Lewis Hamilton changed “pretty much everything on the car” to turn around his poor Friday practice pace and deliver Mercedes a front-row start at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Hamilton qualified second, 0.179 seconds behind polesitter and championship leader Sebastian Vettel, but the apparent ease with which he claimed his first top-two start since the season-opening Australian Grand Prix belied his poor times earlier in the weekend.
He languished almost a second off the pace during the weekend’s Friday free practice sessions as he struggled to get his car and tires to work harmoniously around the tricky Baku street circuit. The reigning world champion couldn’t generate enough heat in Pirelli’s ultrasoft compound, which in turn was giving him a poor launch out of the last turn and onto the longest straight on the F1 calendar, meaning his Mercedes car couldn’t capitalize on its usual straight-line speed advantage.
On Friday the Briton said he would be “knocking on the doors” of his engineers throughout the night to spur them on in finding a cure to his problems, and wholesale changes to the car’s configuration was the result.
“The team and engineers managed to do a great job to understand where we were and where we could progress, so a big thank you to them for all their hard work.”
Mercedes’ single-lap pace wasn’t the only problem to emerge from practice, with the team’s race pace also unusually off the benchmarks set by Red Bull Racing and Ferrari. But Hamilton said he is optimistic his newly set-up car would bring him back into the fight and allow him to vie for his first victory of the season.
“Today was a much more reasonable car,” he said. “To be that close to the Ferraris is definitely a positive.
“To have both me and Valtteri [Bottas, P3] up here is a good boost for the team, to be right up there in the mix. Hopefully [the race] will be fun and challenging. There were a lot of safety cars last year, so we have no idea what is in store for us.
“I am excited for the race. It is hard to overtake here, as it is anywhere around the world, but we will give it everything we’ve got. I just hope that we are there in the mix fighting with them.”