As Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton streak away towards their respective sixth Formula One world championships, the 2019 season at the front has largely been a tale of contrasting fortunes for rivals Ferrari and Red Bull.
Mercedes have broken the record for the most successful start to an F1 season as they recorded their fourth 1-2 finish in Baku, with Valtteri Bottas holding off his team-mate Lewis Hamilton to win the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Just a few hours before the race, it was announced that Kimi Raikkonen failed a front-wing deflection test after qualifying and was excluded from qualifying.
This meant that he joined Pierre Gasly and Robert Kubica in starting from the pit lane.
Hamilton got the better start but Bottas held on around the outside, going wheel-to-wheel with his team-mate around Turn 1.
While Hamilton did get ahead of Bottas on the inside into Turn 2, Bottas was able to slipstream past him and keep his lead into Turn 3.
The Mercedes then began to pull away from Sebastian Vettel in third place as the German was unable to match their lap times.
Further back in the midfield, there was much jostling for positions as drivers took full advantage of the powerful combination of the slipstream and the DRS down the main straight. Raikkonen was able to reach 352km/h in his Alfa Romeo.
Meanwhile, Charles Leclerc was making his way through the field, breezing past the two McLarens as well as the Racing Point of Sergio Perez. Once comfortably past Max Verstappen in fourth place, Leclerc was catching up to his team-mate, who was off the pace.
Vettel came into the pits on Lap 12 just before Leclerc was about to attempt a pass on the main straight. It seemed as if Ferrari were trying to avoid any controversial team order calls after China.
The soft tyres lost performance as the first stint went on with Leclerc setting the fastest laps on his medium tyres. However, the Monégasque driver was not able to keep this pace for long as the Mercedes had fresher tyres having made their pit stops.
After being reeled in by Bottas over the course of ten laps, Leclerc was passed by the Finn on Lap 31 then Hamilton soon after.
Leclerc was straight onto the team radio saying: “I think we should box. We’re losing a lot of time.”
The response from his team was: “We don’t think the soft will last so we will go longer [on the mediums].”
This confirmed the idea that even though Leclerc was clearly bleeding time to the Mercedes, Ferrari were nervous about the longevity of the soft tyres so kept him out for as long as possible.
While all this was going on, Daniel Ricciardo was trying to overtake his former team-mate Daniil Kvyat.
Ricciardo locked up trying to go up the inside of Kvyat at Turn 3, going down the escape road. As Kvyat was on the outside of Ricciardo, he was unable to make it around the corner, so was also stuck in the escape road.
Then, Ricciardo reversed straight into Kvyat, causing some floor damage to the Russian’s Toro Rosso. Both Ricciardo and Kvyat retired from the race as a result of this incident.
Pierre Gasly retired from the race on Lap 39 after suffering a complete loss of power, perhaps due to a problem with his gearbox. This brought out a virtual safety car which disadvantaged his team-mate Max Verstappen as he was closing up to the top three before the VSC.
By Lap 48, Leclerc had given up with trying to catch up to Verstappen and made a pitstop to put on a fresh set of soft tyres to try and take the fastest lap of the race.
Two laps later, he did just that, setting the fastest lap of 1:43.009, a new lap record for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
In the last few laps of the race, Hamilton was closing up to Bottas on the main straight but not close enough to overtake him for the lead. Bottas was able to fend off his team-mate through a combination of getting DRS off lapped traffic and Hamilton going wide at Turn 16.
This was Mercedes’ fourth 1-2 finish of the season, something no other team has ever done before. Bottas and Hamilton are separated by just one point.
Bottas told Paul di Resta after the race: “It was actually a tough race. Lewis was putting pressure on me all the time so I’m happy to see this chequered flag and get first place. It’s incredible, as a team, the level we’re performing at now.”
Hamilton was similarly in praise of the team.
“This is the best start to the season we have ever had,” he said.
“It’s a team effort. Everyone in the factory has worked non-stop and they’ve come back every season hungry for more.”
Elsewhere, it was another dismal weekend for Williams, perhaps their worst of the season.
On Friday, there was the incident with the manhole cover, the crane and the bridge, costing Williams hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Then, yesterday, Robert Kubica crashed at Turn 8, emptying Williams’ piggy bank a little bit more.
And finally, today, Kubica was awarded a drive-through penalty after the team pushed his car into the pit lane too early for his pit lane start.
The team were unaware that this rule even existed. Russell finished 15th and Kubica finished 16th. At least the two have a 100 per cent finishing record this season.
A team that had a much better weekend than Williams was Racing Point, who had a double-points finish today with Perez finishing in fifth and Stroll finishing in ninth. They are now fifth in the constructors’ championship, just one point behind McLaren in fourth.
The F1 circus now moves on to Barcelona in a fortnight’s time as the European season gets underway.