“Four races in the season, no win for Ferrari, four wins for Mercedes — no doubt they are very strong,” Ferrari principal Mattia Binotto remarked dryly after his team was beaten to victory at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
“Certainly they’ve got a slightly better car.”
The fourth instalment of the Baku street race was another fascinating chapter of the 2019 narrative that continues to pose only one emphatic question: is anyone good enough to beat Mercedes?
In Azerbaijan, Ferrari had the tools to reach the top step of the podium. The Italian team looked set to dominate the weekend on a circuit that favoured its car, and Charles Leclerc in particular appeared bound to blitz the field.
But hype is about as far as Ferrari got to fulfilling its potential.
Leclerc’s Q2 crash was mostly in more ways than one. Not only did it eliminate Ferrari’s best chance for pole form the reckoning, but it meant Sebastian Vettel went into Q3 as the team’s sole representative, which on the long straight of Baku, where the slipstream can make a difference of up to 0.6 seconds, is a major disadvantage.
Mercedes, emboldened by the cooling track temperatures helping its car keep the tyres in the correct temperature window — ironically, Leclerc’s crash, delaying qualifying by around 30 minutes, was a principal contributor — then landed a knockout blow.
Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton baited Vettel by leaving pit lane slightly early, and when the German followed immediately in the hope of picking up a slipstream, both Mercedes drivers stopped their cars in the area marked for practice starts at the pit exit and watched the lone Ferrari cruise past onto an empty track.
Vettel would have to set a time without the benefit of the tow, which ultimately decided the front row in Valtteri and Lewis’ favour.
With the advantage of clean air gained by running at the head of the field, Bottas and Hamilton were able to control the pace and optimally manage the unexpected difficulties of running on the soft tyre. The result was just about a formality — despite all the hype around Ferrari and despite Mercedes just about writing itself off for the weekend pre-qualifying, the German marque recorded a fourth consecutive one-two finish, the best start to a season of any constructor in F1 history.
“What can I say? We are not talking ourselves down,” Toto Wolff said, acknowledging the string of victories, unexpected as they were after preseason testing.
“I think that what we did in the first races was put all the things together.
“The team didn’t do any mistakes, the strategy calls were right, the drivers didn’t put a foot wrong, and that made us win the first four races.
“Then when you look at the other side, they had more problems.”
Indeed the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was an almost perfect microcosm of the season to date. For almost the entire weekend, Ferrari lacked the poise and nous of its more experienced rival.
Take qualifying as an example. While Leclerc must bear responsibility for his crash, was it a sensible gamble to send him out on medium tyres after such a disrupted weekend on such a treacherous circuit?
“We made the decision this morning before FP3,” Wolff said, admitting it was a possibility for his team.
“We felt that it was better to prepare the drivers on a circuit like Baku with throwing soft tyres at them in Q1, Q2 and Q3 rather than having a medium in the mix.”
Certainly one broken Ferrari is testament to Wolff’s team’s decision-making.
The race too demonstrated the way Mercedes is operating in a more comprehensive style. There was so much potential for disaster off the line, when Hamilton tried to cut under poleman Bottas at the first turn. The pair raced side by side to turn three, but each gave the other generous space to fight, secure in their positions in the team.
Compare that to the tension bubbling inside Ferrari about the relative statures of Leclerc and Vettel.
Spurred on by the team’s default position to favour Sebastian, Charles has been ferociously determined to ensure his results mount the case for equality at minimum. Would his weekend have unravelled so dramatically if he felt comfortable shaving one or two per cent off his aggression?
“You have to be conscious [of it],” Wolff said. “We want them to be feisty in the car… but equally the respect needs to stay in there.
“We are very strong as a team and we wouldn’t allow a relationship between drivers to deteriorate to a point that it has a negative effect on the team.”
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix may have outwardly looked like another straightforward Mercedes victory, but the reigning constructors champion worked hard for its points by not putting a foot wrong all weekend. Ferrari, equipped with what should have been the car best suited to the track, once again fumbled its way to second best.
So when Binotto says Mercedes has the better car, the literal significance is only partly true. A man as coolly logical as Mattia will know that Ferrari has thus far been outraced rather than simply outdesigned.
So still that question hangs in the air as Formula One hurtles towards its European leg of the season. is anyone good enough to beat Mercedes? On current form, the answer is a resounding no.