By Carol M. Creasey
As Formula One continued on to Baku, another street circuit, the Mercedes team continued to scratch their heads to try and understand their 2021 car, which appears to have no pace on this type of track.
At the end of Free Practice 1, Sir Lewis Hamilton was only seventh fastest, and Valtteri Bottas was not even able to make the top ten. Free Practice 2 was no better, as Sir Lewis could only manage eleventh, and once again Bottas was even further down in the time sheets. Between then and Free Practice 3, Mercedes worked tirelessly, as they always do, to try and improve their car, and Sir Lewis did manage to get third fastest in FP3, although Bottas found no improvement with his car, and stated that “something was fundamentally wrong”.
It was hard for Mercedes, both the team and the drivers, to have a lot of confidence when it was time for Qualifying, and there were many anxious fans who wanted to see their team do well. Because Mercedes were so uncertain about what would work, they gave Sir Lewis and Bottas different wing configurations.
In Qualifying, after various red flags, Sir Lewis topped Q1, and he was as surprised as everyone else that finally his car was finally showing some pace. In Q2 it was Verstappen that came out on top, with Sir Lewis third, and Perez second by the tiniest of margins, which meant Q3 could be topped by any one of them.
But in Q3 everything changed again, with Leclerc topping the time sheets, which meant he had taken back to back pole positions at the last two races. He had not been able to convert that to a win in Monaco because his car was unable to race, but now there was everything to play for.
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Sir Lewis was second, and was delighted with this change of fortune, to suddenly be up there on the front row, and contrary to expectations Bottas also slightly improved, making it into tenth position, but he was obviously struggling more than Sir Lewis.
Verstappen was third, and clearly not happy about it when interviewed afterwards, although he did concede that it wasn’t a bad place to start the race from. Sir Lewis was sandwiched between Leclerc and Verstappen, so it was hard to tell if they can all emerge safely from the first corner. Three cars, all with drivers who really want to win!
On race day the start went off without incident, and the first three maintained their positions after the run to the first bend. Sir Lewis went to hunt down Leclerc, and after a few laps passed him to take first place, and then Verstappen did likewise. Unfortunately Mercedes gave Lewis a slow pit stop, which enabled both Perez and Verstappen to get past him. He was now in fourth position.
Later in the race Stroll hit the barrier and was out, which activated a safety car. Racing resumed again, then dramatically on lap forty seven Verstappen’s tyre burst, forcing him to retire from the race. Once again the safety car was deployed. But then the red flag was shown, so the cars went back to the pits. It was decided they would all change tyres and have a restart.
On the restart, Sir Lewis overtook Perez for first place, but went off the track. It was later confirmed that he accidentally hit Mercedes’ ‘brake magic’ button, which led to a lock-up and unfortunately cost him the race. There was a fight to the checkered flag, and Perez was a worthy winner, with Vettel second and Gasly third.
Commiserations have to go to Verstappen for tyre problems, and to Sir Lewis who fought with all his might this weekend, with an uncompetitive car, to try and bring a good result home for the team. He had to work very hard, especially when he had both Red Bulls in front of him, as Bottas had no pace and was unable to provide any support.
Sir Lewis accepted full blame for his error, he apologised to his team and his fans, and I applaud him for his honesty. What I will say to certain people who have used this as an opportunity to demean his achievements is that he fought all weekend with a difficult car, and he raced with all his heart as he always does. For any fan who feels disappointed, he will feel it one hundred times more than anyone else, because normally he is such a perfectionist. But at the end of the day, he is human, and nobody’s perfect. For all those armchair critics out there, do they really think they could do any better?
The French Grand Prix is next, Verstappen is still four points ahead of Sir Lewis, they both had an off day, so now there is still everything to play for.
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