Last season, Mercedes had started looking invincible after their Barcelona masterclass. But the Monaco Grand Prix followed, triggering a string of five races where Mercedes had no win while Red Bull pulled away in the championship standings. Monaco and Baku are two races that were particularly tough as they struggled. With that in mind, it’s not far-fetched that these two races and others on similar tracks could kill Mercedes’ championship hopes. Why?
Monaco and Baku both demand speed, but they are street circuits with many slow corners, which creates a setup dilemma. Do you choose a wing and overall setup that’s super fast through the corners but produces more drag on the straight, or do you opt for lower downforce to be faster on the straights and possibly suffer in the corners? This puzzle is even more complex when you factor in DRS zones and ideal overtaking spots on the track.
For instance, Baku’s best overtaking opportunity is on the start-finish straight. However, the straight is so long that in many cases, the person you overtake can regain the position before turn one. Currently, Red Bull has the edge in straight-line speed. So even with fresher tires, most opponents could struggle to overtake them if they go for a low downforce setup.
This definitely brings power unit tweaks into the conversation. Some teams may consider more aggressive engine mappings, which could eat into their reliability, triggering power unit swaps earlier than desired. So while Mercedes has been improving, these two tracks and others like them may be a hiccup in the team’s performance.
Street surface challenges
While Mercedes seemed to have sorted their porpoising issues in Barcelona, the drivers complained about massive bouncing in Monaco. Since the combination of their aerodynamic platform and suspension produced considerable stiffness, they had to limit instances of the car hitting the ground. Unfortunately, the solution came with a sacrifice in pace.
On that note, the road camber, bumps and gradient changes on tracks like Baku could also trouble the team. The smooth track surface in Baku could also create tire warm-up issues. These make qualifying extra difficult and might continue Mercedes’ poor qualifying streak.
Reactive strategy weaknesses
Like we saw with Perez in the Monaco qualifying and Schumacher in the race, crashes are quite common at street circuits. And with Baku being a high-speed circuit, there’s a high chance of having such incidents. Turn 15, in particular, has been a nightmare for many drivers in the past, and there are several other spots on the track that are pretty hectic to navigate.
There have also been punctures and tire blowouts in the past, which have changed the race’s complexion in Baku. The Baku circuit has some new changes at turn eight, which could also increase the likelihood of a safety car or red flag if there’s an incident in this narrow castle section. So if these spots cause safety car-inducing incidents, Mercedes could suffer. We’ve seen from recent races that the team isn’t excellent at maximizing safety car strategy.
Positives to consider
The drivers’ and constructors’ championships are heating up. Perez is very much in the fight, and since he just came off a race win, a contract extension and also won in Baku last year, he will be highly motivated. Verstappen will also be looking to stretch his lead and maintain de facto number one status at Red Bull. Without it, he’ll have a harder time against Leclerc.
Ferrari is also coming off a stretch of four defeats, with the most recent being exceptionally humbling. They will undoubtedly be looking to get their house in order and compete like a top team with a shot at the titles. Such scenarios where multiple drivers are vying for the race win and no one sees themselves in a supporting role can produce massive slip-ups.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Red Bull or Ferrari drivers makes a big mistake or their strategy teams fumble it. This is where Mercedes can try and salvage some points and stay in the fight. Let’s not forget that temperatures could be at 29 degrees Celsius by the race start.
Pirelli has offered the three softest tire compounds, meaning degradation might be a real problem this weekend. Baku has always been an exciting race, and this weekend also seems to be heading in that direction. Let’s cross our fingers and hope I’m wrong about Mercedes because the start of a much-awaited three-way title fight is long overdue.
Aijuka Duncan Ngabirano is a motorsport junkie with a passion for storytelling through various media, and hodling crypto.