Max Verstappen’s victory in Monaco two weeks ago has reset the battle for the Formula One drivers’ championship ahead of what promises to be an exciting Azerbaijan Grand Prix 2021 (Race: 1pm Sunday).
Verstappen took a fairly straightforward victory from the front of the grid in Monaco after the pole-sitting Ferrari of Charles Leclerc was unable to start due to a driveshaft failure. He saw off Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas into the first corner and controlled the race from there.
Carlos Sainz came in second for Ferrari, benefiting from Bottas’ retirement due to a stuck wheel nut, ahead of Lando Norris, scoring his second podium of an impressive start to the year with McLaren.
The other primary championship contender, Lewis Hamilton, had a much less comfortable weekend in his Mercedes. He was only able to qualify seventh on the grid, his worst qualifying performance since mid-2018, and between the near impossibility of overtaking at Monaco and his struggles to get his tyres working, he was unable to make up ground on race day. He was at least able to grab another point for setting the fastest lap of the race.
Those results mean that it is Verstappen who now leads the championship after five rounds, four points ahead of Hamilton in second. There is still a long way to go, but even at this early stage, they look the only viable winners. Norris is 49 points back from Verstappen in third.
Who will have the edge in Azerbaijan? Monaco was always likely to favour the Red Bull, but the pendulum can be expected to swing back Mercedes’ way in Baku. With its combination of a very long straight and twisty sections more typical of a street circuit, it is difficult to find the right setup, but the superior grunt of the Mercedes engine will give them more margin to strike a good balance between straight line speed and cornering performance.
There was no Azerbaijan Grand Prix last year but Mercedes were victorious in both 2018, through Hamilton, and in 2019, when Bottas and Hamilton both qualified and finished first and second in that order.
With Bottas some way off Hamilton’s pace so far this year, the odds look good enough to back Hamilton to take victory on Sunday.
With straight line speed a key requirement in Baku, Ferrari are unlikely to be anywhere near as quick as they were in Monaco, where they might even have had a shot at victory had Leclerc been able to start from pole or had Sainz’s final qualifying run not been cut short by the Leclerc crash that contributed to his race-day problems.
Mercedes and Red Bull are likely to have the two fastest cars, but if he can qualify well and pull things together in the race, Norris might just have a shot at another top-three finish in his McLaren. In addition to his two podiums, he also has fourth and fifth-place finishes to his credit this year, showing that he is pretty much always there or thereabouts.
McLaren switched to Mercedes power this year and as with the former Force India and Racing Point teams in seasons past that can be expected to make them very competitive in Baku. Norris finished eighth there in his one previous race at the circuit in 2018, but he is likely to be much further up the field this time around, maybe even in the top three.
Sergio Perez took fourth for Red Bull in Monaco, ahead of Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin, Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri, Hamilton, the second Aston Martin of Lance Stroll, Esteban Ocon’s Alpine and Antonio Giovanazzi’s Alfa Romeo.
It was Vettel’s first points finish since his move from Ferrari to Aston Martin in the off-season and consequently the team’s first double points finish of 2021. Despite them both being street circuits, Baku is a very different track to Monaco, but the team nevertheless seem fairly confident that they are starting to get to grips with their 2021 car, one of those that suffered most from the pre-season regulation change reducing the area of the rear-floor, and they should again be in the mix for points this weekend.
Stroll has proved to be a bit of specialist at the Baku circuit. He finished third for Williams in 2017, before going on to take points for Williams in 2018 (eighth) and Racing Point (ninth) in 2019. He looks a solid bet to continue his points-scoring run in Azerbaijan on Sunday.