With a quick car and yet another blistering qualifying performance from Charles Leclerc, it’s no surprise that Ferrari went into this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix with high hopes. Cue disaster: after just 20 laps their race was over, both drivers out with mechanical issues as title rivals Red Bull cruised their way to an untroubled 1-2.
It was a letdown of massive proportions. Leclerc’s engine failure marked his second retirement from the lead in three races, and after having led the championship by more than 30 points he now finds himself 34 points adrift and behind both Red Bull drivers. It’s no surprise that for perhaps the first time this year he came across as an utterly disconsolate figure, his post-retirement talk of finding solutions sounding hollow, hopeless.
On the other hand there was little but joy in the Red Bull garage. Their domination was total, for once Leclerc retired nobody else came close to mounting even a semblance of a challenge. Though Sergio Perez had been faster of the two drivers throughout practice and qualifying, come race day it was Max Verstappen who was quicker, easing past his teammate to win by over 20 seconds.
Aside from Red Bull, the main beneficiary of Ferrari’s collapse was Mercedes. While the team continues to struggle with severe porpoising issues, especially with Lewis Hamilton, they’re now just 40 points behind Ferrari in the constructor’s standings. George Russell picked up yet another third place, while Hamilton – who was in so much pain from bouncing around that he could barely lift himself out of his car at the end of the race – finished fourth.
Pierre Gasly, who shone in qualifying, drove a typically quiet and excellent race to finish fifth, ahead of Sebastian Vettel. Fernando Alonso, who now holds the record for having F1’s longest career, marked the occasion with a fine seventh. Despite some late intra-team squabbling, Daniel Ricciardo finished ahead of McLaren teammate Lando Norris, while Esteban Ocon rounded out the top 10.
Earlier in the day it was Sergio Perez who had a dream start to the race, charging down the inside of Leclerc as the Ferrari driver locked up at the first corner. The pace of the Red Bull was immediately obvious as Perez opened up a 1.3 second lead by the end of the first lap, with teammate Verstappen climbing all over the back of Leclerc as well. Leclerc withstood the pressure, but it wasn’t long before Carlos Sainz – who had been steadily dropping back from the leading trio – pulled off the track with what turned out to be a terminal hydraulic issue.
Sainz’s retirement brought out the Virtual Safety Car (VSC), which saw Leclerc pit for fresh tyres and left the Red Bulls clear at the front. Verstappen was soon right behind Perez and, with the team ordering the Mexican driver not to fight, easily cleared him on lap 15. The pair soon stopped for tyres and were in turn leapfrogged by Leclerc, due to his quicker stop under the VSC, but the Ferrari’s lead was short lived. On lap 20 a plume of blue smoke suddenly sprang out the back of the Ferrari, bringing an end to Leclerc’s grand prix and, also, any chance of a competitive race at the front.
Over the following laps a series of battles periodically emerged in the middle order. Sebastian Vettel spent several laps trying to force his way past Esteban Ocon – who, in a repeat of his Monaco performance, managed to make his car seem twice as wide as it actually was – and even ran off the road at one point before eventually clearing the French driver. Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu found himself in an impressive tenth place, ahead of much more experienced teammate Valtteri Bottas, before being forced to retire on lap 31 with a power unit issue.
On lap 34 yet another Ferrari engine failure saw Kevin Magnussen’s Haas pull to the side of the road. Mercedes pitted Lewis Hamilton for fresh tyres under the subsequent VSC, the decision helping him ease past both Alpha Tauri drivers, who had opted to stay out. Soon after, Yuki Tsunoda was involved in chaotic scenes when he was forced into the pits after his rear wing became stuck half open: his pit crew strapped the offending part together with tape, much to the dismay of a furious FIA official. He was allowed to continue, although any chance of a competitive finish was effectively shot and he finished down in 13th.
As the laps ticked down the McLarens of Ricciardo and Norris found themselves together after running different strategies. Norris was ordered to hold position behind Ricciardo and made his displeasure clear over the team radio: for a moment he appeared to size up a move on his teammate anyway, but wisely decided against it.
Showing just how much the past few races have hurt, Ferrari now sit a whopping 80 points behind Red Bull in the constructor’s championship. With confidence at a low, just how they’ll respond at next week’s Canadian Grand Prix remains to be seen.