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Azerbaijan GP: Honda to bring upgrades in Baku

Red Bull and Toro Rosso will receive its first engine upgrade in Azerbaijan with reliability the focus of improvement.

This arrives following a power unit change in China, as an anomaly was noticed in the data of Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso during FP1.

Honda Technical director, Toyoharu Tanabe, revealed the new engine is introduced for “improved durability and better reliability”, but believes this upgrade will subsequently better the car’s performance.

All of which is good news for Red Bull, in attempt to gain their first victory of 2019 at a track they were triumphant around in 2017 – through Daniel Ricciardo.

However, elation turned to deflation in 2018 following a double DNF finish, as Ricciardo crashed into the back of Max Verstappen.

Pierre Gasly talks to the press - Red Bull Racing

Pierre Gasly talks to the press – Red Bull Racing

But with only Verstappen left of the two, hopes of a Red Bull victory lie with the Dutchman as Pierre Gasly is still adapting to his new surroundings.

Although, the early introduction of an engine upgrade arrives with expected grid penalties for both teams later in the year.

Each driver is limited to three power units per season, which makes it unlikely that Honda can get through 2019 on just one further engine upgrade, so expect grid penalties to eventually kick in for the teams.

Yet, Red Bull still expect to go quicker in Azerbaijan which Verstappen believes to be vital for a good race, considering Baku possesses the calendar’s longest straight.

“It’s a decent track for overtaking because of the long straight and especially with the DRS (overtaking) zone” he said.

Therefore, expect Verstappen to intensify the fight with the two front-runners, as they have shown in years prior that Azerbaijan can favour the Red Bull cars.

Can Charles Leclerc bounce back from China disappointment?

Following his fifth-place finish in Shanghai, it was the use of team-orders that dominated the headlines.

As Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel were in close battle with each other, the Monegasque was instructed to let his team-mate pass-by effectively ending the youngster’s race, as he dropped further into fifth.

Such decision prompted a furious Leclerc to ask over team radio: “Now what?”, baffled by Vettel’s inability to pull away from him despite the order committed.

Despite such drama in China, Leclerc is still the Ferrari driver that can look back on the opening races with pride as he arrives at one of his strongest races on the calendar.

“I always enjoy driving on it, especially the castle part with all those tight corners. It’s a unique track, you cannot find anything like it anywhere else in the world, so it’s pretty special” Leclerc said.

Now in possibly the quickest car on the grid, one would be silly to dismiss any possibility of him taking his maiden Formula One victory in Baku, considering the form he has shown there in the past.

Charles Leclerc, Bahrain - Scuderia Ferrari

Charles Leclerc, Bahrain – Scuderia Ferrari

2017 was an emotional victory for Leclerc in Formula Two, winning just days after his father’s death whom he paid tribute to on the podium.

And then 2018 witnessed him finish an impressive sixth place in his debut F1 season for Sauber.

So, it should come at no surprise if Charles Leclerc becomes the fourth different driver to win in Baku in only its fourth season on the F1 calendar.

What about Lewis Hamilton?

With drama continuing to escalate for Ferrari, it is perhaps easy to shift focus away from Hamilton, whom continues to pick up the victories.

Despite winning the title in 2018, after the opening three rounds Hamilton trailed Vettel by nine points.

Yet, fast-forward a year and the Brit is already 31 points ahead of the German.

Normally, it is the second half of the season in which Hamilton shines yet three races in and he has won two of them – albeit with luck in Bahrain.

Lewis Hamilton, 2019 Chinese Grand Prix, Sunday

Lewis Hamilton, 2019 Chinese Grand Prix, Sunday – AMG Mercedes

Hamilton looks in strong position to win back-to-back around Baku as he continues to chase down Michael Schumacher’s record of seven World Championships – currently on five.

Another victory in Azerbaijan to build on the point deficit would go a long way in the record hunt, as Ferrari potentially have bigger problems to focus on instead of Hamilton.

But, a rejuvenated Valtteri Bottas will be desperate to beat his team-mate in Baku to completely remove any association with the ‘wingman’ role he had in 2018.

Therefore, what better place to bounce back from China’s dullness than Azerbaijan?

Especially considering the drama this track delivered in 2017 and 2018, with big boots to fill for 2019’s race as the season continues to unravel.

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