Max Verstappen’s insistence earlier this week that he had no interest in playing “mind games” with Lewis Hamilton this season was hardly surprising. If the Dutchman did fancy lobbing a few verbal hand grenades in Hamilton’s direction he would be unlikely to tell a ravenous media eager to build their on-track rivalry into something bigger. But it also makes perfect sense. Why would Verstappen want to rock the boat at the moment given the momentum is all with him?
After winning the Monaco Grand Prix two weekends ago, the Red Bull driver now holds a four-point lead over Hamilton in the drivers’ standings. He also has what looks to be the quickest car for the second race in a row. Red Bull finished top of the timesheets in both practice sessions in Baku on Friday ahead of Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix; Verstappen in the morning and Sergio Perez in the afternoon. More than their speed, it was Mercedes’s lack of it which was so startling.
Both Mercedes drivers ended the second session outside the top 10, with Hamilton a second off the pace in 11th and Valtteri Bottas’ miserable week – which has already seen the Finn mocked on social media after his flight from Finland was delayed and he was forced to give his pre-race press conference over Zoom from the airport – continuing as he could only finish 16th fastest.
There may be a bit of sandbagging going on, but no one appeared to have an answer for Mercedes’ lack of pace or their apparent inability to get their tyres into the correct operating temperature window, the same issue with which they struggled in Monaco.
At one point in the session, Jolyon Palmer, commentating on the BBC, was moved to say: “Bottas is 2.7 seconds away. He’s absolutely nowhere. What on Earth is going on with Mercedes in general? If this is their genuine pace, this could be their worst Friday since they came back [to F1 a decade ago].”
Hamilton sounded similarly bemused after the session ended. “We’re just slow,” he said. “In general I feel like I’m driving well and the car felt better in [first practice]. In this one there was just no more time in it.
“We’re definitely quite a chunk down and I think everyone will be scratching their heads and looking in the data trying to figure out how we can improve.”
The worries are mounting for the Brackley team. The whole ‘bendy wing’ business has so far not played out in their favour. Although the FIA has moved to clamp down on them, the changes will not come into effect until after this race, which given Baku’s long straights promises to be a fruitful one for anyone who is exploiting the loophole on wings which flex at high speed.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has barely been able to contain his glee. Responding to talk that Mercedes and McLaren may officially protest those cars deemed to be exploiting bendy wings the most – Red Bull, Alpine and Alfa Romeo – Horner smiled.
“If I was Toto [Wolff, Mercedes team principal] with the front wing he’s got on his car, I’d keep my mouth shut,” he said, effectively threatening a retaliatory protest. “Sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for.”
The other big worry for Mercedes is Perez. If the speed the Mexican found in practice on Friday is a sign of things to come, it could have big ramifications in this year’s title race. So far Perez has failed to act as a rear-gunner for Verstappen in the way Bottas has for Hamilton over the past few years. But if he can begin to hold off Verstappen’s rivals in races, while also hoovering up useful constructors’ points, Mercedes could have a serious problem on their hands.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Verstappen said after Monaco, in response to Hamilton’s pre-race claim that his young rival “feels he has a lot to prove”. At the moment Red Bull are doing their talking on the track.
Meanwhile, this year’s Singapore Grand Prix has been cancelled due to the immigration restrictions still in place in the city state. The race had been due to take place over the weekend of October 2-3.