If the sprint race for the 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix was anything to go by, Red Bull should make it four wins on the spin with their superior long run pace over the rest of the field.
Sergio Perez cruised by Charles Leclerc in Saturday’s sprint and Max Verstappen was able to follow the Ferrari driver closely, despite having a hole in his left sidepod.
Leclerc will start from pole position on Sunday, ahead of Verstappen, Perez and teammate Carlos Sainz.
He has failed to convert his last six pole positions in Formula 1 and will have a mighty task to become the first non-Red Bull winner in 2023.
Leclerc v the Red Bulls
It feels like the first half of 2022 again, except this time Ferrari have a clear deficit to Red Bull, so Leclerc will need the perfect race to win.
First, he needs to lead after Lap 1, or not lose out to Verstappen, because the Dutchman would likely romp away if he gets in front. Then, it would be a case of holding into first place for as long as he can up until the pit stops.
You might think the Monegasque driver would simply be undercut in the pit stop phase by the Red Bulls, but the overcut is very effective in Baku, if you manage your tyres well.
In 2021, Lewis Hamilton was jumped by both Verstappen and Perez as both of the Red Bulls went long, which paid off. They would have had a 1-2, had Verstappen not suffered a tyre failure.
Ferrari certainly improved their tyre management ahead of the Australian GP, where Sainz was able to run with Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, and the car is visibly more balanced.
Leclerc is driving with confidence too, so if he is ahead and can keep his tyres alive, then he will have a small chance of winning.
Red Bull have only been a few mph quicker in the speed traps too, a lesser advantage than previous events, and if Leclerc can be strong in the twisty stuff, like he has been all weekend, it will be game on.
In the only practice session, Ferrari ran on the hard tyres and looked very good, so that bodes well too.
Verstappen will still be the big favourite, but an on-form Leclerc, the right conditions and factors coming together, Ferrari can give Red Bull a run for their money.
Hamilton versus Alonso
It’s unlikely to be a battle for the podium, but Hamilton against Alonso is always a treat for F1 fans.
You just know they want to finish ahead of each other and it’s an important mini battle for the context of the constructors’ championship too.
Lando Norris believes McLaren have not even showed their full potential, so he could be in that fight too.
George Russell will have work to do from 11th and it won’t be an easy little charge through the field for the British driver because the straight line speed of the Mercedes will make it difficult to make overtakes.
It’s possible a DRS train will form, with Yuki Tsunoda potentially playing a bit of a road block game.
Safety car could turn race on its head
The chance of a safety car is very high in Baku as the walls are close and drivers are punished.
In 2018, a late safety car saw most of the field pit late and the restarts themselves are frantic due to the long straight towards the finish line.
The FIA seem to be more keen to throw red flags now too, so if the teams think there has been a big incident that will require the race to be suspended, they will need to factor that in and avoid pitting. That would be a risk though, a gamble that would come with big rewards.
Without a safety car in the second half of the race, it will be a one-stop from medium to hard due to the low tyre degradation.
A game of patience is sometimes required at Baku but you really have to driver properly well to get a great result.