Oliver Bearman isn’t underestimating how much circumstances falling in his favour could influence his Qualifying fortunes after topping the opening running.
In a session that saw non-stop improvements, the rookies threw down the gauntlet in Free Practice on their first runs around the Baku City Circuit. The PREMA Racing driver’s 1:54.063 put him two-tenths clear of fellow first timers Isack Hadjar and Kush Maini.
With no previous experience around the ultra-fast Azerbaijani track, Bearman relied on the simulator and the team’s previous data to prepare for Round 4. However, he admitted that there was one area that caught him unaware – the circuit’s drainage, but he was happy to overcome the unexpected to find his groove.
“The track is really cool first of all. Obviously, it takes a lot of time to get the confidence – typical street track. One thing you don’t really see or notice is that the track is crowned, like all street tracks, to get the water off, but it’s not ideal for a race car. The balance is changing a lot through the corner because of that, so that was something that I didn’t really notice in the sim, but when I got in the car, it was quite a big factor.
“The track is really interesting, I really enjoyed it and you need to just keep building up and not make mistakes. I think on that side, we did a good job and hit the ground running.”
Fortunately for the Briton, the track he faces is a very different animal to the one the field faced last year. Firstly, the cooler April conditions will put less of a strain in terms of tyre degradation, whilst several major areas of resurfacing have provided the drivers with a much gripper track surface to work with. As a result, Bearman’s best effort was over a second quicker than 2022’s Practice benchmark.
Already well versed in adapting to a new circuit after the two previous rounds in Jeddah and Melbourne, he’s learnt steadily building his way up is the right approach.
“Everyone was saying what bits were changed, but for me it was the same because it’s my first time. I had an easy job! I think the resurfacing has definitely helped because you could feel it on the newer bits of track. There are a couple of old corners and on the newer ones you could feel a bit more grip and the lap time was quite a bit faster than last year’s Free Practice.
“Clearly the track is a bit faster for us. Anyways, it wasn’t easy, especially at the start. The track was quite dusty, which of course makes life difficult, but getting faster and faster while you’re getting more confident, so it’s coming in your direction.”
Taking advantage of a tow from MP Motorsport’s Jehan Daruvala along the main straight on his best effort, Bearman doesn’t doubt how vital track position and the slipstream will be to extracting every millisecond out in Qualifying.
Last year saw just over half a second separate the pole-sitter down to P10, but the Practice times indicate that PREMA once again have decent pace. Teammate Frederik Vesti finished inside the top five also, ending the session in P4.
With a switch to the supersoft tyres for the first time and the risk of a stop-start session, Bearman’s aim of clawing back ground in the Standings might not be a straightforward endeavour.
“I told Jehan to wait until Quali to give me that one, but anyways I’ll take it. It was a really nice tow, so I’ll have to pay him back,” he joked.
“It gained me a lot of lap time that’s for sure. It’s useful in FP, but of course it matters in Qualifying. We know we have the pace, but the tow is a big factor. It’s not a deal breaker because you can race anywhere really on this track, but the good thing is we know we have the pace. We just need to start in the right position for the start of the lap and see where we end up.
“Topping the session doesn’t really mean much. We saw the tow really helped me, so I’m not in denial about that. My goal for Qualifying is just to be there fighting at the front, that has been my goal for the season so far – just to put myself in a good position for the races and score some points.”