Mercury in Retrograde
Ancient wisdom foretells that when this planet appears to move backwards in the sky, life becomes very unpredictable. Known knowns are suddenly not, and “sure bets” become long shots. Apparently, Mercury is doing just this kind of thing at the moment and as if by proof, the city of Baku appeared to position itself at the epicentre of this effect.
To describe this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix as a roller coaster ride would be an understatement. Even by Azerbaijan Grand Prix standards. Since its inception, we’ve become accustomed to it throwing up the odd surprise likes Lance Strolls’s 2017 podium and multiple game-changing safety cars. This weekend, however, it surpassed its previous “unpredictable” performance, upgrading to the “unbelievable.”
The first proper victim of the planets fickle influence was Lando Norris when the Stewards handed him a grid penalty for a Red Flag infringement during qualifying. Essentially, he was handed a “Hobson's choice” of either a penalty for Unsafe Pit Entry or continuing to lap under a Red Flag. For me, he took the sensible (and safest) option choosing to stay out rather than risk his and other people’s safety by entering the pits at speed. Grid penalties are justifiable if the driver clearly ignores, or is just oblivious to the Red Flag, but considering Norris’s track position when it was issued (Red Flag) and his subsequent options, leniency would have seemed justifiable in this instance. Especially after reviewing video footage and Pit Radio conversation?
Next up Team Mercedes. Throughout all of the three Free Practices languished well away from the top of the timesheet and seemed unlikely to experience altitude sickness here any time soon. Hamilton bemoaned lack of grip – “everywhere,” and no- one at HQ seemed to have any idea where they had left their “pace.” Turns out it was under an old tire warmer at the back of the garage, hidden from view in the form of an “ultra-high downforce wing.” Call me cynical, but you can’t help but wonder if it was of the “extra bendy type.” When it became clear a protest was not going gain any traction, possibly a “if you can’t beat them join them,” strategy was employed?
Regardless, normal service seemed to be resumed in qualifying with Hamilton fastest until Leclerc got a big “tow” from him and popped up
Finally, two laps from the end of the race - “boom.” Verstappen’s rear tyre lets go and he’s into the wall. Not his fault and no wonder he publicly sticks the boot in on his erroneous rubber. A sure win in the bag had just left the building before the “fat lady” got into it. However, it did underpin the portents of the weekend that it was never going to go his way. He should have been on pole. He wasn’t. He should have won the race. He didn’t. But then everything changed again. The man who doesn’t make mistakes, ever, did. Hamilton, in P2 at the restart and poised to take an eighteen-point lead over Verstappen and the Championship. Accidentally nudged the “magic” button on the steering wheel at the re-start. As a consequence, and unbeknown to him, brake bias was now set majorly to the front. Defeat was then quickly snatched from the jaws of victory (or 2nd place). As he continued straight down the escape road at Turn One, front tyres lit, while the rest of the grid disappeared into the distance. What seemed a certainty, once again never happened. This left Perez to claim victory, and be joined by Vettel and Gasly respectively on the podium - the only drivers who seemed to be immune this weekend to outrageous fortune of the planet Mercury!