Ferrari puts faith in upgrades to catch runaway Mercedes
BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Ferrari needs to do something — and do it quick — to stop Lewis Hamilton from running away with the Formula One title.
After Mercedes finished 1-2 in the first three races, a feat last achieved 27 years ago, Sebastian Vettel is 31 points behind Hamilton ahead of Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Ferrari has brought car upgrades to Baku’s street circuit, while the Mercedes remains unchanged. That boosts hopes of a comeback on a track where a very long straight section could favor Ferrari.
“We have a lot of races left. Hopefully, at some point we can say this was the turning-around, this was the decider,” Vettel said Wednesday.
When the season started in Australia last month, Ferrari seemed to have the ingredients to win its first constructors’ title in 11 years. There were strong performances in testing, impressive straight-line speed and the exciting young talent of Charles Leclerc replacing veteran Kimi Raikkonen.
But Mercedes has generally had more grip when it matters, and the reliability to inherit a win in Bahrain when Leclerc’s engine malfunctioned. At the last race in China, Vettel couldn’t get close to Mercedes despite a controversial team order for Leclerc to let him pass.
“This is far better than we anticipated at the start of the season, and something everyone’s worked so hard for within the team, so we’re really proud of the result we have so far,” said Hamilton, who leads teammate Valtteri Bottas by six points.
Ferrari, however, has been cagey about exactly what its upgrades are.
“We’re going in the right direction,” Leclerc said. “It should be better. On the paper it’s better. We’ll see.”
Early strength was crucial to keeping Ferrari competitive in the last two seasons. In both 2017 and 2018, Vettel won two of the opening three races, only for Mercedes to develop its car into a consistent race-winner later in the season.
Recovering from a poor start this season means Ferrari’s designers, as much as its drivers, will be racing Mercedes.
Mercedes’ three straight 1-2 finishes are the kind of early-season dominance not seen for decades.
The last drivers to achieve that feat were Williams teammates Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese in 1992. They went 1-2 in the championship standings as well that year with a much faster car than any rivals.
If Hamilton and Bottas can take the top two spots in Baku, too, that will be a feat unmatched since 1952.
Back then, Ferrari went 1-2 in four straight races at the start of the season, albeit with up to four cars on the grid. That record doesn’t count the Indianapolis 500, which was officially part of the 1952 championship but had different rules and almost none of the same drivers.
MEMORIES OF SENNA
Next week marks the 25th anniversary of the death of three-time champion Ayrton Senna. Even with five titles of his own, Hamilton said he believes he’ll never truly match his idol.
“It’s quite humbling to even just be put in the same sentence as someone like him,” Hamilton said. “But for me, Ayrton is always in his own light and he’s always on his own unique level that as a driver you just aspire to emulate.”
Of the current 20 drivers, eight were not yet born when Senna died from head injuries sustained in a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix.
Watch out for Racing Point in Baku this weekend.
Despite a modest start for the renamed Force India team, its two drivers are both Azerbaijan specialists.
Since the Baku track joined the calendar in 2016, either Lance Stroll or Sergio Perez has been on the podium each time.
Perez is the only driver to reach the podium twice in Baku after taking third last year following a series of crashes by rivals.