Though Azerbaijan didn’t conjure up the most enthralling Grand Prix in F1’s history in its inaugural race, it proved to be pivotal and decisive in the title battle as Nico Rosberg reigned king on the old cobbled roads as Hamilton hit trouble. A year on and the title race will still be at the forefront of the minds of many in the paddock as Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton will go head to head again in this very close season.
The race in 2016 saw 9 drivers who qualified in the top 10 on Saturday finish within the top 10 on Sunday afternoon – Daniil Kvyat being the only exception. Qualifying in 2017 has proved double the excitement than that of 2016. Not only do we have 4 drivers in contention for pole rather than just the 2 Mercedes last year; the average gap between pole position and second place is 0.137s this season compared to 0.309s last year.
Whilst Lewis Hamilton is bettering teammate Valtteri Bottas this season 4-3, due to problems in Russia and especially in Monaco when Lewis failed to reach Q3, on average Lewis trails Valtteri by an average gap of 0.137s. This shows that whilst Hamilton is proving to be quicker more often, when he doesn’t have a great Saturday, he has an extremely poor one in terms of lap time. Last year Lewis hit the wall in qualifying in the castle section of the track so it will be interesting to see if he has another lacklustre Saturday performance or he produces the stellar laps that he did in Canada to claim pole by over three tenths of a second.
Another interesting battle on Saturday will be between the two Toro Rosso drivers. Carlos Sainz leads the qualifying battle 4-3 to teammate Kvyat and he just edges the gap between them in lap times this season by 0.012s. The Spaniard is tipped by many to be in a race winning car in the near future making it impressive that his Russian teammate is keeping him honest however it is in the race where Daniil needs to raise his game, scoring only 4 points to Carlos’ 25.
One final note on qualifying, Stoffel Vandoorne, Jolyon Palmer and Lance Stroll have yet to beat their teammate in qualifying this season. The biggest concern from the three names listed is undoubtedly Jolyon Palmer as the extremely talented Robert Kubica is becoming an ever-growing name heavily linked to replace the Brit if he doesn’t raise his performances soon.
The seemingly never-ending straights in Baku make overtaking very possible should you have some respectable straight line speed. The Force India team had an impressive outing last time out in Canada and that might well be the case again in Azerbaijan. Slippery down the straights, this may produce the pink panthers of Perez and Ocon to carry out act two of their intense battle. Sergio may have the advantage next weekend as he claimed a podium place finishing third in last year’s race which could have been second but for a visit to the barriers in FP3 at turn 15 inflicting a gear box change and a 5 place grid penalty in qualifying.
Humorous words from Sebastian Vettel about Alonso’s McLaren Honda in 2016’s race weekend are unfortunately a reality in this year’s outing. A frightening lack of top speed from the Honda engine will leave them sitting ducks to many cars on the straights in sectors one and three. Sightseeing may be the order of the day for Fernando and Stoffel as any chance of points next weekend appear to be very slim.