) Alexander Albon in the other Toro Rosso (1.44.216,) Pierre Gasly ninth in the other Red Bull (1.44.216) and Lando Norris tenth for McLaren in 1.44.295.
Overall, it was a good day for Italian teams, with Toro Rosso performing very well, using an updated version of the Honda power unit, as were their sister team Red Bull Racing. Kvyat unfortunately ended up hitting the barriers in the second part of FP2, bringing out the second red flag of the session, following on from one caused by Lance Stroll.
Pierre Gasly’s day turned even worse, as he will have to start Sunday’s race from the back of the grid. He failed to stop at the FIA garage to be weighed on the scales, ignoring the red light and his car number being shown. The infraction was compounded by the fact his team did not immediately push him back to the scales, carrying out a pit stop practice in front of the team garage.
FP 1 had to be abandoned after a drain cover became dislodged from the track and struck the floor of Russell’s car. This was the result of a break on an underside mounting of the drain cover. The session was red flagged and did not resume to allow the appropriate checks to be carried out by the Baku City Circuit, under the supervision of the FIA. All of the drain covers (more than 300) around the circuit have been checked prior to FP2, which began as scheduled at 5 pm local time. There will be further checks tonight to ensure maximum track safety.
There have been similar incidents in the past. These have taken place on permanent race tracks, for example Shanghai in 2005 and Sepang in 2017 and on street circuits like Monaco where, in 2016, Bottas’ Mercedes lifted a drain cover that frighteningly hit Jenson Button’s McLaren.
As for how this can happen, one has to understand that a Formula 1 car is designed to create suction (low air pressure) underneath it as this produces downforce, which in turn gives the tyres more grip. This suction pulls on the road and could lift a loose manhole cover. For example, under the front wing a manhole cover weighing less than approximately 110kg could be lifted by the car
The cancellation of almost all of FP1 and the two interruptions to FP2 considerably reduced the time available for teams to prepare properly for tomorrow’s qualifying and Sunday’s race. That makes predicting the outcome even harder and adds more uncertainty to the rest of the weekend. Ferrari definitely seems very quick on a single flying lap, as it was in Bahrain, but Mercedes is very competitive in terms of race pace and in Formula 1, things can change quickly and at this track, anything can happen during the race.
The Baku City Circuit is also hosting the FIA Formula 2 Championship, which was last in action for its opening round, in Bahrain four weeks ago. Nobuharu Matsushita brought home his second and Carlin’s third ever F2 pole position. The Japanese driver sealed top spot with a time of 1:54.555, to finish ahead of ART Grand Prix’s Nyck De Vries and UNI-Virtuosi’s Luca Ghiotto. Sérgio Sette Câmara, King, Mick Schumacher, Nicholas Latifi, Jack Aitken, Anthoine Hubert and Ralph Boschung completed the top ten. With plenty of twists and turns already in Baku and the Supersofts proving quick, the drivers and teams will now look ahead to tomorrow’s Feature Race, at 12pm local time.
Apart from all the spectacular on-track action, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix knows how to put on a show. Two superstar singers, Cardi B and Jesse J are performing on Saturday and Sunday respectively to the great delight of the thousands of music fans who flock to the Azerbaijani capital over the weekend.