The fourth edition of the Azeri street race was not an all-time classic but may well be looked back upon as an example of textbook execution by the German marque, which managed to lock out the front row of the grid and cruise to a one-two finish.
It’s the fourth race in succession Mercedes has claimed a perfect result, making this the strongest start to a season of any constructor in Formula One history.
The pain inflicted on Ferrari was twofold. Not only has it slumped to a 74-point deficit in the constructors standings – drivers Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc are 35 and 40 points respectively behind the table-topping Valtteri Bottas – but it was shown up as lacking the kind of racing nous required to mount a credible challenge to the team that has dominated F1 for a half-decade.
“Boring, isn’t it?” Vettel quipped after finishing a close but ineffectual third. “It’s not just four races; it has been four years, more or less.”
But the four-time German champion is perceptive enough to know his team wasn’t dominated on the track so much as on the pit wall. Ferrari had a car quick enough to win, yet it failed to protect its vulnerabilities from the well-honed Mercedes machine.
Qualifying was where Ferrari’s weekend began to unravel. Leclerc’s crash in Q2 was undoubtedly his own responsibility, but Ferrari had put him on the low-grip medium-compound tyre on a slippery track, a strategy Mercedes had considered and rejected for being too risky on the treacherous track.
So Ferrari started the top-10 shootout compromised with just Vettel in contention. Mercedes smelt blood and moved in for the kill.
Understanding the importance of the slipstream on the long Baku straight, Mercedes strategists dummied Vettel on his final lap. Both Bottas and Hamilton left the pit lane early, baiting the German into following, but then stopped in the area marked for practice starts, forcing Sebastian to cruise past onto an empty circuit and set his pole attempt without that crucial tow.
The slipstream was worth up to 0.6 seconds. Vettel fell short by just 0.3.
If Mercedes was going to slip up, it would have been in managing the battle between its two drivers, but even here it was flawless. Hamilton and Bottas raced hard off the line, going side by side into the first two turns, but they left each other generous room to ensure the team’s one-two result was protected.
It compares poorly with the situation in Maranello, where Vettel’s de facto number-one status is causing tension and cannot be discounted as contributing to Leclerc’s crash, driven as he is to prove he’s deserving of equal status.
“I think that what we did in the first races was put all the things together,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said. “The team didn’t do any mistakes, the strategy calls were right, the drivers didn’t put a foot wrong, and that made us win the first four races.
“Then when you look at [Ferrari], they had more problems.”
No matter which way you cut it, the Scuderia has been outfoxed by the sharper team.
“We are pushing as hard as we can, but obviously you need to respect that they are doing phenomenally well and getting their cars most of the time in the right place,” Vettel said. “[We have to] work harder, work better.”
But to work better than the experienced Mercedes team is a tall order, and after four races Ferrari is already running out of time.