It’s truly rare in the modern age of Formula 1 that a car can be affected by something other than an powertrain failure or another car’s impact. Yet, at Melbourne,and at Baku, a humble piece of roadside has made its presence felt.
In Free Practice 1, George Russell in his Williams hit a drainage grate that somehow had loosened just enough to hit the underside of the car. Sparks and body parts alike flew, with the result being Russell wondering which ladder he’d walked under, a ruined car, a frustrated Williams team structure, and the possibility of Baku council having to shell out some serious recompense. The impact was solid, with the car’s “G-meter” registering a vertical 4G impact. That was enough to frighten the fire extinguisher into activating.
The team were forced to place Russell into the space chassis, meaning he would miss FP2 as a result due to the FIA regulations. Practice was eventually red-flagged, with Russell later acknowledging that the situation could have been worse. “If that was 10-15mm higher, it was going straight into where I’m sat,” Russell said. “It could have been much worse. It’s a shame for all the guys, you’ve got your full programs, your plans for the weekend, and it all gets thrown down the drain, literally.”
Ferrari were looking quick through the practice sessions, with Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel topping the timesheets in all three sessions. Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, Vatteri Bottas, Daniil Kvyat, Carlos Sainz, Alexander Albon, Pierre Gasly, and Lando Norris made up the rest of the top tens in FP2 and FP3, and it was fair to presume that the Ferrari pace would see the pair on the front row come Qualifying.
Q3 and Robert Kubica brought a halt to proceedings after the timing had stopped in the session. The front left of his Williams, capping a horrible couple of days for the venerable British team, tapped the wall at Turn 8, pulling off the front section and sending his car into the opposite wall. “That’s how it is, I paid quite a high price for a relatively small mistake, but in that place it’s like this, so it’s a shame.” said the Polish born Kubica.
Leclerc had been the one to watch with times down into the 1:41s. Lance Stroll had a lucky escape after his right rear brushed the wall and collected a fair bit of concrete, and Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, with memories of his race smash with then team mate Verstappen at this location last year, languished in the bottom half of the times.
With under five minutes to go, Pierre Gasly laid down a 1:41 to put him ahead of Leclerc. Hamilton had been knocking on the door of relegation just minutes before and was suddenly in third and just 0.3 seconds off the fastest time.
Q2 would see both Renaults not take part in Q3, nor would Romain Grosjean, Carlos Sainz, and Alexander Albon. And with just under eight minutes to go, Leclerc, one of two cars on medium tires, would mimic Kubica by coming into Turn 8 and at speed would go straight into the wall, in exactly the same place. In his case, though, he had not tapped the wall on the left, it was simply a matter of excess speed into the wall. A disconsolate Leclerc would be on the radio within seconds, saying: ““I am stupid. I am stupid.”
Once the debris had cleared and Q3 was able to be set free, expectations were on Vettel to snare pole. And it looked that way early in the important Q3. That was until Lewis Hamilton set a time that was 8/10ths quicker than the pole setting lap in 2018. Warning bells were ringing in the Ferrari garage.
Red Bull tried a new tactic. Verstappen would set a hot lap, cool down, set another hot lap, cool down, but to no avail. If there was a positive for Red Bull, it was that the Dutchman would be consistent across the three sessions, with 1:41 to his name in all three. Verstappen would ultimately sit alongside the Ferrari of Vettel, and ahead of Perez, Kvyat, Norris, Giovinazzi, Kimi Raikonnen, and Pierre Gasly. Gasly had qualified higher up in the order but would later be disqualified from the session as the fuel allowance of 100 kilograms per hour of flow had been exceeded in his Red Bull.
It becomes another front row lockout in silver, with Bottas landing pole by just 0.039 of a second over Hamilton.