You’re wondering ‘where is round 5?’ Well, round 5 was Monaco, and though I tried harder with that challenging track, I just could not get to grips with it. I simulated the race (unlike last time), having started 22nd, and finished 13th, but a failure to score points naturally did not help my tentative title challenge. If I was to even consider anything as illustrious and ambitious as a title charge, I would need a good race at Baku to make up for recent failings.
The street circuit that cuts through the heart of the city of Baku straddles both the modern and old parts of town. The castle sequence with it’s tight, narrow turn requires you to delicately thread the car through it, whilst turns 18 and 19 are deceptive – you can indeed take them flat-out, but misjudge 19 and you’ll slam into the barrier at very high speeds. Beyond that the track (despite being very tight in places) is not too tough, so the aim was to ensure I relearned the track and got the car into a good place. Some upgrades had arrived to boost the rear downforce, and the car felt solid. I’d scored my first win here in nail-biting fashion last season, could I repeat the feat?!
After qualifying I had serious doubts. Though I’d topped the times in Q1 (by 1.5 seconds!), I was out-foxed by rain in Q2 and would start 14th. I’d wondered prior to qualifying as to whether to go for a dry or wet setup – the forecast for the race suggested rain – but in the end I stuck with the dry setup that had seen me go fast in practice. Under dry conditions I had the car configured for low downforce, and it proved to be a wise decision. I rapidly made up places at the start and before long I was pressing Hamilton’s Mercedes, right at the front. I got away with a rash move into turn 15 that could have ruined my car and it did destroy Hamilton’s front wing, but somehow I wasn’t penalised.
I was quick because of both the setup and the soft tyres, whereas a lot of cars around me had been on mediums. Once I stopped for another set of softs I fell back a few places but on fresh rubber went on a charge, that culminated on waiting a couple of laps to get by Ricciardo’s McLaren and then Bottas. Once again I lunged into turn 15 and once again I destroyed a Mercedes front wing, and this time Ricciardo shunted the stricken Merc. This put Bottas out of the race and brought out a safety car, which lead us around for a few laps and prolonged the lifespan of my soft tyres. As such I began to steadily pull away from the new man in second, Lando Norris. The second McLaren fell back until I reached a point where I could pit for mediums and not lose out too much, and by the time everyone had shaken out their stops I had regained the lead.
Technically I needed to stop one more time, on the assumption the mediums would not go to the end, but the extra time on the softs had meant my mediums could, in theory, go to the end. That said, I wanted the confidence of fresh tyres, so I stopped (and emerged 1.5 seconds still in the lead) with around ten laps to go, powered to the fastest lap, and won the race just as the fabled rain threatened to start.
The win restored me to the top of the championship standings, and next up was another track I’d won at – Canada.