Start on pole, lead every lap, set the fastest lap, and win the race. On Formula One’s inaugural grand prix held at Azerbaijan, Nico Rosberg made his mark on the scenic Baku City Circuit by achieving the “Grand Slam.” With Mercedes teammate and championship rival Lewis Hamilton crashing out of the top ten shootout in Qualifying and starting the race at tenth, Rosberg’s return to the top step of the podium after a difficult past three races consolidated his championship lead. There’s nothing more to say about the German’s race as he drove like the wind in windy Baku. The performance gap between his Mercedes and the Ferrari of second place finisher Sebastian Vettel was quite clear on the power street circuit.
Not to take the spotlight away from Rosberg but perhaps the star of the weekend was Force India’s Sergio Perez, who notched a third place finish for the second time in three races. He and teammate Nico Hulkenberg demonstrated tremendous pace as early as the Friday practice sessions but on Saturday morning’s practice session, Perez hit the barrier at the exit of Turn 15, necessitating a gearbox change that was set to drop him five grid places from wherever he ends up in Qualifying. Sure enough, the Mexican delivered with aplomb, setting the second-fastest time in Qualifying to minimize the effect of his grid penalty, at least as much as the Force India could handle.
The Force India VJM09 had strong straight-line speed and a Mercedes power unit to take on the unique challenge posed by the high-speed power street circuit of Baku. On the final sector, a roughly two-kilometer stretch has drivers stepping on the gas at full throttle for around twenty seconds. Drivers of Mercedes-powered cars constantly reached speeds in excess of 360 km/h, easily attainable with the aid of DRS and slipstreaming.
Perez was a busy man throughout the race, using the long main straight to work his way up the order with a two-stop strategy. On his tail for many laps was Hamilton, shadowing Perez’s upward progress. However, midway through, Perez started pulling away from the reigning world champion, as Hamilton encountered problems with his car’s settings.
Hamilton repeatedly consulted with his engineer over the radio but the communication restrictions imposed to crackdown on driver coaching wouldn’t allow his engineer to be more forthcoming. This meant that Hamilton had to figure the problem out by himself—of course while driving at high speeds and keeping his car away from the walls.
Kimi Raikkonen also encountered a similar problem with his Ferrari and his engineer was also not allowed to answer his questions. Raikkonen had received a five-second time penalty when he crossed the pit entry line while slipstreaming Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull early in the race. Hampered by the problem, Raikkonen couldn’t fight to build a five-second gap to Perez who had been quickly catching up anyway.
With no threat from Hamilton behind him, Perez, in theory, pretty much had third place in the bag as long as he kept Raikkonen within five seconds ahead of him. But at Turn One on the final lap, Perez took third place on the track anyway, making the easy pass on the Finn to cement the glory of his podium finish. Raikkonen retained fourth place despite his time penalty as Hamilton was too far back.
The problems encountered by both Hamilton and Raikkonen prompted more questioning on the “radio ban” restrictions. Alex Yoong on Fox Sports Asia said that the radio should at least be freed up and I agree, thinking that the communication rules need amendments. After all, racing drivers focus on driving and not engineering.
The “radio ban” was imposed because engineers on some instances were practically instructing drivers how to drive the car around the track and I fully support the crackdown on this. But with F1 cars being so high-tech and complicated nowadays, a driver can encounter some weird technical glitch and completely not know how to solve it. So maybe drivers need to be cut some slack and be allowed to receive more technical support on technology or software-related problems that require tinkering with the many buttons on the steering wheel—as if steering an F1 car around a track wasn’t hard enough by itself.