Toto Wolff credited cooling track temperatures for rescuing qualifying for Mercedes, but the team boss also revealed some clever Q3 strategizing helped Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton get the jump on Ferrari.
Mercedes struggled to match Ferrari throughout practice for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, its problems principally regarding keeping the tires in their optimum temperature window. Ferrari, on the other hand, had no such problems, thanks in part to a series of car updates rushed to Baku, allowing the Scuderia to build what appeared to be a formidable pace advantage before qualifying.
But, in keeping with the chaos that has come to define the race in Baku, qualifying was disrupted by two red flags — one of which, ironically enough, was triggered by Charles Leclerc — that served to draw out the one-hour session into a two-hour affair.
The sun was low in the sky by the time Q3 took place and track temperatures had dropped accordingly — and the more the mercury fell, the more competitive the Mercedes car was becoming.
“The longer the session went, the more we got it there,” Wolff explained. “Towards the end, from a car that was not making the drivers happy in the morning, we ended up with a car in Q3 that was good.”
It was enough to turn what was feared to be a half-second deficit to Ferrari into a 0.243s advantage and deliver an unlikely Mercedes front-row lockout.
“They were very quick yesterday and they were extremely quick in FP3 this morning,” Wolff added. “That was something which we didn’t know how to solve, because the gap was big.
“But when you see this kind of gap, it’s never that the car has suddenly lost performance, because you know there is performance — it’s just that you’re not having the tire in the right operating window.
“I think we gained relative performance with the dropping temperatures. I think that probably with the track and ambient of this morning they were in a league of their own, and once it got cooler, probably the competitive order changed.”
But there was a further secret to Mercedes’s sudden advantage, and it required some tactical thinking to ensure Bottas and Hamilton benefited from the powerful slipstream down the long front straight.
Mercedes, suspecting that other teams were waiting for Bottas and Hamilton to exit their garages for their final laps, sent their drivers out first but ordered them to pull over into the area on pit exit designated for practice starts.
Four cars duly followed them out, only to find themselves sweeping past the stationary silver cars and suddenly giving Bottas and Hamilton the benefit of the slipstream.
“In each of the qualifyings we saw a little bit of a pattern — that everybody waited for us to go out — and this time we thought, ‘We’ve got to try something else,’ and this is what we did,” Wolff said.
“The tow effect is massive. Let’s say a minimum tow following other cars within a few seconds can gain you between one and three tenths, and the mother of all tows can gain you around Baku maybe six tenths. (Having) Cars in front of you that just cut a hole in the air is really good around here and advantageous.”
But Wolff added that the strategy almost undid both his drivers’ final laps.
“You always need to evaluate between trying to get a bit of a tow effect and compromising your out-lap. We didn’t expect so many cars going out right behind us. Lewis and Valtteri’s out-laps were compromised — you can see that Lewis lost all the time in sector one and then had a really good second and third sector.”