Lewis Hamilton thinks it’s unlikely his team will be able to close the 0.7-second gap to Ferrari from today’s practice for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in time for qualifying, but the Briton is optimistic Mercedes’s long-run pace will make it a challenger in the race.
Ferrari led the way in Friday practice, with Charles Leclerc’s 1m42.872s benchmark 0.669s quicker than Hamilton’s best effort, which landed him third on the time sheet. Sebastian Vettel in the sister Ferrari split the difference between them in second place.
The Scuderia had been tipped as favorites for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix thanks to the circuit’s long straights in the first and last sectors, which ought to help Ferrari exploit its straight-line speed. But the twisty middle sector of the circuit makes setting up the car more of a compromise, and the lack of track time owing to the loss of almost all FP1 to a loose drain cover and the two red flags in FP2 means teams have had limited time to find the correct balance to tackle the unique street circuit.
Despite the mitigating factors, Hamilton couldn’t foresee his team bridging the gap to the front in time to battle for pole on Saturday.
“The Ferraris are clearly very quick and it looks like they’re quite a bit ahead of us, so we’ll need to investigate to see where we are losing time compared to them,” he said. “It’s unlikely that we will find seven tenths overnight, but we’ll do everything we can to push the car in the right direction.”
Even so, the Briton — who leads the championship standings by six points — reckons his race simulation will stand him in good stead to take on the red cars come race day.
“Our long-run pace looked a little bit stronger than our short-run pace, so we’ll need to try and find out why,” he said. “I was feeling good out there and I was more comfortable in the car than I was last year.
“It’s been a bit of an odd day, but I still enjoyed it. It should be a good fight tomorrow; I’m always down for a fight.”
Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, was 1.1s off the pace in fifth behind Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen, a gap the Finn put down to some scruffy laps and difficulty keeping the tires up to temperature, a common complaint around the dirty Azeri circuit.
“I’m not really pleased with the laps I did,” he said. “It’s always a bit tricky to find the rhythm in Baku and it takes a bit of time.
“It wasn’t easy to get the medium compound up to the right temperatures today but corner speeds will increase due to track evolution, so we should be able to get a bit more energy into the tires tomorrow.”