How Mercedes turned things around so quickly in Baku

Mercedes appeared to be genuinely struggling for pace on Friday afternoon in Baku -- fast forward 24 hours and Lewis Hamilton had qualified second for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, one position ahead of title rival Max Verstappen.

So how did the world champions turn things around so quickly?

Hamilton on form

On Friday evening, Mercedes was bracing itself for the worst.The post-practice engineering briefing stretched long into the evening, with the team determined to find an answer to its poor practice performance. The car had so little grip on Friday afternoon that had qualifying taken place there and then, a Q3 appearance would have required a large degree of luck.

Quick fixes in F1 are as rare as hen's teeth, but somehow Lewis Hamilton managed to put his car among the front runners and, with a modicum of luck in the form of a late red flag, find his way onto the front row of the grid.The fact the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc was still ahead of him and Max Verstappen was hugely frustrated to be left in third after a scrappy first lap, told you that Hamilton's second place result flattered the true performance of the car.

But sometimes in F1 you make your own luck.

The Mercedes' performance over a single lap had been poor all weekend. The problems the team faced two weeks in Monaco were present again as Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas struggled to get, and keep, all four tyres at the right temperature to unlock their performance. Both drivers were hemorrhaging lap time in the slow corners in the middle of the lap, and the team explored some extreme options in final practice to find a solution.

"In FP3, we worked through some sort of really thorough engineering programme, and we were not shy of trying extreme things, which at the end were extreme as we have expected and weren't a silver bullet but it was just crunching through the numbers, trying things, getting the feedback of the drivers and eventually we had the car in a more decent place," Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff explained.

"So it was the last run in FP3 where we tried to confirm the step and the car was there or thereabouts."

But a big chunk of Hamilton's lap time in both FP3 and qualifying came from an entirely different source. If a lap could be timed so that the car in front would offer a slipstream along the long pit straight, a significant straight-line speed advantage could be gained.

Getting the timing right with a rival car would be pure luck, as Hamilton managed with Sergio Perez in final practice, but using a friendly teammate to do the towing would be a way of manufacturing a little bit of your own luck. And as luck would have it for Hamilton, it was his turn to leave the pits behind Bottas this weekend and, therefore, he would benefit from the slipstream.

For the very reason that a tow can be so advantageous at certain circuits, Mercedes alternates the decision of who will leave the pits first between the drivers at each race.

In Monaco it was Bottas' choice, in Baku it was Hamilton's. Unsurprisingly, Hamilton chose to go out behind his teammate.

When it was put to Wolff that the team used Bottas to help Hamilton, he responded: "No.

"At the beginning of the joint journey of Valtteri and Lewis, we tossed a coin to see who had the choice to decide if he's running first the second [in qualifying].

"And this weekend it was Lewis' turn to choose whether he runs first or second on the road and he choose second obviously.

"So this is the same system. It alternates from race to race between the drivers."

Leclerc on pole

For the second race in a row, a red car was on pole position following a red flag at the end of qualifying. Once again, it was Charles Leclerc who secured the top spot with a quick lap on his first run in Q3 before his rivals were stripped of the chance to respond by a premature end to the session.

The big difference, however, was that Yuki Tsunoda -- and not Leclerc himself -- caused the red flag this time round. That should mean Leclerc's driveshafts and transmission will be in a better state to start the race on Sunday, although it has to be said that his chances of winning still look slim.

As impressive as Ferrari's single lap pace has been at the last two races, its race pace still appears to be lacking compared to Red Bull and Mercedes. Ferrari's big advantage in Baku came in the tight middle sector in which this year's SF21 is particularly nimble.

But that advantage did not translate so impressively when the car was full of fuel during Ferrari's race simulations on Friday. In those conditions, the Ferrari's average lap times were as much as 0.6s slower than pace setters Red Bull and about 0.4s slower than Mercedes.

That kind of disadvantage on a track like Baku will likely present Hamilton and Verstappen with the opportunity to overtake, but at least promises an exciting race as the fastest race car of the top three starts third and the slowest starts first.

Yet Ferrari still deserves credit for working its way back into the conversation about race wins this year. Consider where the team was last year and where it is now, and it's clear significant progress has been made.

As a side note, had the Australian Grand Prix taken place as planned at the start of the season, it would have been Bottas, not Hamilton, who had the choice at this round. And to underline just how much lap time a good slipstream is worth, a team radio message relayed to Bottas in FP3 said Hamilton gained 0.6s as a result of the tow off Perez.

It's not an exact science, but add 0.6s to Hamilton's Q3 qualifying time and he would have dropped to eighth on the grid, just two places ahead of Bottas.

From second place, Hamilton is now in a very strong position to win in Baku.

The problems Mercedes experienced over a single lap in qualifying were not present over long runs on heavy fuel during Friday practice, where the car looked very close to pace-setters Red Bull. Ferrari, on the other hand, struggled massively with tyre degradation, meaning Leclerc will need a lot of his own luck to keep Hamilton and Verstappen behind on Sunday.

Four red flags

Baku's street circuit should be a blueprint for what F1 needs in new additions to the calendar. It's a genuine challenge for drivers and has several spots where a mistake leads to contact with the wall.

A handful of drivers pushed a little too far past the line on Saturday. Verstappen hit the barriers at the end of final practice and was fortunate the incident didn't impact his participation in qualifying.

There were then four stoppages in qualifying due to red flags. In Q1 Lance Stroll and Antonio Giovinazzi hit the wall at Turn 15, while Daniel Ricciardo and Yuki Tsunoda missed the braking point and hit the wall at Turn 4. Tsunoda's crash prompted Carlos Sainz, who was running directly behind the rookie, to spin into the wall shortly afterwards.

It's curious to see the amount of incidents in the fifth year of Baku's F1 tenure, but also quite refreshing after so many discussions around 'track limit' penalties in the opening four races of 2021. We've had back-to-back races at punishing street circuits where there is no grey area.

Valtteri Bottas wasn't one of the drivers to hit the wall but he gave a quote which summed up the challenge of Baku, whilst talking about his confusion over why he's been struggling for pace.

"I'm losing [time] every corner," he said. "If I push harder, I'm in the wall. So that's the limit."

The red flags raise an interesting discussion, first prompted two weeks ago when Charles Leclerc crashed out of qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix, ending the session prematurely and giving him pole position.

This week, after the chaotic Baku session, Fernando Alonso suggested any driver causing a red flag should have their fastest lap time deleted, similar to the rule in IndyCar.

Speaking to Sky Sports F1, Alonso said: "[It is] unfair probably that the people that crashed, they repair the car and they start in that position tomorrow. All the other cars, we are in parc ferme until tomorrow, we cannot touch the car, so why they can change all the parts that they caused the red flag?

"Maybe one day we are in that position and we take advantage of the rule. I think the people need to calm down a little bit and drive 98% in a street circuit because if you crash and you start last in the race, maybe you don't drive over your possibilities.

"And I think today with so many people driving over the possibilities of their car or their abilities."