From Downtown

From Downtown

Behind the scenes in Baku

Arriving in the Baku paddock for the first time was different to anywhere else: sure, the city itself is interesting and kind of beautiful in its own way, and racing around the streets of a town is always pretty cool to be involved with, but it was the paddock itself that surprised me, looking as it did like an army camp dropped behind the houses of parliament.

Two rows of identical white tents, pegged cheek by jowl, lined up behind each other: the front one for the cars, the second one for the personnel, with a passage between them about 5 metres wide for everyone to get around. There was enough space for everything, just, and the location was pretty great, being separated from the F1 paddock by just a small, tree-filled park, and with car access to the circuit between turns one and two.

The tents had electricity and wi-fi and air conditioning and lights, so we had what was needed to go racing, but it felt more like camping, and with everyone sitting outside between the tents all weekend it felt more collegiate than most rounds.

And of course they all hate to waste anything, so it was only a matter of minutes before Sean Gelael and his trainer set up a small kid’s basketball hoop on one of the trees between the tents to fill the space, with Norman Nato, Nyck De Vries and anyone else who wanted to join shooting free throws (“from downtown!”) with their tennis ball sized ball, pretending that it was for focus and training because that way their trainers would let them play all day, rather than the real reason, that it was fun.

Plus, it kills the time. Thursday is usually about hanging around for the driver’s briefing, so they needed something to do. Other than all of the wonderful interviews we have with them for the website and the Insider, which is their real reason to be there, of course.

But teams always compete – they can’t help it, it’s in their DNA – and it was only a matter of time before another team ramped up on the sports arena aspect. It was PREMA, probably predictably, who set up a tennis court between their tents, surrounded by flight cases and a chain fence. They didn’t set up lights, but if we’d stayed any longer they probably would have.

One team who were happy to ignore the others was MP Motorsport, who set up their garage for the weekend and got to work: if their drivers wanted to exercise they were welcome to go for a run or use the hotel gym, just like anywhere else. Alexa went to pick them up for the Team Talk interview but Sergio wasn’t in yet so she walked over with Jordan, who brought fruit with him to get through the grilling we had ready for him.

“Hang on a tick,” he requested on the way, “I’ve just got to pop into the loo for a second.”

“No problem,” Alexa replied, “do you want me to hold your banana for you?” It took a couple of beats for him to look at the yellow fruit in his hand, and pass it over for her slowly.

The three of us chatted for a while as we waited for Sergio, with Jordan telling us that he has to do this every day at the hotel. Eventually the cheerful Brazilian sauntered in, wondering why we all appeared to be laughing at him before we started.

“Describe your teammate in one word” I began.

“Late” sighed Jordan.

“Early!” laughed Sergio.

Hopefully no one will notice the rapidly browning banana skins on the table in front of them in all of the photos…

Then it was time for Oliver Rowland to sit down for the Q&A: people seem have all waited to ask questions live for him, rather than send them in advance, but one of them seemed a little odd.

“Yeah, I have had a haircut actually,” he responded to the camera, “just this morning, over at the Hilton.” It was only when we looked at the screen that we saw what was going on: the question had been asked by a Mr Nicholas Latifi of Toronto, Canada…

We might have made a mistake with our venue though: we hosted it in our tent, but we hadn’t thought about the fact that the driver’s sign on page was in there too, so we had a string of drivers come in, see Oliver seemingly talking to himself, and come over to have a look / annoy him. So if you saw him flinching, or a certain driver gurning over his shoulder, now you know why.

A quick change into his race suit and Oliver was back, with Nyck De Vries, for the race winners photo shoot. It was while they were standing a couple of feet up leaning against a lamp post (as you do) that they revealed that they were teammates in 2010 when they were both karting, and mentioned that there was a photo of the pair of them on the podium together, so we recreated it for old time’s sake.

“I think this one will be a bit better, though,” Nyck suggested.


“He won the race back then, so I’ll look a bit happier this time!”

We followed up with another Team Talk, this time sitting outside with RUSSIAN TIME’s pairing of possibly the two most chilled out teammates ever, Luca Ghiotto and Artem Markelov. It was a great chat, and the results will be released soon, but Luca did wear his blue sunglasses through the whole thing, which kind of freak me out a bit.

“Whenever you wear those things I think you’re in the Matrix.”

“Maybe I am! If I’m on the podium on Saturday I won’t walk up: I’ll just float out of the car and up to the podium!” Unfortunately we’ll have to wait for another weekend to find out if he is really Morpheus…

Friday came along, windy and hot, and Nyck was looking to prove a point in free practice: the Rapax cars have been fast on race pace all year long, no doubt, and if qualifying remains under lock and key by PREMA then the Dutchman was determined to bring their speed to the feature race, rather than later in the sprints as had been the case so far.

The session was held up by three VSCs and a red flag, which hampered everyone’s ability to make full use of the track time allocated: everyone lost 15 minutes when Sergey Sirotkin’s car ground to a halt at the start of the long front straight and the marshals had to load it on a truck and drive it all the way down to turn one because of the lack of anywhere else to move it.

Such is the nature of street circuits, unfortunately, and it meant everyone had to push harder in the time remaining. Rowland had been last on the timesheets when the red flag emerged, and push hard when the track went green to set a competitive time: the Briton was P4 on his first full lap but lost the rear and found the barriers at turn one, shortening the session yet more. King and Ghiotto rounded out the top 3 behind De Vries, with Charles Leclerc a second off the pace in P7 and Rowland yet further back in 14th position.

The track was hotter still when it came time for qualifying, and with it came a return to normal service: the Monegasque man continuing his perfect form for his fourth pole of the year, ahead of Nobuharu Matsushita and Nicholas Latifi. The Japanese driver was on the top spot when Ghiotto found the wall at turn 15, bringing the session to a temporary halt, and Latifi stopped it again after the restart by losing some of his front wing on the incredibly tight turn 8.

None of which stopped Leclerc putting in the 2 fastest laps of the session after the re-start to lock down the top spot, despite the improvements made by his rivals.

“It was very, very emotional,” the Monegasque driver noted afterwards. “We have done four poles out of four and it’s amazing! I have never done that in my career, and I just have to thank PREMA for the amazing car. The 2 laps on the second set were quite good, and I’m really happy to be on pole. After what happened two days ago I didn’t feel as confident as in the previous races, and it was quite hard after the free practice we had this morning, but we managed the qualy well and I’m really happy about it.”

Saturday was hotter still, and with the wind dying down it certainly felt like it. If the lack of breeze made the drivers’ jobs easier, the fact that Leclerc was on pole more than compensated for it: the Ferrari Academy ace controlled the race from lights to flag for his third win of the season, ahead of De Vries and Latifi.

When the lights went out he simply drove away, easily leading his rivals into turn 1 with Latifi and Matsushita in his wake. A safety car restart following the removal of Johnny Cecotto’s car at turn 2 was simply dealt with as Leclerc tore away once again, with De Vries slicing past Latifi for P2 as the field shook out and waited for the pits to open so they could swap their supersofts for medium tyres.

Before the race there had been a lot of talk about the tyres: there was no question that the only choice was to start on supersofts and switch to the mediums (unless you were starting from the back and hoping for a Hail Mary play, like Ghiotto), but the wear last year was quite extreme and there were questions about whether they’d make it to the pit window on lap 6.

Luckily, they needn’t have worried: the conditions meant that all the main contenders bar De Vries could hang on until lap 7, with the Dutchman using the clear air for a further lap at the front to ensure his hold on net 2nd was maintained. Ghiotto, Ralph Boschung and Nabil Jeffri were the only drivers on the alternate strategy, and when the Malaysian found the wall just after the stops there were only 2 cars ahead of Leclerc on track, which became 1 after the VSC restart and before the safety car to remove Louis Deletraz’s car from the barriers on lap 12.

Ghiotto, whose gamble had now fallen over with the appearance of the safety car, easily controlled the restart from Leclerc, whose attention was behind rather than ahead as the net leader of the race. Further back Rowland was on a charge to get forward and minimise the damage to his championship challenge, blasting past Artem Markelov and picking up positions when Ghiotto pitted and Matsushita ran deep at turn 1, falling to the back of the pack.

With a couple of laps to go the red flags emerged when Sean Gelael’s found the barriers at turn 8 and blocked the circuit, and with 4 minutes remaining there was no time to make the repairs and get the drivers out for a flagged finish. The PREMA guys swarmed Leclerc’s car in the pitlane, all looking to be the first to congratulate him on the win before he made the long walk to the podium, stopped all the way along by well-wishers.

“I’m very, very, very happy,” Leclerc allowed in the press conference. “It’s good points for the championship, and I’ve said it many times before but I’ll never stop saying it, all thanks to my father for everything he did for me: I dedicate this win to him.”

Further back Rowland finished just off the podium in P4 ahead of Markelov, Norman Nato, King and Boschung, but a subsequent 10 second penalty undid his good work and pushed him down to 7th in the classifications. The Swiss driver was called to the stewards too, as it appeared that he hadn’t stopped during the race: he had, but it was on lap 25, while the results were pushed back 2 laps to lap 24, as is standard after a race ending under the red flag. They accepted that he had stopped during the race, and it was hardly his fault that the race was curtailed, so he was allowed to hold onto P8 and the reverse pole.

Meanwhile Ghiotto, who stopped on lap 18, must have been gnashing his teeth in anger at making an earlier stop from P1, thinking it was the only way to have any chance of pushing up the order…

If Rowland was upset about the penalty, he was soon looking to turn it into a disadvantage: the Briton would start the sprint race from the front row, and if he could dispose of Boschung he would be most of the way towards a win which would allow him to claw back some precious points in the title fight from Leclerc.

And when the lights went out that’s exactly what he did, leading the Swiss driver into turn 2 before streaking away. Nato following him through a lap later but not before losing some his right front wing on Boschung’s tyre, which allowed Latifi to sneak through into P3 too. De Vries was looking to add to his points haul and was moving forward too, making short work of Boschung and then Latifi to put himself in line for a second podium of the weekend.

Leclerc had a poor start by his standards to drop back to P10 but was soon fighting back up the order, and was up to P6 when Rowland and De Vries both stopped separately, causing heartbreak for the pair and delight for the Monegasque man, who could now entertain the idea of being the first driver to bring home a perfect weekend (pole, 2 wins, 2 fastest laps) in the championship. He was a second faster than anyone else on track, and put it to good use in dispatching King and Latifi to grab P2, some 7 seconds behind new leader Nato.

The seconds ticked down with the laps, and the timing screens suggested that another Leclerc victory was an inevitability until a message flashed up on lap 17: 10 second time penalty for Leclerc, for failing to slow sufficiently for the earlier yellow flags for Rowland and De Vries. Nevertheless he dispatched Nato, who put up no resistance and simply followed his friend and rival to the chequered flag for the victory, ahead of the championship leader and Latifi.

Every driver wants to win the race on track, but having done all the hard work earlier Nato was sanguine about the result: “My engineer told me maybe ten laps before the end that Charles was catching up and that I needed to increase my pace: I was managing my tyres in case of a safety car or another incident. When I found out that Charles was second I tried to improve my pace, which I did, but Charles was very quick! I just tried to keep the car on track and to push at the limit: I thought maybe Charles would make a mistake, and my main job was to take the car home.

“Then my engineer told me that Charles had a penalty, so I decided to slow down a bit and stay on track, and to be honest it was okay. I was a bit worried earlier for the first two laps, because the front wing was moving a bit, but it was good today, and we were the second fastest on track. I’m happy for the team: it’s been quite difficult these past two rounds, so it’s good to be on top today. We will enjoy it, and then keep on working to come back stronger in Austria.”

And if he’d done a tremendous job to overturn some poor luck over the previous rounds, naturally all the attention was on the star of the weekend, Charles Leclerc. After a terrible week at home, the Monegasque driver came to Baku and had a simply stunning weekend, a testament to his abilities behind the wheel and a great tribute to take home.

“It was amazing!” he smiled in the press conference. “Our pace was very fast, I felt good in the car, and I was doing the quickest laptimes. I’m still very happy about the second place, and we had the fastest lap which gives us two extra points. I also had a lucky star for the second race with the technical issue of Oliver (Rowland), which happened to me in Monaco. We caught back what we lost in Monaco: that is important.”

His weekend was the equivalent of scoring a free throw all the way from the PREMA tennis court into the Arden hoop. The field might be looking forward to going to Austria in a little over a week’s time, but one of them is relishing it just a little more than the rest.

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