Despite qualifying well enough to start Sunday’s European Grand Prix from the second row of the grid, Sebastian Vettel was at a loss to explain the 1.2-second gap to the championship-leading Mercedes’ at the Baku City Circuit.
The German ran near to the pace of the Silver Arrows just one week prior at the Canadian Grand Prix, and similarly was able to threaten Lewis Hamilton for the race win at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
Just one week later, however, and the gap between the two factory teams has blown out significantly. Vettel qualified fourth-fastest and will start Sunday’s 51-lap race in third position thanks to a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change on Sergio Pérez’s Force India, which was the second-fastest car in the field.
“I’m not surprised at all [at Red Bull beating Ferrari], if anything it was a surprise to see them and us struggling so much, yesterday and today,” he said after posting an identical lap time in Q3 to former Red Bull Racing teammate Daniel Ricciardo.
“[But] don’t forget we qualified behind a Force India. Sergio has found a good rhythm, but surely we should be ahead. We can’t be entirely happy.
“Obviously [it’s] still not great if you look at the gap to Mercedes in the front, so that’s something we need to try and understand because we know that the car is quick and the pace is there, which we’ve seen even last week. Nevertheless we’ve put both cars in a position to have a good race so anything can happen. I’m excited to race tomorrow.”
While the gap to the Mercedes’ might suggest that the Ferrari SF16-H chassis/engine package is losing out on the Baku City Circuit’s long straights, Vettel suggests that the car’s low-speed handling is its weak point.
“We have a strong engine, we have made very good progress and I don’t think that’s it,” he insisted, when asked about the Ferraris straight-line speed.
“I know that’s not the place that we lose most of the time; there are a lot of corners here and we seem to just struggle to extract the same out of the low speed corners than other people do, arguably also Force India, that’s something we need to understand.
“We know that our car is quick but for some reason here and there around this track we seem to struggle a bit.”
While the stopwatch would suggest that the Ferraris will not be able to challenge for victory on Sunday, Vettel was optimistic about the chances of a surprise result given the high likelihood of Safety Car interruptions in the race after an incident-filled GP2 Series Feature Race.
“There is obviously a high likelihood of safety cars, which is just the nature of the track, there isn’t much room. If somebody goes straight or loses the car obviously it can cause a safety car easily and then the restart will be quite interesting,” Vettel added.
“The straight is very, very, very, very, very long so it depends where you are. If you are in front it’s probably not what you wish for, if you are behind then yes if you see that chance to do something [it could be good]. I think we find out tomorrow how easy or how difficult it is to pass around here and how much the long straight will help but surely from the Safety Car restart it can be very interesting.”
Image via XPB Images