Baku has managed to quickly establish a habit for the unexpected in its short spell on the Formula 1 calendar, with the last two races ranking among the most unpredictable in the sport’s recent history.

But even by Baku’s bonkers standards, Friday’s running for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was particularly ridiculous.

A mix of misunderstandings, poor planning and on-track mistakes offered a Friday that will not be quickly forgotten, as well as leaving us in the dark as to just how the pecking order is shaping up for this weekend’s grand prix.

After Formula 2 completed the first on-track running of the weekend with practice on Friday morning, the biggest concern for the F1 grid appeared to be the dusty track surface.

But they would get less than 15 minutes to try and clean things up as the session was red flagged and ultimately cancelled due to a loose manhole cover.

After Charles Leclerc had run over the manhole cover and loosened it, Williams’ George Russell was the unfortunate driver to hit it at speed, causing a sizeable amount of damage to the rear of his car and leaving debris all over the track. Russell was quick to bring his car to a halt and hop out under the red flag, with his first move being to check the underside of his chassis. It was cracked, acting as another big blow to Williams following a disastrous start to the year.

“It never rains but it pours at Williams,” deputy team boss Claire Williams deadpanned. "We don't seem to be having a whole lot of luck this year." She focused on the definite silver lining - that a bigger, more dangerous incident with the loose drain cover was avoided – but confirmed the team would be seeking compensation for the incident, estimating the damage to the car ran into the “hundreds of thousands”. While she would not be drawn on an exact cost, an estimate put it around the half a million mark.

The other silver lining for Williams was that an incident such as this did not occur at an earlier stage this year. Having fallen behind on its parts production early in the year – the cause of its delay in hitting the track in testing – it reportedly only brought a spare chassis to a race for the first time this weekend. Just in time…

Naturally the team will be seeking compensation, given it was entirely blameless for a very costly incident. Precedent comes in Haas’ claim against the Sepang International Circuit in 2017, when a loose drain cover caused Romain Grosjean to have a high-speed crash – although this did take over a year to resolve.

But even getting Russell’s car back to the pits wasn’t as straightforward as it should have been. The car was hoisted onto the back of the low-loader truck by the attached crane before being taken on its way back to the pits, only for said crane to cause a problem. The driver of the truck only realised at the last moment that he was about to hit the bridge crossing over the track nearing pit entry, resulting in a minor shunt. Hydraulic fluid from the crane was left pouring all over the Williams on the back, with a dent being left in the advertising hoarding on the bridge.

With the remainder of FP1 cancelled, FP2 saw the field head out early, eager to make up for the time lost. Lock-ups were plentiful as the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo (to name just three) took to the run-off area as they tried to find the limit under braking. At one point, Pierre Gasly and Romain Grosjean both occupied the run-off area at the same corner! But it’s Baku. It’s expected.

Lance Stroll couldn’t quite get away with it, though. Coming in to Turn 3, the Canadian realised mid-corner that he wasn’t quite going to make it around the left-hander, prompting him to try and chuck it to the right and into the run-off area. He couldn’t quite manage it, though, instead sending the Racing Point RP19 straight into the barrier, taking the front-left off and ending his session.

Now, the marshals weren’t going to be caught out this time, were they? No chance. The issue last time was the crane. So why not just take the crane off the truck? Problem solved. Job done.

A trackside crane was used to lift Stroll’s car onto the truck before it was taken back to the Racing Point garage, where it sat for a good minute or so. The team’s mechanics stood around asking the marshals what they were doing – because of course, there was no crane, meaning there was no way to remove it from the truck. Racing Point had been told the car would be taken to pit entry where there was a crane waiting to help out, but nobody had told the man driving the truck. Not a good day for Baku truckies, it has to be said…

But don’t go thinking the disarray was limited to just the Formula 1 sessions. Arguably the most bizarre incident of the day came in Formula 2 qualifying. Prema Racing’s Sean Gelael’s car came to a stop between Turns 7 and 8, but he was able to get going again, with a little help from the marshals giving him a push.

With one marshal on the rear wing and one on either side of the car holding onto the Halo, Gelael’s car was able to kick back into life. But just as he put the power down, the marshals standing either side of the car didn’t get out of the way of his rear wheels, and they toppled like bowling pins. Thankfully, though, they were unharmed, quickly getting back up and dusting themselves off.

Stroll did not have the last laugh when it came to red flags. With less than 30 minutes left on the clock, Daniil Kvyat lost the rear of his Toro Rosso through Turn 7 after getting on the power too early, causing him to crash into the wall. A third and final red flag of the day was triggered, further limiting the track time that could be accomplished.

All of this means the field heads into Saturday with very little comfort of idea of where they are standing. We’ve seen in recent years just how much written-off Fridays can shake up the pecking order, leading to some calls for a reduction in practice running to try and aid F1’s on-track spectacle.

Ferrari may have ended the day fastest, but with none of the teams completing their programmes, can anyone really be sure of where they stand in Baku? The pressure will be on all of them to make the most of FP3 tomorrow on such a green track – which, hopefully, will have benefitted from some F2 running in the morning – before being thrown into qualifying.

As shambolic as today may have been at times, it should all only add to the drama that Baku has become renowned for in recent years.



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