The Battle for the Podium

Both Ferrari cars suffered from reliability issues this past weekend in Baku, which caused them to retire; the team left Azerbaijan with zero points. Red Bull had a great weekend, although they were denied pole position by Charles Leclerc, the team secured a one-two finish. Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez were in a class of their own. Perez jumped polesitter Leclerc on the start into Turn One. Verstappen’s tires were in better condition, which allowed the Dutchman to take the lead from third on the grid.

Carlos Sainz’s poor luck continued this weekend when his F1-75 ground to a halt on Lap Nine, he parked it in the run-off area, which brought out a Virtual Safety Car (VSC).

Mercedes, Alpha Tauri, Williams, Haas, and the lone Ferrari of Leclerc saved 10 seconds on their pitstops by taking them under VSC. The Red Bulls stayed out on medium tires, while Ferrari decided to gamble on a one-stop strategy with their remaining car.

On Lap 20, the Monegasque’s engine failed and smoke billowed out on the main straight, he rolled his car back to the pitlane. It was a double DNF (did not finish) for Ferrari, although seemingly, less disappointing than their result in Monaco.

Verstappen comfortably lead Perez, followed by the Mercedes of George Russell, to the checkered flag. It was redemption in Baku for Verstappen, who has suffered two major crashes at the track, one of which was from the lead. Perez took his second podium in Baku. He was the winner in 2021, but Verstappen’s tire management and strategy were better on the day.

Russell is still “Mr. Consistency,” as he is now known in the F1 community after scoring another top-five finish. Baku was the fourth podium of his career and his third podium for Mercedes.

Red Bull took home 44 points in the Constructors’ Championship. Max Verstappen now leads the Drivers’ Championship by 21 points over his teammate, Perez, who is mounting a title campaign of his own.

Hamilton’s Backside

After the race, Lewis Hamilton climbed out of the cockpit of his Mercedes W13 writhing in pain. The car has been bouncing violently on the straights at high speeds, an effect known as porpoising. Hamilton was complaining during the race that his lower back hurt due to the car bottoming out. F1 seats are molded and rigid, and the drivers are very close to the tarmac. Also, his brain is likely rattling around for 51 laps, causing his eyes to vibrate as he tries to find his braking markers and adjust settings on the steering wheel.

Hamilton has been driving this car, with these problems all season. He mentioned something about it in Monaco when he told his engineers over the radio that he would need elbow pads because of the bouncing. Other teams have been experiencing porpoising as well, but Mercedes really struggle to manage it, and their drivers are feeling it weekend after weekend.

Graph of porpoising amplitude by each team, in the Turn 12-15 complex in Baku, at the 2020 Azerbaijan GP. (Source: Reddit u/Subba_Mike25)
Graph of porpoising amplitude by each team, in the Turn 12-15 complex in Baku, at the 2020 Azerbaijan GP. (Source: Reddit u/Subba_Mike25)

Mercedes are in a unique position. As the folks who set up the car, they can choose to increase the ride height. They can opt to protect the overall health of their drivers while sacrificing straight-line speed. Having the car lower to the track, as they did in Baku, makes them quicker but causes bouncing which is unacceptable and dangerous. According to the graph above, Mercedes are the outlier.

Political Games

The topic of porpoising has actually become controversial after Baku because the Mercedes team boss, Toto Wolff, requested that the FIA step in and regulate ride height. This sentiment seems to have gathered some support. Some fans agree that the porpoising must end because they don’t like seeing their favorite drivers suffering. However, some feel that Wolff is playing a “political game,” as former F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve put it.

Red Bull team boss, Christian Horner, never misses an opportunity to criticize Wolff. Horner dismissed Wolff’s request to the FIA to make a rule change that would affect the ride height of every car.

Horner is smart to point out that Mercedes is basically asking the FIA to make a universal ruling so that when they sacrifice their straight-line speed, others will have to as well. He feels that Mercedes “missed the target” this season, and the teams that worked through the issue should not be hampered by it.

Hamilton might miss out on the Canadian Grand Prix this weekend due to back problems. In which case, former F1 and current Formula E driver, Stoffel Vandoorne could take his seat as the reserve. This controversy will surely continue to develop, as Horner recently commented that “I’d tell [my drivers] to bitch as much as they could on the radio and make as big an issue out of it as they possibly could.” He is suggesting that Wolff wanted Hamilton to be more vocal about it on the radio.

When asked about the cause of the bouncing before qualifying in Baku, he said to Sky Sports, “we need to resurface all tracks, so they’re super flat … we are losing more than a second to Ferrari on straight-line speed, and all of that makes it so [we] are just not competitive.”

It seems that Mercedes is sacrificing their driver’s physical health to close the gap on their competitors. They aren’t the only team to do it, but they are the ones in the hot seat right now. They have elected to play the political game for the moment, but what they really need to play is the engineering game. Hopefully, Mercedes can bring a safe car to the Canadian GP this weekend, and Hamilton recovers soon.

If the drama and politics aren’t enough, I leave you with this Drive to Survive meme:

My name is Morgan Raynal, and I am a writer for Belly Up Racing and Belly Up Sports. You can find me on Substack and Twitter.

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