After an exhilarating and breathtaking Chinese Grand Prix, where Australian Daniel Ricciardo claimed the sixth race victory of his career, none of which have come from the top three spots on the grid, Formula One heads to the streets of Baku for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Round Four of the 2018 Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) Formula One World Championship, with the championship interestingly poised!
Sebastian Vettel (54 points), who had a difficult race in Shanghai after leading the early stages of the race, being overtaken by Valtteri Bottas during the pit-stops, and then a collision with Max Verstappen saw him finish seventh in China, still leads the championship for Ferrari by nine points over Mercedes driver and defending world champion Lewis Hamilton (45 points).
Hamilton, with his fourth-place finish in Shanghai, became the record-holder for most-consecutive race finishes inside the points in Formula One history. This weekend, he will look to turn around his underwhelming record in Baku, where he has finished fifth in each of the last two years.
Bottas (40 points) is third in the world championship in his Mercedes after consecutive podium finishes in Bahrain and China after his disappointing performance in Australia, and will be looking to continue the form of the last two races into this weekend in Azerbaijan. He is ahead of Ricciardo (37 points) in the championship, with Red Bull Racing-TAG Heuer showing in China that they are very capable of challenging for the world championship.
Vettel’s teammate at Ferrari, Kimi Räikkönen (30 points), is fifth in the championship, 24 points behind his teammate after rebounding from the awful pit-lane incident where one of the mechanics broke his leg with a well-deserved third-place finish in China.
Fernando Alonso (22 points) and Nico Hülkenberg (22 points) are sixth and seventh in the world championship for McLaren-Renault and Renault respectively after scoring three points-scoring finishes each. Alonso is ahead of Hülkenberg in championship by virtue of his fifth-place finish at the Australian Grand Prix.
Ricciardo’s teammate at Red Bull Racing-TAG Heuer, Verstappen (18 points), is eighth in the championship after mixed performances in each of the first three rounds with a sixth-place finish in Australia after a spin, a transmission failure with his car in Bahrain after three laps, which happened after a very early racing incident with Hamilton, causing Verstappen to puncture his tyre, and then the collision with Vettel in China adding to his woe, where he finished fifth, but could have won the race!
Verstappen has got to find the happy medium between being aggressive and being conservative going forward without losing the ability to be bold on the circuit, which will take time that is for sure!
Pierre Gasly (12 points) for Toro Rosso-Honda, and Kevin Magnussen (11 points) for Haas-Ferrari complete the top 10 in the drivers’ championship.
Looking at the standings in the Constructors’ Championship, Mercedes (85 points) lead by a single point over Ferrari (84 points) with Red Bull Racing-TAG Heuer (55 points) having plenty of work to do to catch up with their main rivals in third, ahead of McLaren-Renault (28 points), Renault (25 points), Toro Rosso-Honda (12 points), Haas-Ferrari (11 points), Sauber-Ferrari (two points), Force India-Mercedes (one point), and Williams-Mercedes (zero points).
So, who will win the Azerbaijan Grand Prix?
On paper, this has been a circuit which has suited Mercedes, pace-wise at least, as it has been a power circuit, rewarding straight-line speed and engine/power-unit performance. In saying that, Ferrari believe their engine/power-unit performance is close to being on-par with Mercedes, so this could be an interesting battle!
If Mercedes wins, you sense that they are still the car and team to beat in terms of the championship, but if they don’t win or aren’t ahead of the field on merit, you sense Ferrari, and perhaps Red Bull are a strong chance of taking the championships away from Mercedes.
My gut feel is that Mercedes still has an advantage, and I believe it will be third-time lucky for Lewis Hamilton in Azerbaijan to take his first race victory of the season!