By Neil Leverett
- Round Four of the Formula 1 World Championship rolls into Baku for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix
- Britain’s Lewis Hamilton leads Drivers Championship by six points over McLaren-Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas
- Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel under pressure to perform in eastern Europe, with title race already being touted between Mercedes duo
BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – Round Four of the Formula 1 World Championship rolls into Baku, with Ferrari desperate to respond after Mercedes’ early-season domination.
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Can Ferrari finally deliver in Baku?
The 2019 Formula 1 World Championship was supposed to be Ferrari’s redemption after McLaren-Mercedes two-year domination of the sport, especially given the Prancing Horse’s impressive pre-season testing in Barcelona, and the addition of the mercurially talented Charles Leclerc to prop-up the Italian manufacturer’s two-pronged assault on not only the world title, but the Constructors’ Championship, now wedged firmly in the hand of Mercedes.
However, three races into the season and Ferrari are struggling already. With number one Sebastian Vettel already over 30 points off the pace of reigning champion Lewis Hamilton, two encouraging practice sessions in both Australia and Bahrain in the early weeks fell by the wayside with Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton exchanging wins, before the Italian Red failed to make a mark in China a fortnight ago.
The signs this weekend thankfully for both Ferrari and F1 fans are, that Ferrari may be about to announce their arrival in 2019. After first practice in Baku was cancelled due to bizarre issue with a manhole cover on the track, Leclerc led a 1-2 with Vettel as the two fastest men after second practice.
‘We’ve heard this all before’ you cry. Whilst that and Ferrari’s early season from may be nothing short of average, there does seem to be an air of optimism this weekend, with an upgraded car over that of the first three rounds of the calendar. If they do not deliver however, big questions will begin to asked of Ferrari and their now wavering ability to even get close to Mercedes this year.
Mercedes may not budge
The German manufacturer’s vice-like grip on the head of the field has enjoyed 24 months of monopoly, but on the back of three races of 2019, that domination is seemingly only getting stronger. Indeed, whilst Ferrari have their eyes firmly pinned on the top step of the podium on race day, Mercedes wont be budging lightly.
After Hamilton’s win in Shanghai last time out, a third consecutive 1-2 for Mercedes saw them become the first team since Williams in 1992 to record such a feat. With team spirit in the Mercedes’ garage on a high, Team Principal Toto Wolff will not be letting his team or drivers let up one iota in Baku.
At the Baku City Circuit, Mercedes, though Daniel Ricciardo won the inaugural offering in 2017, came in second, via Bottas, before Hamilton notched a win 12 months ago on another event-laden race in medieval city’s environs.
There is no doubt that Mercedes will have the biggest of bullseyes painted on their chests – or chassis’ – this weekend, but catching them is one thing; overtaking the dominant manufacturer is quite another.
Can ‘City of Winds’ blow title race open?
Baku however is becoming one of the iconic races on the calendar and not only that, but one of the more explosive of the year. In just two years of racing in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku has hosted two chaotic grand prix and the hope for neutral fans at least is that the walled, castle-laden circuit may prove to be just as unpredictable this time around.
That hope is heightened to an even greater level after the 1000th race proved to be a mere procession in China, but Azerbaijan is unlikely to be as by-the-numbers on the tight, windy 6.003km track, 51-lap course in the ‘City of Winds’.
If Hamilton and Vettel’s now infamous spat wasn’t enough, Ricciardo’s win in the midst of a veritable melee was one of the more memorable images from the 2017 calendar. Last year’s offering handsomely usurped it however, with Red Bull teammates Ricciardo and Max Verstappen colliding with each other with the two drivers at the head of the pack, as the Hamilton picked up the crumbs and came home to win the race ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, with Force India’s Sergio Perez earning a hugely unlikely third place.
For race with such a short history, two years have packed in more drama than some circuits can boast in their entire history and this weekend should be no exception. The pressure is on Ferrari this weekend there is no doubt, but Mercedes cannot yet rest on their laurels.
The 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix takes place at the Baku City Circuit in Baku this weekend, with race time on Sunday at 1.10pm UK time
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