Red Bull Racing’s qualifying deficit to the more powerful Ferrari and Mercedes cars won’t matter in the race because the slipstream effect in Baku is so powerful, says Daniel Ricciardo.
Ricciardo was an early favorite to vie for pole position after setting impressive practice times on Friday, but the Australian tempered expectations against the superior horsepower of the Ferrari and Mercedes engines compared to his Renault power unit.
His prediction came to pass, with his fourth-place qualification behind both Mercedes drivers and 0.413 seconds behind polesitter Sebastian Vettel on par with his team’s standard gap to the leading works manufacturers. But Ricciardo isn’t too concerned this will carry over into the race, because the Baku City Circuit’s front straight, running well in excess of a mile long, creates a powerful enough slipstream effect to compensate for his car’s lack of grunt.
“I think Seb was about four tenths or something in front, so I think we can live with that for now,” he said. “It’s not too bad around this circuit and it gives a good chance to be right there tomorrow.
“If we are behind it’s no problem at all. The tow here is so big that even with less power you can definitely overtake.
“I think the leader, if someone is close, they are going to get overtaken or be a bit helpless.”
Teammate Max Verstappen agreed, noting that he didn’t even need to be particularly close behind another car in qualifying to benefit from the slipstream.
“I was still gaining three tenths on the straight by just having a tow five seconds ahead, while other cars were closer to each other” said the Dutchman. “On this track you need a bit of luck sometimes – or a bit of help on the straight.”
Apart from managing the slipstream, tire strategy is also likely to prove a decisive factor in the battle for victory, with Ricciardo and Verstappen two of five drivers starting in the top 10 to elect to begin the race on the supersoft compound rather than the faster but more delicate ultrasoft rubber.
The cool and low-grip conditions have made managing tire temperatures difficult – the ultrasoft tire struggling in particular – and Ricciardo predicts that having the choice to avoid using it on Sunday will be beneficial.
“It will be very challenging in the cold conditions,” he said. “The ultrasoft is graining and tomorrow with cold conditions it’s likely to grain even more. That’s why we all wanted to do it, because we think it’s a bit better with the graining.
“Ideally if we had to use the ultrasofts, you’d try and use it later and when the fuel is less — but then again, the track will probably get colder and colder.
“The cold conditions will make this difficult to manage … but I’m confident it’s going to be an interesting race. They’ll be a lot going on.”
Ricciardo won the previous staging of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in a memorably chaotic race that had him recover from 17th and last in the opening stint to seize an unlikely victory. Although the Australian isn’t looking to replicate his comeback drive – “I prefer to be top 15, that’s better,” he joked – he remains optimistic that his car can contest the victory on merit.
“I’m confident the top three teams will still be the top three, but I really think tomorrow is unknown,” he said. “Just the conditions will be so different. If it works, it works; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”