BAKU, Azerbaijan — Friday practice in Baku was a stop/start affair after one session was called off early due to a loose drain cover and another was interrupted by two red flags. From the outside, it’s easy to judge as drivers slither off the circuit left, right and centre, but listening to Lewis Hamilton’s description of the opening sector of the lap, it is easy to understand how so many mistakes can creep in at a circuit like Baku.

“I don’t know if people watching fully understand the speeds we are going through a lot of these corners,” Hamilton said after the session. “Turn 1 is so bumpy coming into the corner that you can’t even see the 100 metre sign, the vibrations are so high, so you are braking on your peripherals and your instinct.

“The speed when you judge how quick you are going and whether you can make the corner, the balance there is very, very tough and if you look at places like Turn 3, if you commit and it doesn’t go so well, you are in the wall. It’s much higher speed than it is in Monaco where it might look similar.”

Regardless of the challenges of the 6km circuit, things got off to a bad start when, after 13 minutes of the opening practice session, a drain cover came loose and ripped the floor of George Russell’s Williams to pieces. Such are the aerodynamic forces acting on — and underneath — an F1 car that the drain cover was literally sucked from its mountings by the low air pressure generated by the floor of the car.

At 320km/h, the suction generated by the front wing has the ability to lift an object of over 110kg and at the front of the floor the suction generated by the underneath of the car could lift an object as heavy as 200kg. An inspection of the aftermath revealed that the underside mounting of the drain cover had corroded, and as a result the heavy metal disk came loose as Charles Leclerc passed over it and fully displaced as Russell followed him.

Azerbaijan first practice canceled after loose drain. Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images

The drain covers had been checked prior to the session, and the first Formula 2 practice session took place without incident, but short of lifting every drain cover up and remounting it, there was no way of checking whether drain cover would withstand the extreme forces of an F1 car. The result was a cracked chassis for Williams and a cancelled session for everyone else as circuit workers set about making further checks on the 300-plus drain covers dotted around the track.

“Surprisingly it didn’t hurt at all going over that,” Russell said afterwards. “It set the fire extinguisher off in the car, and that was so cold I thought something was burning!

“I was lucky. If the impact was 10 or 15 millimetres higher it’s going straight into where I’m sat, so it could have been much worse, but a shame for all the guys.

“You’ve got your full programme, plans for the weekend and it all gets thrown down the drain, literally.”

Deputy team principal Claire Williams was clearly upset about the situation, but following an explanation from race director Michael Masi accepted that such things can happen on street circuits.

“My reaction is probably not a surprising one, I’m pretty annoyed,” she said. “However, we have had it explained to us, the circumstances around the manhole and what’s happened. I don’t necessarily believe it’s probably anybody’s fault, but still it’s pretty disappointing for us. It just seems like it’s one thing after another for our team at the moment. However, it’s happened, we’ve got to repair the damage.

“Our chassis is cracked so we have got to revert to chassis three, the floor is a write-off, and we’ve got some other small bits of damage around the car. The guys are obviously working pretty hard to make sure that we deploy chassis three; we clearly won’t get out for second practice and George will just have to get all his learnings in tomorrow.”

Short-run pace

Ferrari appear to be the team to beat on the streets of Baku. Mark Thompson/Getty Images

The rest of the field had second practice to get to grips with the track, but with next to no running during FP1 session the circuit was still incredibly dusty. Over short runs Ferrari had a clear pace advantage — over 0.6s separated Leclerc in the fastest Ferrari and Hamilton in the fastest Mercedes — but the track conditions were improving at such a rate that it made it hard to trust the gaps with any certainty.

Unusually, Leclerc set his fastest time on the third flying lap of his low-fuel run, when normally the first flying lap would yield the peak amount of grip from the tyres and best lap time. That is partly down to the low levels of degradation experienced by Pirelli’s tyres in Baku, but also the cool conditions in the late afternoon that made it hard to get generate tyre temperature with just a single outlap. Add to that the unforgiving nature of the circuit and the difficulty of hooking up all 20 corners in one go, and only a lap like Leclerc’s fastest attempt will shine on a day like today.

“It is very tight, very technical and very difficult, so you have to be very precise,” Leclerc said. “As soon as you make a mistake in one corner you are late for all the others, so maybe it fits my driving style better than other tracks. But overall it has gone well, and I hope tomorrow will be a good day for me.”

As it happened, Leclerc and Hamilton both appeared to hook up decent laps based on the onboard footage from both cars. Vettel, who split the two, looked less at home with his car, struggling to get on the throttle as early as his teammate through the tighter section around the castle. But with Ferrari holding a 0.4s advantage on the straights alone, Hamilton believes it will be hard for Mercedes to make up the full gap to their rivals on Saturday afternoon.

“There are always areas where we can improve, but I do feel like it was a solid session – it’s not like we have a massive chunk of time to find here or there,” he said. “They are 0.6s ahead, so I need to go and study the data and figure out whether or not we are going to find 0.6s overnight – I would say it’s highly unlikely.”

Race pace

In terms of long runs, the data from Friday practice is even less complete. Daniil Kvyat’s accident at Turn 7 in the final 30 minutes of the session resulted in a red flag at the start of the planned race sims, and as a result the usual sets of data were a bit patchy.

However, from the times we gathered, the fairest comparison between Ferrari and Mercedes appeared to be between Vettel on an 11-lap run on the medium tyres and Hamilton over a nine-lap run on the same compound. Hamilton came out a couple of tenths faster per lap, with an average lap time of 1:47.9 to Vettel’s 1:48.1, suggesting the race could be close even if qualifying goes Ferrari’s way.

“They [Mercedes] were quite fast in the race run,” Leclerc said. “So I expect them to be there for the quali run too when they put everything together [on low fuel].”

The midfield battle

McLaren and Toro Rosso set solid single lap runs, but did so later in the session once track conditions had improved. They then failed to back up their top-ten single-lap pace with equally impressive long runs – a situation not helped by Kvyat removing himself from any long comparisons with his accident.

Renault struggled to get the tyres in the right operating window – the team suspected it set its downforce levels too low – and Daniel RIcciardo destroyed both sets of his tyres before starting a long run. Haas also struggled with setup, with Romain Grosjean the only driver complaining of rear tyre graining.

However, a 10-lap medium tyre run from Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo did stand out, yielding an average lap time of 1:48.1 — i.e. a similar pace to Vettel’s Ferrari using the same compound. Raikkonen is an experienced pair of hands who knows how to stay out of trouble, so if you’re looking for an outside bet for the podium, he might be your man.

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