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F1: Ferrari below par below sea level

Bryan Edwards
Lewis Hamilton made perhaps the most prescient statement of recent times in Formula One. He said that Ferrari have a faster car than Mercedes. But Mercedes, he said, have the better team, saying that the systems, the strength in depth in all departments, the stability are what give him and team-mate Valtteri Bottas the machinery that allows them to do the job. And with four one-two finishes in the first four races, in each case at least in part due to Ferrari fluffing something, even in the dense air of below sea level Baku which should have increased the red cars' performance advantage, it's increasingly looking as if he's right. But the apparent Sunday afternoon jog for the two Mercedes drivers around the streets of Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, is as much to do with the failures of others as the strength of Mercedes. Ferrari are not the only ones struggling to get it together.

It's not only the teams that turned this weekend into a collection of bar room jokes.

Poor Williams: in the first flush of Friday's Free Practice 1, Leclerc drove over a manhole cover that was not properly fastened down. It lifted and when George Russell came along seconds later it ripped the bottom out of his car, the force being enough to pick the front wheels up off the track. For the beleaguered team, even that wasn't bad news enough. As the badly damaged car was carried back to the pits on the back of a lorry, the on-board crane was set at a height that meant it hit a bridge. What at first seemed funny turned into even more not funny: the strike fractured the hydraulic lines in the crane and fluid flowed freely all over the rear part of the car. The practice session was stopped while workers checked some 300 drain covers around the track. The checks seemed rudimentary: a large key was put into the cover and turned to make sure it was tight. At one point, workers were spotted scuffing around the edge of one cover with their feet.

Lifting drain covers has happened before, most recently in Malaysia where a Haas was badly damaged and the team threatened to sue the circuit for an estimated USD250,000 in repair costs. That threat seems to have receded : PleaseBeInformed.com has not found any evidence that such an action was commenced. In that case, the drain cover was welded down and, over the long weekend, the weld, it was suggested, became fatigued. There have been other cases, such as Monaco, also where the large metal plates are welded into position. In Baku, the system, approved by the FIA, depended on the large key being turned with sufficient force to ensure that a locking mechanism was engaged.

That all having been said, there were other problems, too. The track is very dusty and, unrelated to that, it frequently has paper or plastic bags, bottles and other materials drifting onto the track and then, because it's a street circuit, having nowhere to go. The surface is unusual and the temperatures are both unpredictable and, again because it's a city circuit, some parts are in strong sunlight and very hot and some are in the shade and very cool. The new tyres and tyre regulations caused one incident after another during practice and, even, qualifying. This year, tyres have a "sheen" from a new releasing agent and that doesn't like cool temperatures although it rubs off after a few corners. The tyres are pre-heated to 80 degrees, reduced from 120 last year: that means less grip. On the narrow, twisting sections of Baku, all of those things translate to one thing: cars don't go around corners as expected. Run off areas were busy, barriers were defaced if not destroyed. The omens for the race were not good.

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