Red Bull Racing have shown up at the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix with some shocking pace hidden up their sleeve.
In the end, their pace was good enough to see them top both of Friday’s 90 minute practice sessions for the first time this season.
Red Bull have endured a horridly uncompetitive 2017 season in comparison to the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes, with a couple of podiums all to show for their efforts.
On paper, the Quadruple World Champions were expected to struggle more than usual when coming to Baku because of the mammoth back straight, which sees drivers on full throttle for almost 2km.
But, Friday’s practice sessions painted an entirely different picture. Although Red Bull may be first on the time sheets, it’s actually their long run pace which strengthens their challenge for a maiden race win in 2017.
No longer ‘The Top Two’, it’s now the “The Top Three.’
Red Bull decided not to split their strategies during FP2 and thus both Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo completed six fast laps during their respective supersoft long runs.
After averaging both of their lap times, Verstappen ultimately proved the quickest with an average lap time of 1:46.744. Daniel Ricciardo won’t be kicking himself, though – his run was equally as strong, on average just 0.173s slower than that of Verstappen.
This pace proved to be just as good (and if not better!) as the frontrunners, as Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel had an average supersoft long run pace 0.013s slower than Riccardo’s. So, either Red Bull are strong here, or Ferrari are weak.
But, it’s far more likely to be down to Red Bull’s improvement, as Valtteri Bottas’ supersoft long run was even slower than that of Vettel’s, only by a mere 8 thousandths of a second, though.
“I think the preparation we did at the factory and in the simulator has allowed us to come here with a strong setup and competitive car from the go,” Verstappen admitted to media on Friday evening.
On the contrary, Red Bull’s Team Principal Christian Horner probably isn’t all-that-surprised with the increased competitiveness in Baku.
On Thursday, Horner told Motorsport.com that his team had made a breakthrough with their understanding of the RB13’s aerodynamic package, which was upgraded three rounds ago.
After FP1, Horner was relatively calm and relaxed when talking to media, not counting his chickens before they hatch.
Are the times representative?
The most interesting piece of data from FP2 actually comes from Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn’s long run was over eight laps and just over two tenths off the pace set by Verstappen. Crucially, though, Raikkonen was running on soft tires, which is supposed to be up to a second slower on average, according to Pirelli.
Part of the time deficit – which, if Pirelli is correct, would make it an eight tenths difference in Raikkonen’s favor – could be put down to track evolution as Ferrari’s soft tire run was done further on in the session with a more rubbered in track.
Also, whenever comparing practice times, one must always consider the fuel loads. It’s a completely uncontrolled variable, and given the lateness of Raikkonen’s soft tire run, it’s more than likely he was running with lower fuel during those finals laps.
The last considerable variable during FP2 was the unusually large number of yellow flags deployed throughout Friday practice. The number was put at 113, which is more than one every minute. With this in mind, it would’ve been extraordinarily difficult to hook up a proper long run.
However, on the contrary to those limitations, former F1 driver Martin Brundle alluded to Red Bull’s setup strength in Baku during his trackside report mid way through FP2.
Whilst standing at the exit of Turn 1, Brundle told Sky Sports viewers he thought Red Bull was “far in away the best through here.” In comparison, he said Ferrari were “power-sliding,” and later described the Mercedes W08 by saying, “[it’s] certainly not got great traction.”
What do the drivers think?
One of the most influential opinions when considering pace is those of the drivers themselves. So far, there is not one front-running driver who’s discounted Red Bull’s strong Friday showing.
“The Red Bulls look very fast, not just on one lap but over the two sessions they seem quite competitive,” commented Sebastian Vettel after FP2.
Both Mercedes drivers also stated their beliefs after Friday practice that Red Bull were indeed quick; Hamilton admitting he is expecting a “three-way battle.”
“This has definitely been the most positive Friday of the year so far,” Verstappen admitted to the media. His team mate, Daniel Ricciardo, felt similarly, stating, “This afternoon was a lot more entertaining, the grip was coming and you could really start to push the car.”
Red Bull primed for a potential win?
For those who tuned into Sky Sports F1 during FP2, they might have heard Mark Hughes’ well-known and informative “Practice Pointers.”
In his expert opinion, Hughes felt the key to unlocking pace around Baku would be developing a setup which worked well with both the softs and supersofts. He stated Baku’s unique layout and lack of grip made it unusually difficult to find a harmonious balance.
Pirelli seemed to agree, considering their interesting tweet after FP2 which described Red Bull’s pace as “genuine,” because of their ability to create competitive pace of both compounds.
What we’re seeing is that @redbullracing has genuine pace here. Quick on both compounds. Have obviously found a sweet spot with set up.
— Pirelli Motorsport (@pirellisport) June 23, 2017
Pirelli isn’t just making this up either, as Verstappen had the fastest supersoft long run of everyone and, in the four laps he got before his FP2 crash, the Dutchman was, on average, two tenths quicker than Lewis Hamilton on soft tires.
So, although it may seem tight between Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes at the top – which is surprising enough in itself – it’s actually Red Bull’s ability to work both compounds of tires which puts them in prime position for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Sunday.