Formula 1 returned to the streets of Baku, Azerbaijan last weekend; one of the most exciting of the new races added to the calendar in recent years. The race in 2017 was arguably the most chaotic of that season, with Sebastian Vettel turning into and hitting Lewis Hamilton behind the safety car. The race in 2018 was equally enthralling, with the Red Bulls colliding with one another, taking both cars out of the race. The stage was set for 2019 and – as anticipated – events unfolded with a bang at First Practice.
Merely 10 minutes after the practice session commenced, it was red flagged by Race Control after a bizarre incident. Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari opened proceedings, appearing to drive over and loosen one of the track’s 320 manhole covers. George Russell’s Williams was in pursuit of Charles and, as he reached the same section of the track, the edge of the manhole cover struck the underside of the Williams, tearing apart the floorplate, destroying the chassis and shutting down the engine. It was rotten luck for Williams, who have faced a challenging start to the season. In even stranger fashion, the recovery truck sent out to collect the stricken Williams then crashed into the underside of one of the bridges over the street circuit. The result: a cancelled session with each of the 320 manhole covers requiring inspection and possible rectification, and a bridge requiring a structural assessment.
Whilst an inconvenience for most teams, the incident carried even more frustration for Williams. The destruction to their car meant a chassis replacement was required. Regulation 25 of the FIA 2019 F1 Sporting Regulations requires each competitor to carry out initial scrutineering of their cars, and to submit the duly completed declaration no later than 18 hours before the start of First Practice. The FIA Technical Delegate is then required to confirm that the report has been fully and correctly completed. Competitors who fail to do so, or who fail to keep to the deadlines, are not permitted to take part in the event. For any competitor whose car has a change of a survival cell after initial scrutineering, they must complete a new declaration for approval by the FIA Technical Delegate, and any such car may not be used until the following day. For George Russell and Williams, this meant their Friday practice was over, restricting George to one outing before qualifying on Saturday.
The incident highlights the dangers of street-circuit racing, and this is not the first time such an incident has happened. Williams encountered similar bad luck at the same race in Baku in 2016, when then Williams driver Valteri Bottas struck a drain cover, causing extensive damage to his car and ending his practice session.
For all of the other drivers the race weekend continued. However, at Williams, the mechanics bedded in for a lengthy night of repairs, with senior management assessing what is likely to be an expensive insurance claim.