WELL DONE BAKU. After last years inaugural grand prix at Baku failed to conjure up excitement, this year couldn’t be more different. The race itself was thrilling to watch, and with the aftermath of the Vettel-Hamilton incident yet to unravel it could potentially be one of the most important races of 2017. Qualifying itself wasn’t as entertaining as the race, but it still delivered with everybody eager to see if Red Bull’s pace in free practice was genuinely competitive, and after troubles on Friday, whether or not Hamilton would amend last years woes.
Hamilton did in spectacular fashion, outqualifying his teammate Bottas by nearly half a second. Vettel ran into trouble in FP3, having to fall back to a previous spec engine, resulting in Räikkönen qualifying P3. Verstappen’s pace was strong, but he narrowly missed out on the second row after a gearbox issue to qualify P5.
The Baku City Circuit is a tricky one. Lot’s of braking zones, some downhill and slightly off camber, so a car with strong brakes and downforce will do well there. The 2km long straight throws a spanner into the works, however, so the teams have to find the best compromise between straight line speed and downforce. Sector 2 has a Monaco-esque narrow section around the castle where the driver needs the confidence and balance to extract the maximum.
Using telemetry charts, I’m going to go through and analyse four different cases to investigate the differences between the teams and drivers:
- Hamilton vs Bottas
- Hamilton vs Räikkönen
- Räikkönen vs Vettel
- Hamilton vs Verstappen
All laps are Q3 unless stated otherwise. The charts are fairly simple. Each driver has the velocity plotted against distance. Sadly there are no throttle and brake traces this time as I was unable to obtain onboard videos with this data. The time delta is also plotted comparing the first driver in the legend against the second. In the first chart below, the time delta is comparing Hamilton’s lap against Bottas, so if the value is positive Hamilton is slower and behind Bottas.
Hamilton vs Bottas
Before qualifying started, it looked as if Bottas had the upper hand and Hamilton would have to pull something special out of the bag to beat his teammate. Hamilton produced a stonking lap that he himself said was better than his pole position lap in Canada.
To start the lap, Hamilton immediately has a straight line speed advantage, which indicates that Hamilton could be running a little less downforce than Bottas. Through turn 1 they’re both comparable, with Hamilton about a quarter tenth faster. Bottas is better through turn 2, however, braking later and getting a stronger exit onto the second longest straight of the circuit. Gaining a tenth through the corner was important for Bottas because he would subsequently lose it on the straight due to his lower straight line speed. If Bottas is running more downforce, he really has to maximise this where his can to keep up with Hamilton.
For turn 3 Bottas is again able to brake a few metres later, and carries more apex speed than Hamilton. Since the straight between turns 3 and 4 is the relatively short, Bottas doesn’t lose anything here, and subsequently he gains more time through turn 4. The run down to turn 5 isn’t long enough for Bottas to lose significant amounts of time (notice the slight downward slope on the time delta, he is losing a little time) due to higher drag so he finishes the sector just over a tenth up on Hamilton. The real gap was 0.085s which indicates there’s a small sync issue in sector 1.
Where Hamilton really shone was in sector 2. If you agree with the observation that he was running less downforce, you’d expect him to struggle with the tight and twisty nature of sector 2. All things being identical he probably would, but what’s key for sector 2 is car balance. Downforce is important, but with a lot of direction changes, a car balance that gives the driver stability and predictability can be faster.
By looking at the time delta, Hamilton was faster through 5 & 6, a quick left-right chicane, by a tenth. This advantage was increased through to turn 7 with a strong exit. Turn 7 is where Bottas ran a little wide and missed the apex, which really cost him as he lost nearly 0.3s here. Through the twisty section around the castle, both drivers have different approaches, with Bottas pushing harder as he brakes later and accelerates for longer. Watching the video, you could see Bottas getting very close to the walls trying to extract the maximum. In stark contrast, it looked like Hamilton was just easing his way through not using the entire track. Before the exit of turn 12, Bottas was about a tenth faster than Hamilton through the castle section, it didn’t matter as Hamilton got such a good run out of 12 that he was ~0.15s faster up to turn 15, which is massive for a flat out section. While Bottas was busy pushing and maximising his extra downforce, Hamilton was focused on keeping it neat and tidy to maximise the important corner exit of 12. It paid off as Hamilton was 0.3s up by the end of sector 2.
For a Formula 1 car Sector 3 is just one corner: turn 16. With a 2km long malformed straight of full throttle, it’s absolutely vital to get an important exit. On corner entry, Bottas carries a little more speed, but as a result he runs a marginally wider line than Hamilton on the video, and as a result struggles a small amount more than Hamilton to get onto full throttle. Hamilton, on the other hand, was inch perfect and it paid off with a much stronger exit, to go two tenths faster than his teammate through a long 100% throttle section.
Comparing this with the telemetry from Barcelona, Spain, a pattern seems to be emerging between the two drivers driving styles: Bottas seems to prefer a higher downforce setup relative to Hamilton. This is just a sample size of 2, so it’s clearly inconclusive, but it’ll be fascinating to see how this develops over the rest of the season. It’s clear already though, that Bottas has the pace to threaten Hamilton, maybe even more so than Rosberg did. If he hadn’t made a mistake at turn 7, the gap between the two would be ~0.1-0.2s. For a 100s lap that’s not much at all.
Hamilton vs Räikkönen
With Vettel having problems in FP3 it was down to Räikkönen to deliver in qualifying for Ferrari. In terms of grid position, he did, as in hindsight P3 was the best Ferrari could hope for with Mercedes’ making another step forward. Ferrari were more than a second behind on raw place in Baku, but this gap isn’t truly representative for a variety of reasons. The first is Kimi Räikkönen. The flying Finn he may be, but in the new hybrid era of Formula 1, he doesn’t consistently deliver the raw pace of that Alonso/Hamilton/Vettel do. Simply estimating, Kimi’s pace accounts for two, maybe three tenths over a lap? This is probably inaccurate, but I’ll try to put a number to this in the next section when I compare both Ferraris. That still leaves at least ~0.8s remaining to explain.
Looking at the speed trace overall, there’s a stark difference compared to Canada and Spain where Ferrari were faster in a straight line hitting a greater top speed. Baku has the longest straight on the calendar, so for Ferrari to intentionally run less top end doesn’t seem to make sense. Even Red Bull were 2kph faster in a straight line. Using the time delta trace, Räikkönen lost approximately half a second on the ‘straights’. It’s almost as if the Mercedes had DRS freely available to use anywhere they liked, whereas Ferrari weren’t allowed to use it all.
It’s incredibly bizarre, but there some possible explanations that don’t, in my opinion, seem entirely illogical. Before theorising, it’s important to state what can be considered factual: Ferrari were more competitive in race trim. Even if Hamilton wasn’t pushing up front in the first stint, Vettel was not consistently a second off the pace. After Vettel served his 10s stop go penalty and ended up in front of Hamilton, who had to pit to change his headrest, Hamilton didn’t cruise up and ease past Vettel either. From lap 35 or so onwards, both Hamilton and Vettel were all but matching lap times, with Hamilton marginally quicker overall.
So knowing that Ferrari were competitive in the race, what went wrong in qualifying trim? Perhaps Ferrari were running a relatively high drag setup with emphasis on the race. With drivers getting a slipstream more often during the race, this isn’t too far fetched of an idea. Or perhaps Ferrari discovered a problem with their Q3 engine mode with Vettel’s engine in FP3 and decided to not run it. This isn’t an entirely unreasonable claim, as during the race the cars usually don’t run their ‘ultimate power’ mode, bringing the teams closer on race pace. Nonetheless, it’s purely conjecture so it’s just as likely to be false or true. Lastly, might the technical directive released earlier that race weekend on oil burning be what really hurt Ferrari? The question has already been posed by a few journalists, and who knows, maybe there is some truth to it. If the same occurs in Austria, Spa, and Monza, there’ll at least be more information to support that claim.
Ferrari’s deficit on the straights totals to ~0.5s, which leaves 0.3s of the 0.8s to account for. Both Ferraris lost two tenths to Hamilton in the turn 5/6 chicane, a tenth in turn 7, and about a tenth in turn 15. Was Hamilton just too good through these corners, or was the Mercedes itself just better? I’d say it’s about 25% Hamilton, 75% the W08. Hamilton was a tenth faster than Bottas in turns 5-6, turn 7 is unknown due to Bottas’ mistake, and turn 15 both were evenly matched. Why the Ferrari lost time in specifically these corners is impossible to say with any reasonable basis. It could be down to the tyres not being in the right window to give the drivers the necessary grip, but since most of the time wasn’t consistently lost through the corners and instead towards the end of long straights, it’s difficult to say with conviction that the tyres were Ferrari’s main problem.
Räikkönen vs Vettel
Vettel had to revert to an older spec engine after an issue in FP3. Räikkönen didn’t have any issues so he was able to run the latest spec, which means this comparison could provide insight into how much performance Ferrari’s engine upgrade has delivered.
Considering the three main straights at Baku (turn 2-3, turn 12-15, and turn 16-1) first, it’s clear that Räikkönen is definitely faster than Vettel in each straight, totalling just under two tenths. Over a 100s lap, this doesn’t sound like much, but this is Formula 1 where you take anything you can get your hands on to go faster. It’s even more important this year with how close the fight between Mercedes and Ferrari is.
But wait, how can I be sure that the differences between the two drivers are due to their engines? What if Vettel was simply running a little more drag, or perhaps he just got a relatively bad exit? The differences in the speed traces are small enough that it wouldn’t be surprising at all if it was down to setup or driver error. So, let’s look at the corners to see if anything interesting can be discovered.
In sector 1, Vettel was faster in turn 1, with Räikkönen faster in 2 and 3. Both were evenly matched through turn 4. Since all of these corners are similar, it’s likely that the differences here are down the the driver and finer setup details. In sector 2, they’re both overall almost identical, with Vettel being half a tenth faster. The key differences are the turn 5-6 chicane, and turns 11-12 which is effectively also a chicane. Vettel looks faster through the 5/6 chicane as he carries almost 10kph more apex speed, but Räikkönen gets a better exit so overall both are evenly matched. Different approaches, but almost identical results. Through the 11/12 chicane, it’s as if they switched roles. This time Räikkönen is faster through the chicane itself, but Vettel negates this by getting a great run out of 12. For the final turn before the long stretch to the finish line, Vettel is quicker by a half a tenth, just like turn 1. Both turn 1 and turn 16 also have similar apex speeds.
So were the two Ferraris setup significantly differently? What’s consistent is that Vettel was faster in turns 1 and 16, and slower in turns 2 and 3. Assuming these differences are due to setup, it’s unlikely they fully explain the time Vettel lost on the three straights of Baku, especially considering Vettel was faster through the final turn and still lost time. Thus, based on the current information, I think it would be safe to say that the time Vettel lost on the straight was due to an older engine.
In the previous section, I wrote that I’d try to put a number to Räikkönen raw pace deficit to Vettel around Baku. Vettel’s lap was ~0.15s slower, and assuming that he lost ~0.2s due to his engine, then he was ultimately ~0.05s faster on raw pace. It looks as if, like Monaco, Kimi was back on form in Baku and certainly had pace to threaten Vettel in qualifying had both cars run the same engine spec.
Hamilton vs Verstappen
Red Bull looked incredibly competitive before qualifying started, with some thinking they could even threaten pole position. By running a Monza spec rear wing, and with Renault engine upgrade supposedly bringing two tenths around Baku, Red Bull seem to have found a way of further minimising their lack of engine power.
Before analysing, I should first inform you that Verstappens lap here is from his first run in Q3, and not the one where he had a gear sync issue. He did go 0.231s faster in sector 1 on his second attempt, so he definitely could have gone faster and probably out-qualified both Ferraris, but he wasn’t getting anywhere near either Mercedes.
Most of the time Verstappen lost throughout the lap came from the three main straights, and totals to ~0.8s, which is almost two-thirds of the entire lap time deficit. A further three to four tenths were also lost on the straights between turns 1-2, turns 4-5, and turns 6-7. These straights are similar to the straight between turns 15-16, and Verstappen didn’t lose as much time here, so it’s difficult to say how much these 3-4 tenths were due to a lack of engine power.
Focusing on the corners, Verstappen in his Red Bull looks very competitive. From sector 2 onwards and using the time delta trace as a reference, Verstappen and Hamilton are almost identical through the corners, with neither really gaining any significant amount of time on the other. Hamilton perhaps was slightly faster, but it’s not more than a tenth/half a tenth.
What this demonstrates is that the Red Bull chassis, in a relatively low downforce trim, is all but on par with the Mercedes (and by extension Ferrari). There’s not much between the two at all, at least not around Baku. If Renault manage to find enough power in their engine to match or get close to Ferrari and Mercedes, and assuming Mercedes and Ferrari don’t drop the ball, then the 2018 championship fight just went from a foursome to sixsome.
Thanks for reading!