With Oliver Rowland closing down Charles Leclerc’s lead in the drivers’ championship to just 3 points in Monaco everyone was watching to see if the Briton could keep pushing and steal a march on his Monegasque rival: after the weekend Rowland announced that the team’s focus would be on improving their qualifying performance to stop Leclerc’s string of pole positions (and the points that come with it), and Round 4 in Baku, Azerbaijan was the perfect place to find out if their ambitions were going to become reality.
But in free practice it was Nyck De Vries, another driver who was looking to turn around his season by moving his strong sprint race performances up to the feature race where the bigger points can be found, who led the way in a busy session. Three VSCs and a red flag hampered everyone’s ability to make full use of the track time, with everyone losing the 15 minutes it took to remove super sub Sergey Sirotkin’s stopped car from the start of the long front straight, and Rowland’s session was shortened when he lost the rear at turn one and found the barriers. Jordan King and Luca Ghiotto rounded out the top 3, with Leclerc a second off the pace in P7 and Rowland himself further back in 14th position.
But when qualifying came it was a return to normal service, with Leclerc continuing his perfect form for his fourth pole of the year, ahead of Nobuharu Matsushita and Nicholas Latifi in a scorching session. The Japanese driver was on the top spot when Ghiotto found the wall at turn 15, bringing the session to a temporary halt, with Latifi halting it again after the restart by losing some of his front wing on the incredibly tight turn 8, but when they re-emerged Leclerc put in the 2 fastest laps of the session 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.”
From there it looked like Leclerc had the whip hand, and so it proved: the Ferrari Academy ace controlled the race from lights to flag for his third win of the season, ahead of De Vries and Latifi. The Monegasque driver easily led his rivals into turn 1 ahead of Latifi and Matsushita, and a safety car restart following the removal of Johnny Cecotto’s car 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.
All the main contenders bar De Vries pitted on lap 7, with the Dutchman using the clear air for a 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.
After the restart 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 in front of him. He finished in P4 when the red flags emerged following Sean Gelael’s accident at turn 8, ahead of the Russian, Norman Nato, King and Boschung, but a subsequent 10 second penalty undid his good work and pushed him down to 7th in the classifications.
But most of the attention was on the man on the top step of the podium, on a very emotional day for him. “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, thanks to my father for everything he did for me: I dedicate this win to him.”
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 poleman 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. And when the lights went out that’s exactly what he did, leading the Swiss driver into turn 2 before streaking away, with 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 too.
Leclerc had a poor start by his standards to drop back to P10 before fighting back up the order, and was up to P6 when Rowland and De Vries, who was in the podium places after dispatching Latifi, 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. Nevertheless he dispatched Nato, who put up no resistance but followed his friend and rival to the chequered flag for the victory, ahead of Leclerc 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 the last word should go to 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! 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.”