From a team performance point of view, if there has ever been a worse Grand Prix for the Williams F1 team than the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix then I can’t think of it and I certainly don’t want to be reminded of it.
The nature of the tracks in Australia, China and Bahrain don’t always lend themselves to great racing, but critics of the sport (at least those who know their onions) tend not to truly celebrate or bemoan the current state of the sport or the relative competitiveness of their team of choice until the European season kicks off in Barcelona in the spring.
In the last few years, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix has acted as a bridge between the early flyaway races and the European season in much the same way as western Asian countries, like Azerbaijan, nominally in ‘Eurasia’ try to bridge the gap between the two great continents.
And the 3.7 mile Baku circuit, F1’s fastest street track, usually provides us with a real treat – a spectacle like no other, with enough incident for even the most demanding Formula 1 fan, a high rate of attrition and plenty of controversy.
And so, when twelve minutes into FP1, George Russell clattered a manhole cover, improperly secured, and dislodged by Charles Leclerc moments earlier shearing off parts of the underside of his Williams FW42, cracking the tub in the process it looked as if the harem-scarem Grand Prix we’d become accustomed to in Baku was set to continue.
FP1 was aborted while the 300+ manholes were checked and secured if necessary with teams losing out on a third of their pre-qualifying running (more for Russell who was also forced to sit out FP2) adding an extra element of unpredictability to the rest of the weekend.
Qualifying arrived and Ferrari once again conspired not to beat Mercedes despite having what seemed to be the quickest car.
This was through a combination of poor qualifying strategy (Vettel was the only one of the top four not to benefit from a tow on Baku’s long straight on his final qualifying lap) and an unforced error by Leclerc in FP2 resulting in his Ferrari being planted in the wall at turn 8 (the same spot Robert Kubica binned his Williams half an hour earlier) whilst inexplicably attempting to make it though to Q3 on medium tyres when everyone else was on softs.
The Williams duo of George Russell and Robert Kubica assumed their now familiar position at the back of the grid, penalties to Gasly and the two Alfas promoting Russell to 16th and repair work to Kubica’s car resulting in him starting from the pit-lane.
But for Williams to get both cars to line up for the race at all was thanks to some incredible work by the team, Russell’s car having been in bits on Friday and Kubica’s requiring serious work a day later.
At the start, Lewis Hamilton almost got away ahead of pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas, but some untypically generous driving by the Briton into the first couple of turns allowed Bottas to retain the first spot he would never concede.
Ferrari’s Vettel held onto third place behind the two Mercedes he would never really trouble as Leclerc moved forward from his tenth place grid slot to lead the Grand Prix briefly, running longer on his first set of medium tyres to allow him a shorter stint at the end on the less durable soft tyres, whilst being in prime position to capitalise on a safety car should there be one.
The safety car never materialised as a distinct lack of action led to one of the more tepid Azerbaijan Grand Prix as Bottas romped home to his second win of the season with team-mate Hamilton in second and Vettel third.
It was not all plain sailing for Williams, as to compound the poor performance of their FW42 that left them adrift of the field, the bad luck that saw them forced to rebuild Russell’s car on Friday, and Kubica’s error that required a major repair job for Sunday’s race, the team mistakenly brought the number 88 car into the pitlane too keenly for the FIA and their pesky regulations resulting in a penalty for the Pole which cemented his last place in the Grand Prix for the fourth time in four races.
At the front Mercedes’ further dominance (the first 1-2 for a team in the opening four races of an F1 season in history) extended their lead over nearest rival Ferrari to an unprecedented 74 points in the constructors’ championship and 34 in the drivers’ championship.
Conversely, four pointless Grand Prix amount to Williams’ worst ever start to an F1 season.
Russell and Kubica finished in 15th and 16th respectively.
“It’s not been a smooth weekend for us.”
“I am quite relieved that this weekend is over, it didn’t seem like anything was going our way…hopefully Barcelona will be more positive.”
You can say that again George.
I honestly didn’t think it was possible for the 2019 Formula 1 season to be worse for Williams than last year, but it f*cking is.