Red Bull braced for Mercedes backlash
Baku's street circuit is the medieval backdrop for Formula One's latest round of jousting between resurgent Red Bull and a Mercedes team anxious to move on from their Monaco misery.
BAKU - Baku's street circuit is the medieval backdrop for Formula One's latest round of jousting between resurgent Red Bull and a Mercedes team anxious to move on from their Monaco misery.
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix returns to the calendar for the first time since 2019 with Red Bull drinking in the view from atop the world championship standings.
Max Verstappen's first Monaco triumph coupled with an insipid weekend for seventh-placed Lewis Hamilton saw the Dutchman deftly turn a 14 point deficit into a four point advantage in the race for the 2021 drivers' crown.
In the constructors' standings Red Bull transformed a 29 point deficit into a one point lead as they regained the summit for the first time since 2013.
Unsurprisingly team principal Christian Horner was pleased as punch.
"For us to come out leading both championships is beyond expectations," said the chief architect of Red Bull's revival.
"When (Mercedes) have an off day it's important for us to bank a lot of points."
While Monaco's narrow twisting street circuit makes overtaking notoriously difficult, Baku is an altogether different proposition.
Boasting the longest straight - 1.4 miles (2.23 kilometres) with speeds up to 230mph (370kmh) - of any circuit, Sunday's race will be fast and furious.
And one where Mercedes can expect to rub some shine back on their Silver Arrows.
"It's been a strong track for Mercedes in the past. We’re not under any illusions, we are sure they are going to bounce back fast," forecast Horner.
'NOTHING COMES EASY'
Mercedes have taken pole and won three of the four grand prix staged in the former Soviet state's ancient capital on the Caspian Sea.
But a different driver has taken the chequered flag each time, with Nico Rosberg in 2016, Daniel Ricciardo in 2017, Hamilton in 2018 and Valtteri Bottas, consigned to a DNF by a stubbornly immovable wheel nut in Monaco, the winner in 2019.
Verstappen is hoping to continue that sequence but has yet to do better than fourth.
He concedes the venue for the sixth leg of the season is "probably not a favourite of mine if I'm honest".
"I've never been on the podium there so it's time to change that," said Verstappen, who has two wins this term to Hamilton's three.
He added: "Taking the lead in the championship feels good but we need to be there at the end of the final race, that’s all that matters."
After their total dominance stretching back to 2014 and all 14 titles Toto Wolff, Mercedes' team principal, is relishing the fight with Red Bull.
"We love the battle. It's just what the doctor ordered after the past seven years," he said.
"Weekends like Monaco are the ones that keep you coming back for more," he added.
"Nothing comes easy in this sport, and that’s why we love it."
One man nodding in agreement at that last comment is Charles Leclerc, who planted his Ferrari at the front of the Monaco grid, only for his race to end with a cracked left-rear driveshaft hub, the unfortunate legacy of his crash in qualifying, on the warm-up lap.
But with his qualifying form and teammate Carlos Sainz finishing second Leclerc left his home race far from downcast.
"We are coming back from quite far if we see last year, so we've done a good job to be improving race by race. we are on the good road."
F1's most celebrated team are lying fourth in the constructors' standings, two points adrift of another outfit enjoying a welcome change in fortune - McLaren.
Lando Norris's second podium of the season a fortnight ago lifted the Briton into third in the standings ahead of Bottas.
Meanwhile, on the Hamilton record front, the seven-time world champion is going for his 101st pole position and 99th win this weekend.