Since the number 44 Mercedes W10 of Lewis Hamilton was closely followed by Valtteri Bottas across the line at the climax of the historic 1000th Grand Prix in Shanghai, Scuderia Ferrari have had to hear a very worrying statistic. Mercedes’ third straight 1’2 finish has not happened since 1992 when Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese went 1-2 in the first three races. Another statistic that will not be lost on them, is that in 1992 Nigel Mansell went on to win the Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship! Now, with Baku approaching, it really is a case of Baku or bust for Scuderia Ferrari.
Scuderia Ferrari has an unwelcome recent history of being in the hunt for the title but falling out the race (in both championships) towards the end of the season. For 2019, the Italian giant of motor racing is yet to even start their assault on either championship.
In the Driver’s Championship, Sebastian Vettel is fourth in the table with 37 points – thanks in no small part to the implementation of team orders which has placed his teammate Charles Leclerc fifth in the table with 36 points. Before even setting their sights on Lewis Hamilton at the top with 68 points, they need to overcome the consistent Max Verstappen (39 points) and the rejuvenated Finn of Valtteri Bottas (62 points).
The Tifosi is certainly finding their loyalty put to the test early on and seeing the constructor they love so much 57 points adrift of Mercedes at the top of the Constructor’s Championship, is a bitter pill to swallow. Of course, they will also be the first to highlight the cruel mechanical issue experienced by Charles Leclerc in Bahrain when he would have surely won. However, the statistics show one thing, Scuderia Ferrari has a huge task ahead and Baku is certainly a crucial stage of the season.
Last year’s race is remembered for the collision of the Red Bulls (which Netflix has loved showing in the trailers for Drive to Survive) and the year before brought the memorable team radio of Lewis Hamilton announcing ‘Vettel literally came alongside and hit me’ in reference to Sebastian Vettel’s unprovoked assault on the current world champion. So Baku is certainly eventful but does Team Principal Mattia Binotto have reason to be optimistic for a victory?
“Baku is a circuit where you have a different aero configuration, so it’s not only power units and straight‑line…it will be aero configuration, it’s not only the straight in Baku, it’s a lot of corners, it’s a city circuit and is very difficult in that respect.”
On paper, Scuderia Ferrari are favourites for the street race as the last three races have shown a clear straight-line speed advantage and Baku is host to the longest straight in F1. However, if the Maranello based manufacturer does not win the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, how long before the heads start to fall. The Prancing Horse can be ruthless when it comes to changing leadership in the team, could Mattia Binnotto’s days be numbered?
Obviously all of this is speculation but by the end of Sunday night, if the top step is not adorned by Vettel or Leclerc…the speculation will surely continue.
Ferrari had looked the team to beat in testing at Barcelona but that feels a long time ago now, although their rivals certainly do not consider the title chase over as Hamilton himself has said:
’'As a team, we didn't expect to have three 1-2s…I think we're over-delivering a little bit at the moment,"
Whether expected or not, it has happened and the Tifosi will be desperate to see Mercedes early success come to an end on Sunday…but I wouldn’t bet against it.
Pirelli Preview: Arzebaijan Grand Prix