Red Bull’s excellent first day at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix contrasted sharply with its championship rival Mercedes. Sergio Perez led a Red Bull one-two in Baku practice, claiming he finally understood the RB16B after a difficult early adaptation to his new team. Though Max Verstappen complained of a set-up change for FP2 not working as well as opening practice, this was a very strong start from Red Bull – which also looked quickest on long run times.
Things looked a lot more troubling for Mercedes. Valtteri Bottas suggested there was “something fundamentally wrong” while Lewis Hamilton sounded confused by the lack of pace in the car during the session and reiterated that position to TV cameras afterwards. It looks like Mercedes might have to brace for a continuation of its tough Monaco weekend. But as Bottas pointed out, at least they were vaguely in the mix there. In Baku, the one-lap pace is totally lacking.
“Today was our worst Friday by some margin,” said Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin.
“Our biggest issue seemed to be the single lap. We’re a long way from our normal positions so clearly we need to find something very significant there. The long run picture was not as bad – a fair bit behind Red Bull but still in the mix.
“So, lots to work on overnight. We’re planning a comprehensive programme of analysis and simulator work to try and understand some of these issues but we clearly have an awful lot to find.”
Those are strong words for a team that looked like it was building some serious momentum just a couple of weeks ago. And it gives Red Bull a fantastic opportunity to build on the championship leads that the team assumed after Monaco.
This on-track fight is raging but the battle is pretty fierce off-track as well. For the last couple of weeks, flexi-wings have been a major talking point. But that’s particularly sensitive in Baku, where Mercedes had implicitly threatened to protest the Red Bull rear wing. The reason it’s so sensitive in Azerbaijan is because of the potential benefits. At some races this year, particularly Spain, it’s been evident that the Red Bull rear wing bends back a lot more than most on the straights under the extreme forces at high speed then snaps into place when the car slows down. That will basically reduce drag on the straights and keep the downforce for the corners. A perfect combination for Baku, with its massive flat-out stretch along the Capsian Sea and the tight and twisty middle section.
The short version is that the FIA believes some of the wings, probably including Red Bull’s, are deforming too much. These teams have found a way to build wings that pass the load tests the FIA have in place, but then bend once on track and subject to greater forces. So from France, the next race after Baku, there’ll be tougher tests. That gave these teams a month or so to change their designs and strengthen them to pass the new tests. Red Bull and the other teams who have these wings say that’s fair. Mercedes and McLaren, who don’t have these wings, say that’s unfair because in their view the wings are illegal and therefore the benefit is still being wrongly enjoyed.
To be honest, both sides are right and wrong. The flexi-wings do pass the current load tests, so are legal in that sense. But the rules also state that aero parts can’t move at all! So technically they break that rule. But if you apply that rule as black/white than pretty much every single aero part on every single car would be illegal because pretty much every part will flex while the car’s in motion.
It’s a tricky subject. The FIA’s doing what it can and even put some stickers on each rear wing this weekend so it can see how much each different wing flexes with a clear reference point. But clearly Mercedes and McLaren aren’t happy and they are still kicking up a fuss.
In response, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner has warned his Mercedes counterpart Toto Wolff to shut up. He says that the Mercedes FRONT wing is flexing a lot. The hint is that if Wolff keeps pushing for action on illegal wings, then Mercedes might find its own designs being protested.
These are all part of the politics of a title fight. If nothing else, it’s good entertainment.