So, we are done with Free Practice at one of the fascinating circuits in the F1 calendar. Did something fascinating happen on the circuit?
Well. Good that you have asked.
Free Practice One: Talk about the comedy of errors. Williams diary should be filled with the Shakespeare’s play and so should the racing team of Azerbaijan’s.
So much talk about what could unfold at the circuit that is usually filled with chaos. It took all of twenty minutes for the first chaos to happen and what followed next is something that is as farcical as it could get.
The free practice was cut short when George Russell almost got his front nose sucked into the open, unbolted manhole cover. It damaged the whole floor of the car, forcing the circuit to be closed for the first session. It also meant Russell couldn’t get any of the practice time for the whole day and Williams had to get their chassis changed.
From whatever little we have seen from this session, Charles Leclerc was the fastest and so will he be for the remaining two sessions that followed.
Free Practice Two: Let’s talk about some real business now. Shall we?
After the first practice session was cut short, it was particularly disappointing for Ferrari and Honda engine driven Red Bull and Toro Rosso. They brought their first set of upgrades and they would have loved to get as much time available for them to test the new specs.
Thankfully the second session was on schedule and in full completion. Three red flags in the session couldn’t prevent the Ferrari to show their pace. The package was to be delivered and the message was loud and clear. They are the pace setters in the session. Charles Leclerc was the fastest in the session marking 1:42.872, a clean seven-tenths of time gap between himself and Hamilton. Ferrari’s outpaced Mercedes. The almost match last year’s FP2 best time.
If Ferrari wasn’t enough to show pace, the new upgrades brought in Red Bull from Honda really showed it’s potential. Max Verstappen put himself and the Red Bull into the dog fight that will eventually unfold as the race weekend evolves. Disappointing for them though is the penalty to Gasly, who failed to stop at weigh bridge for random inspection. He will start the race from the pit lane.
Free Practice Three: FP3 is more of confirmation than any new revelation of what he learnt from FP2. Ferrari stamped their authority with pace. They take P1 and P2 with Charles Leclerc out performing his senior partner. 1:41.604, just eight-tenths short of the best qualifying pace at this circuit. Adding to the woes is the struggle of Hamilton and Bottas to get hold of the grip of the surface as they marked low in the middle sector.
The Ferrari’s have improved on an average 1.3 seconds from FP2, compared to ~0.78 seconds that Mercedes could muster. Is Mercedes really struggling or are they just holding back ?
Happy news comes from the other Honda powered Toro Rosso. Their improvement is the most visible one. P6 and P8 in both the sessions, consistency and the pace. It could be the moment of break through for the Toro Rosso to burst open the mid-table fight. This comes as huge boost given the barrier impact that almost destroyed the whole of Kvyat’s front nose during FP2.
What to expect from the qualifying? As things stand, it looks like the Ferrari is going to party by the end of the day. But, we have seen things that are difficult to digest not just once but thrice in the season already with Ferrari. Max Verstappen could be the surprise package from the new Honda engine packed Red Bull. It is always tough to rule out Mercedes especially after their comebacks in not-so-happy cars in China.
From the past three years data, the times are expected to boost by approx. 1.594 seconds from FP3 to pole position. That would essentially mean, Charles Leclerc and Ferrari should target real low 1:40 s. But, is that a possibility given the best we have seen so far in the circuit is 1:40.810 back in 2017.
A quick simple number crunching based on what we have seen so far this season, here are our expected Qualifying best times and the grid line up [some surprises]: