Max Verstappen may have crashed his Red Bull RB14 during the opening practice session for this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, but that didn’t stop him from completing a pair of frighteningly quick long runs during the afternoon session.
The Dutch driver finished the second practice session down in P3, after his qualifying run was 0.116s off the session’s quickest time, set by his Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo.
But, once the teams had completed their qualifying simulations during the session, the long run simulations became the focus for everyone. In the end, all drivers from the top three teams – Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull – completed a simulation of race conditions on the Ultrasoft tyre.
The Ultrasoft tyre is particularly important this weekend because it has a low working range, which suits Azerbaijan’s cooler-than-usual conditions caused by moving the race from June to April.
“The cooler conditions of this year’s race obviously had an effect on tyre behaviour,” Pirelli Head of Car Racing Mario Isola said following FP2.
However, a comparison of all Ultrasoft long run simulations completed by the top three teams during FP2 for this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix showed that Verstappen had the most promising pace of all drivers. This was despite Verstappen’s limited running following his crash in FP1.
In the end, Verstappen’s Ultrasoft long run simulation average equated to a time of 1:47.076s, which was 0.336s clear of his nearest rival, team-mate Ricciardo.
“Pretty decent day overall, the car is fast so I’m happy about that,” Verstappen told media at the conclusion of Friday’s practice sessions.
Verstappen’s lap time of 1:46.711s was also the quickest of any driver during an Ultrasoft long run simulation. Team-mate Ricciardo and Mercedes driver, Lewis Hamilton, were the only others to complete a lap time during the simulation that was below a 1:47s.
“We pretty much ran to the programme and the car in second practice was very competitive,” Verstappen said.
Verstappen’s performance wasn’t just limited to the Ultrasoft tyre either, as he also set the quickest long run simulation average time on the supersoft tyres.
On this tyre, Verstappen’s long run simulation average was 1:46.850s, which was 0.421s clear of team-mate Daniel Ricciardo. The only other top driver to use the Ultrasofts for a long run simulation was Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, who was a whole 0.945s behind the average set by Verstappen.
“We were good on both tyre compounds so I’m pretty happy with that,” Verstappen said.
However, some factors need to be considered in this particular simulation. Verstappen’s run consisted of just three laps, whereas Vettel’s run was over ten laps. Plus, Verstappen’s long runs were always going to be shorter as he missed the first twenty minutes of FP2 whilst his mechanics fixed the damage sustained from the crash in FP1. Verstappen also had fresher tyres than Ricciardo and Vettel during the simulation.
On the contrary, Ricciardo proved that Verstappen’s times weren’t necessarily artificial by practically matching the Dutchman’s personal best lap time during the run, despite the Australian’s average being four tenths slower.
“There was a good relationship with myself and the car so we will build on that tomorrow,” Ricciardo told media after the practice sessions. “We are still in the group of favourites,” he said.
Red Bull have experienced this position before. During last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, the team topped both Friday practice sessions whilst also setting the two quickest long run simulations on Ultrasoft tyres.
However, they were still out-qualified by Mercedes and Ferrari the following day. Daniel Ricciardo then only won the Grand Prix due to calamity at the front, instead of pure, raw pace.
“I do remember last year on the Friday both our cars were very quick and we didn’t quite have the same pace in Qualifying, so I’m not going to play [this year] up or anything,” Ricciardo said yesterday.
Despite this, rivals are still weary of the pace shown by Red Bull, in both qualifying and long run simulations.
“Both Red Bull and Ferrari seem to be ahead of us at the moment,” Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton commented after FP2. Valtteri Bottas echoed his team-mate’s sentiment, saying to media, “I think we were missing a bit of pace in the second session compared to Ferrari and Red Bull.”
“We look quick,” Verstappen felt.
But, to properly back-up his impressive Friday performance, Verstappen will have to do a bit more than just “look quick” during Saturday’s all-important qualifying session.