Max Verstappen is getting better and better in qualifying in Baku: in 2016, at the premiere, he was 9th on the grid. He was fifth in 2017 and 2018, fourth in 2019, and third in 2021 and 2022. “It’s the first time that Max starts here in row 1,” says Red Bull motorsport consultant Helmut Marko in an interview with ‘Sky’.
Although Charles Leclerc was 0.188s quicker than Verstappen on Friday, the Austrian, who just celebrated his 80th birthday, is optimistic of also being able to win the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
He is convinced: “We should be better prepared for the race. Ferrari is very fast on the individual laps. Above all, they reacted better than we did to the falling temperatures,” he explains.
You have to know that qualifying started as planned at 5 p.m. local time, but lasted longer than expected due to the many interruptions. As a result, the sun was already low, which some drivers (including Verstappen) criticized on the pit radio. The asphalt temperatures dropped rapidly, the air pressure changed. Red Bull didn’t react “too optimally” to that, admits Marko.
A disadvantage in qualifying, an advantage in the race
But what was a disadvantage in qualifying, because you didn’t get the tires up to temperature quickly enough, could become an advantage in the race when it’s important not to overheat the tires.
In any case, Marko sees no other opponent than Ferrari for Verstappen and Sergio Perez. Fifth-placed Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton is already a second behind, and Fernando Alonso says he lost “a few tenths” due to a DRS defect, but would not have come close to the front row otherwise.
“I think Alonso had certain problems. But if Ferrari gets the tire wear under control, then we see them as the only opponents. The rest are relatively far behind,” Marko is convinced.
Vasseur: First pole “a milestone” for Ferrari
In any case, Ferrari team boss Frederic Vasseur is happy to have reached “a milestone” with the first pole position of the 2023 season, as he explains in an interview with ‘Motorsport-Total.com’: “Pole is always good for self-confidence. I’m happy for everyone in the team because they’ve worked hard over the past month. And we’ve made good decisions in terms of development and set-up, even under pressure.”
Ferrari was one of the few teams that hardly brought any updates to Baku. Apart from a low-downforce rear wing, there is nothing new for Leclerc and Carlos Sainz. The breakthrough came more through a different approach to set-up, which had already been tried out in Melbourne. There, however, the progress was concealed by Leclerc’s failure and the penalty against Sainz.
“Things went pretty well in Melbourne, but we didn’t get everything sorted there. Charles did a great job today,” said Vasseur happily. “Melbourne was cold, not a permanent circuit. But it was obvious to us that we had made a step between Jeddah and Melbourne, and to our drivers too.”
“Nevertheless, there were doubts because we couldn’t implement it. We were fully involved here from the first lap of practice. Now of course you can say that the weekend isn’t over yet and we haven’t scored a point yet. But that’s it at least good progress for the team,” says the Frenchman.
Good balance from the first training session
The fact that Ferrari didn’t have to search long in the only free practice session to get the balance on the right track proved to be an advantage. Other teams like Mercedes would have needed more time to fine-tune their set-up. But on weekends with F1 sprints, those who have best prepared their set-up in the simulator have an advantage.
“If you have a problem with the balance in this format, it’s much more difficult to react to that,” Vasseur said. “Because you carry the problem with you, long runs, short runs, and then you go into the weekend completely blind. We started well with both hard and soft and then we were there in qualifying. That’s also good for the confidence of the drivers. “
Vasseur: Are better than the World Cup standings show
But first Ferrari has to turn pole and fourth place into a good result in the race, successfully master the sprint Saturday in Baku – and then make a leap forward in the world championship. The Scuderia is currently fourth in the constructors’ championship, 26:123 behind leader Red Bull.
“I don’t want to be opportunistic, but I think we’re in much better shape than the World Cup points show,” countered Vasseur. “We missed some good opportunities. Right at the first race in Bahrain, then Charles had the penalty and then the bad result in Melbourne.”
“But in terms of performance, we made a huge step forward in Melbourne,” said Vasseur. “We understand the balance of the car much better, understand the overall situation better and you could see that in the pace. I hope that this weekend we can confirm the trend that we saw in Melbourne.”