BEHIND THE HEADLINES – Azerbaijan – Bedlam in Baku

Behind The Headlines Features

The streets of Baku have always provided drama and 2021 was no different, Mercedes struggling all weekend, championship leader Max Verstappen crashing out following a tyre failure. We said in our Prixview anything can happen in Baku, but seeing both title rivals failing to score was surprising.

It marked the first time since 2013 that Verstappen, Valtteri Bottas and Sir Lewis Hamilton failed to score in at the same race.

Mercedes was struggling all weekend and Red Bull looking to be able to extend its lead at the top of the drivers and constructors, that wasn’t to be the case. Verstappen looked on course for victory, when his tyre failed with two laps to go that followed the crash of Lance Stroll earlier in the race.

Pirelli will be carrying out an investigation, but also after the race, a cut was found on the left rear tyre of Sir Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes.

Verstappen’s Tyre Failure

The headlines will be about the tyre failure for Verstappen when he was on course for victory, but while we don’t know the cause the team has said there was no warning. We know that the tyre which failed was not by stress as Mario Isola said the tyre which failed is not due to tyre wear, because it is not a matter of tyre wear. We found a cut on the inside shoulder of the rear left tyre used by Hamilton in the same stint.”

“The cut was quite deep and big — probably 6-7 cm — but not cutting the construction, so the tyre was still in one piece. Just the tread is cut [on Hamilton’s tyre], and when there was the red flag and Lewis came to the pit lane and changed the tyres we were able to find the cut.”

The question will be are these tyres structural sound, and what was the cause? You can never guarantee anything in F1, but what I think we need is a sport where these things don’t happen. Verstappen left Baku pointless on what could have been a key weekend in the title battle, Red Bull need to capitalise on the weekends where Mercedes struggle and were on course for another performance below their best.

The Dutchman lost what could have been a key victory in this year’s title race given the difficult weekend that Mercedes had. The question is will there be a repeat, and will we see a case where we see tyre failures at other races.

The question about tyre integrity will be high on the agenda again, we need answers especially with races like Silverstone coming up where we have seen tyre failures before.

How the race unfolded
  • Lap 11-12 – Verstappen moves into the lead after being in third for most of the opening stint while Hamilton goes backwards
  • Lap 30 – Lance Stroll’s tyre deflates at 200mph pitched his Aston Martin hard left into the barriers. The pit lane is closed and Stroll says after the race, “I am frustrated not to finish the race, but I am OK. I am not sure what happened to cause me to spin on the straight because there was no sign of any issues, so we need to investigate.”
  • Lap 35 – Pit lane reopens
  • Lap 36 – Stroll’s teammate Sebastian Vettel jumps up to fourth before passing Charles Leclerc and Pierre Gasly. These moves later prove to be key as they will get him up to second.
  • Lap 43/44 – Perez is under pressure trading fastest laps with Hamilton as they fight for second, there is no indication that this fight was putting Verstappen under pressure.
  • Lap 46 – Verstappen comes around to start the next lap, when he is seen suddenly spinning off into the wall. We later see and hear him say “I didn’t feel anything up until the moment that I suddenly went to the right. The tyre just blew off the rim.”
    “It’s not a nice impact to have. It’s quite a dangerous place to have a tyre blow out at that speed. But all fine with me, the car not so much.”
  • Lap 46/47 – Red flag after Red Bull’s sporting director Jonathan Wheatley quickly radioed FIA race director Michael Masi to say there had been no warning whatsoever that a failure was imminent. This gives everyone a free pit stop and removes the dangers of long-wearing tyres blowing up.
  • Lap 50 – Restart you can see on the TV that before the lights go out Hamilton’s brakes are smoking
  • Lap 51 – Sergio Perez wins
Questions about restart

In the days after the race, we have had drivers ask why there was a delay of around 30-60 seconds following Verstappen’s crash, the double waved yellow flags were deployed rather than a red flag.

Verstappen’s accident I think was surprising as we know Red Bull was quick to inform the FIA that the failure had been instant, its data showing no signs of excessive wear or issues, putting the focus onto Pirelli. We need to understand this, but without speculating the cause.

The right thing to do was to deploy the red flag, we heard Red Bull say “Michael, we got zero warning consider a red flag.” They made the right call as we then got a mini sprint race which proved to be a great climax, depending on who you are could that give us

This will be looked at and discussed, I was surprised that we saw a restart as we were well over the 75% distance mark meaning that we are past the point where full points would have been awarded. But I think in recent years we have seen the pattern of the race director wanting to where possible complete the race distance.

Mercedes struggle on street circuits

Mercedes was struggling all weekend and by luck were in a golden opportunity to retake control of both championships on the restart following Verstappen’s crash. Hamilton was unlucky after getting into third for the restart, he immediately locked up into the run off area.

The team were really struggling in Friday practice but turned it around on Saturday, before a “destroying” race. I think that they could have won the race in the closing stages, but I believe they played it safe only for Hamilton to make the mistake. I feel that we may see a return in form or the dip continue in Paul Ricard.

Hamilton would have been third if he didn’t lock up at the restart and that would have given him a twenty-one-point lead. Mercedes in the past have had issues warming up their tyres and without DAS this season are they struggling a bit to get the tyres warmed up.

Toto Wolff said “We just need to be the best, the best of us, and the best that we have. And we haven’t given the drivers a competitive package this weekend. It’s been far from a competitive package.”

This season isn’t like previous season’s Mercedes know are facing a bigger challenge from Red Bull, I think this is likely to be broken at Paul Ricard because Monaco and Baku are street circuit. You need to also remember that there has been a historical deficit they have had in places like Singapore, we know that this is something they need to get on top of.

Valtteri Bottas also messed up on his restarts, following the safety car he lost four places which resulted in him being thirteenth at the restart. This doesn’t present a good image as we know he is

Vettel breakthrough?

Sebastian Vettel admitted following the race that he has had a “very rough start” to the season, you need to hope that this is the beginning of a reset for him following the turbulent three years he has had. The four-time champion took his first podium after coming through to fourth at the restart.

In the closing laps, he had passed his former teammate Charles Leclerc and then Pierre Gasly gaining third, before gaining second when Hamilton went off. On social media I’ve seen this meme ‘Perez – fired by Aston Martin, Vettel – fired by Ferrari, Gasly – fired by Red Bull.’ These are all drivers who have had uncertain futures in recent years.

There have been questions which we have frequently written about Vettel’s decline and that continued in the early part of this season. I think proved that Vettel can overtake and not crumble when under pressure, which have been the biggest criticisms of him.

We heard earlier in the year questions about whether Vettel was past his best, I think that is the case we may see moments of the old Vettel, but having him challenging consistently for wins and podiums might be a big ask. Unless Aston come out strongly following next season I think Vettel is going to become an Alonso type of driver who does F1 because he doesn’t get the feeling he does in other series?

But with that comes risk to his already damage reputation, how long will he want to give him before we can stay that those difficult years are behind him?

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