Who lost out more in Baku - Hamilton or Verstappen?

play
Verstappen out after rear tire fails on the main straight (0:28)

Max Verstappen crashes despite leading in Azerbaijan because of a rear tire failure. (0:28)

As Lewis Hamilton locked up the front tyres on his Mercedes and ran wide into the run-off area at Turn 1, the cheers from the Red Bull garage were audible through the walls of the Baku pit complex.

In the neighboring garage, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff whipped off his headphones and crushed them between his hands in frustration. Around him, the heads of several mechanics fell into their hands. At a circuit where the Mercedes W11 had no right to win based on its performance, Hamilton had come close to stealing 25 points from his main rival, only to fall at the last hurdle thanks to a rare driver error.

Meanwhile, Red Bull, which thoroughly deserved its first one-two victory since 2016, only just managed to cross the line in first as Sergio Perez's car hemorrhaged hydraulic pressure over final two laps. The emotions in the two garages were audible, visible ... almost tangible.

Back at Turn 1, it dawned on Hamilton what had gone wrong. As Perez had squeezed him to the inside barrier at the restart, Hamilton's left hand had inadvertently knocked a switch on the rear of the steering wheel known as "brake magic".

The switch, which is usually reserved for the formation lap or laps behind the safety car, is designed to prepare the tyres and the car's hybrid system for maximum attack ahead of a race start. Its exact function is guarded with secrecy, hence the name "magic", but we know that it switches the brake bias forwards, forcing the front brakes to provide the stopping power while rear braking is left to the harvesting mode of the engine's hybrid system.

Asking the front brakes to do most of the work results in one of physics' most common by-product: heat. That heat is not only useful for ensuring the brakes are in a perfect operating window for their first use after the start, but it also transfers energy into the bulk of the tyre.

F1 tyres are temperamental things and when they are not cornering at high-speed they quickly lose temperature. A certain temperature threshold must be reached for the tyre's rubber to offer its optimum level of grip, so cooling tyres can be very bad news ahead of the start of the race or, in this case, ahead of a race restart.

That's why you see drivers weave on their way to the grid, as a method of simulating cornering and transferring energy from the movement of the car into the rubber. By slamming on the front brakes every now and again as well, the driver can turn the kinetic energy of the car into heat energy in the brakes that in turn helps to heat up the front tyres.

Just like magic...

The only thing to remember is to turn the "magic" setting off before the race start, as the front brakes alone cannot stop an F1 car when the driver is braking hard and on the limit. It seems as though Hamilton did turn the "magic" switch off before the restart on lap 50, but knocked it again with his hand before Turn 1. A small but costly mistake.

Perez didn't realise what was going on in the Mercedes cockpit and could never have planned to force Hamilton into such an unusual error, but deserves some credit for squeezing the world champion into a mistake -- however it came about. Had Perez not been so aggressive in his defence, Hamilton would not have needed to steer to the left and may not have accidentally hit the wrong switch.

Perez went on to win the race, Hamilton, after a tour of the Turn 1 run-off area, finished 15th and scored no points.

Who was the biggest loser in Baku?

The Baku result rounded off Mercedes' worst race weekend since its double retirement at the 2018 Austrian Grand Prix and its worst run of two races since the end of the 2012 season, when Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg scored six points between them at the U.S. and Brazilian Grands Prix at the end of the year.

In Monaco and Baku this year, Mercedes scored just seven points after Valtteri Bottas' botched pit stop cost him and the team a likely 18 points in Monaco and Hamilton's Turn 1 mistake cost a potential victory. In the space of the same two rounds, Mercedes' main championship rival, Red Bull, has notched up 62 points.

Speaking to the media on Sunday night, Wolff said the two races had been the "toughest" of his Mercedes career, adding: "We can't continue losing points like we have done in Monaco and here. It's just not acceptable for all of us."

But while Mercedes emerged as Baku's biggest losers on paper, Red Bull's victory was still rather hollow.

Nothing should be taken away from Perez's victory or what it means to the Mexican. There's every chance Baku will be a breakthrough race for Perez, who has become the first driver to win a race in the "second" Red Bull since Daniel Ricciardo at the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix. Sure, Perez would not have won had Verstappen not suffered a puncture on lap 46 of 51, but he was in the right place at the right time to capitalise and also lost time at his pit stop due to a slow tyre change compared to his teammate.

But focusing purely on the two leading title protagonists, Verstappen's tyre failure was arguably more catastrophic to his title chances than Hamilton's Turn 1 mistake.

Had Verstappen's left rear tyre survived another five laps, he would have likely won the race, secured fastest lap and extended his championship lead over Hamilton by another 11 points to 15 in total. Red Bull would have scored its first one-two victory since 2016 and, in doing so, extended its lead over Mercedes by 29 points to a total of 30.

Instead, Verstappen remains where he started the Baku weekend, just four points ahead of Hamilton, and Red Bull sits 26 points clear of Mercedes -- a good lead but still less than it would have been without the tyre failure.

Clearly the result could have been a lot worse for Red Bull and Verstappen had Hamilton not locked up at Turn 1, but on a track where Red Bull had an obvious performance advantage, Verstappen really needed to -- and deserved to -- come away with more.

"Obviously today it looked like we were going to do a bit more damage than we ended up doing, but we have just got to grab our opportunities when they present themselves," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said on Sunday evening.

"Today was a real rollercoaster, I feel like I've aged so many years!

"We had the race under control with a 1-2 and then to suddenly lose Max and his ability to extend the championship lead by what would have been 11 points with the fastest lap, that was immensely frustrating -- but at least Hamilton didn't capitalise on that and reclaim the 18 points or so that he could have done."

The issue for Red Bull is that it could have inflicted even more pain on Hamilton and Mercedes over the last two race weekends than it did, and opportunities to do that level of damage will be few and far between this year. While Mercedes is genuinely concerned about its slump in performance at the last two races, it is quietly confident of a resurgence at the next round in France and the following two races in Austria.

The Mercedes car has not lost downforce or power since its dominant display in Spain last month, but the nature of the circuits in Monaco and Baku made it more difficult for the drivers to access the car's true performance.

At both street circuits, Mercedes struggled to get all four tyres working in the right temperature operating window at the same time -- especially in time for a single lap in qualifying. In Monaco, Hamilton struggled more than Bottas and in Baku Bottas struggled more than Hamilton.

Compromise solutions were found for the lack of performance during the practice sessions at both races, but they clearly weren't satisfactory answers for the team or the drivers.

On the plus side, both circuits are anomalies on the F1 calendar, and the upcoming tracks before the summer break in August are much closer in style to Spain, where Mercedes was clearly fastest.

That's not to say Hamilton will win the next five races easily, but Mercedes should be in a better position to take the fight to Red Bull at those rounds.

"We knew that these two tracks were probably the worst for us and I hope I'm right in that assessment," Wolff said. "Let's see how the European races go now.

"Clearly, these two were absolutely below the standard and expectations that we set ourselves.

"I think there are lots of things that are not running as smoothly as in the past few years. Operationally, it's not our A-game. We haven't found the sweet spot of the car through qualifying and the race, having a quick qualifying and race car.

"There's just so much that we need to improve that I just want to get on it right now in order to make sure that we are actually able to compete for this championship, because we can't continue losing points like we have done in Monaco and here.

"It's just not acceptable for all of us."

Everything is still to play for

On the basis of the six races so far, Mercedes stands to benefit more from the recent cancellations on the F1 calendar.

The Canadian Grand Prix, which was due to take place this weekend before being cancelled, shares many characteristics with Baku and may have resulted in similar problems for Mercedes, and Singapore, which is another low-grip street circuit, has also been cancelled later in the year.

The Australian Grand Prix -- which takes place on a low-grip, semi street circuit -- looks unlikely to go ahead, while the possible replacements, such as a second race at the Circuit of the Americas, the return of the Turkish Grand Prix at Istanbul Park or a rescheduled Chinese Grand Prix would likely play to Mercedes' strengths.

If that is the case, Red Bull's inability to fully capitalise on Mercedes' poor form at the last two races could be even more costly. But perhaps what's most frustrating for Verstappen is that his retirement in Baku came through no fault of his own.

The preliminary investigation after the race linked the 200mph tyre failure to debris on the track and ruled out any suggestion Red Bull had pushed the tyre beyond its operating life.

Yet whether it's due to bad luck or mistakes, dropped points will be just as painful at the end of the season if they make the difference between a title victory or second place in the standings.

"It's swings and roundabouts, isn't it?" Horner said on Sunday as he applied a positive spin on the result.

"Max could have come out of the weekend putting 10 or 11 points onto his championship lead if it had finished where it was with five laps to go, so he could have been 15 up.

"He's still four up. But at one point it was looking like he could be 21 down if Lewis would have nicked the victory.

"It's swings and roundabouts and I think, while the car's performance is so close, it's going to do that throughout this championship and that makes it so exciting to be a part of and motivates everybody in the team to a whole new energy level."

And that could still be the key. Just because there was a pattern of performance at certain circuits in the opening six races, doesn't mean it's set in stone for the entire year.

Red Bull and Mercedes have been incredibly closely matched at the majority of circuits this year and big mid-season upgrade packages are still expected around the time of the British Grand Prix. That, coupled with the brilliance of the two drivers behind the wheel of the two cars, will be the deciding factor in this championship, with Verstappen and Hamilton still split by just four points with three quarters of the season remaining.