I’m pleasantly surprised by Baku. There was plenty of controversy surrounding Bernie and Azerbaijan when the European Grand Prix was announced, largely due to the questionable human rights records but from a purely motorsport perspective I think the European GP this weekend is going to be fantastic. The circuit looks great, and challenging, with minimal run off areas and some incredibly fast sections of track, and that’s not even mentioning sector two which runs around the soon to be iconic UNESCO World Heritage site of the Baku Castle. It’s not often I make a point of watching FP3, I love F1 but the final practice session is not usually on top of my Saturday morning priority list, but I certainly will be making time to watch the whole of final practice tomorrow, it’s just incredible to watch these F1 cars thread their way through the Baku’s streets.
Mercedes are on top, by some margin
Sebastian Vettel didn’t seem too concerned when speaking to the press after FP2, but the timesheets rarely lie and both Ferrari and Red Bull were outpaced by Bottas and the Force India’s on Friday afternoon. After the calamity in Spain, and falling behind Red Bull in Monaco, Mercedes have responded perfectly in Canada and now Baku, and have rightly resumed their position right at the top of the pecking order. Monaco was always going to suit the Red Bull’s and although Ferrari certainly looked closer in Canada both Raikkonen and Vettel were some way off Hamilton’s pace throughout Friday practice.
Both Williams and Force India have a great opportunity to sneak a car onto the second row of the grid tomorrow. I expect Vettel will come good during qualifying but I think that fourth on the grid is there for the taking, expect both Bottas and Perez to feature heavily in what could be an exciting Q3! Well, behind the front two at least.
Positives for McLaren
McLaren put in another strong performance on Friday, and on such a power hungry circuit I’m genuinely surprised at their pace. Alonso finished 4th, and Button 7th in FP2. Of course, as Red Bull find their feet and Ferrari make overnight improvements I think we can expect to see both McLaren’s drop back a little, but another Q3 appearance could be a real possibility. Getting both cars into the top ten in qualifying would be a huge achievement for McLaren, but for a team of their stature, experience, finances and resources, 18 months into their new partnership with Honda is about time Alonso and Button became regular candidates for points once again.
Kvyat not performing
I don’t want to berate Danil Kvyat, but as every session passes by Helmut Marko’s decision to switch the young Russian with Max Verstappen is making more and more sense, and I can’t help but think that unless we see a drastic turnaround in form, this will be Kvyat’s final season as a Red Bull contracted driver. Behind Sainz in both FP1 and FP2, Kvyat has struggled to adapt to the harder to drive Toro Rosso and as the season goes on will find it more and more difficult to make an impact as the team suffer the consequences of taking a year old Ferrari power unit.
I fear Kvyat’s chance at the top level of F1 has passed him by, and it’s not pleasant to see a driver receive a public vote of no confidence from which he has so far failed to recover from. That being said, outqualify Sainz on Saturday, and outrace him on Sunday and Kvyat will find that some of his doubters are silenced for a while at least, but at the moment I can’t see it happening and think he is living on borrowed time, especially with Gasly waiting in the wings.
It’s over for Renault
Kevin Magnussen has revealed that much of Renault’s focus has already switched to 2017, something which is almost certainly the correct decision given the downfalls of the RS16 chassis. However, switching focus less than halfway through the season means it’s unlikely that we’re going to see any significant progress from Renault throughout the remainder of 2016, and will almost certainly leave them in a battle with Sauber and perhaps even Manor for the wooden spoon.
The Renault/Sauber/Manor fight has the potential to develop into one of the most closely fought battles of the season as it seems even Haas although some way short of the consistency of Toro Rosso, Force India and Mclaren, are ahead of the bottom three. It would have been a welcome result for Jolyon Palmer, who finished ahead of Magnussen in FP2 but the rookie really needs to start out qualifying, and out racing his teammate if he wants to be at Renault when they eventually reach the peak of their powers. On a more pressing note, it’s critical that both Palmer and Magnussen keep their cars out of the wall on Saturday, as Renault haven’t had the time to build a spare chassis.
With all that in mind, here are some key thing’s I’ll looking out for this weekend.
- Hamilton taking pole position
- Vettel to surprise on Saturday
- Haas in no mans land
- Perhaps both McLaren’s into Q3