Chaotic Baku a weekend of highs and lows for Evans
Mitch Evans was on course to emulate his solid Monaco results this weekend despite struggling for pace in Baku. The 22-year old finished fifth in race one and was running fourth in race two until an ill-managed safety car restart put an end to his sprint race on lap 12.
The Pertamina Campos Racing driver admitted he struggled with pace at the inaugural event at Baku City Circuit in Azerbaijan, but that managing the slippery surface of the newly laid asphalt was something all the teams had to contend with. After limited running during Friday’s practice session, qualifying – which was postponed for five hours due to track safety issues – saw some of the expected GP2 front-runners out of position. Evans’ #7 Dallara was only able to manage 15th, 1.5seconds off the pole-sitter, rookie Antonio Giovinazzi’s, time. "There was three seconds covering the whole field which is unusual, lots of people were finding it a challenge,” said Mitch.
Saturday’s feature race got off to a dramatic start when Giovinazzi had a poor getaway from the front causing Sergey Sirotkin to drop back down the pack just as Norman Nato spun at the first corner. Chaos ensued and both DAMS and both Carlin cars ended up in the barriers alongside the PREMA Racing machine of Pierre Gasly. Mitch had no choice but to take avoiding action by going down the escape road. He managed to rejoin the track in 17th at the rear of the field and quickly made his way back up to 15th at the restart on lap three.
Mitch rapidly progressed up the field, passing his teammate on lap six and was in 11th before the second safety car was deployed when Trident’s Philo Paz Armand found the wall. Most teams, including Campos, took the opportunity to pit their drivers for the medium compound tyres.
The Aucklander rejoined the field in the same position and took advantage of the lap eight restart to claim two further places. When Arthur Pic and Monaco winner Artem Markelov collided causing safety car period number three, Mitch was elevated to eighth ahead of Sirotkin; the ever-shrinking field down to 14 cars.
The third restart of the race meant further lead changes between the battling Nobuharu Matsushita and Raffaele Marciello. Sirotkin took advantage of the bunching field to go around the outside of Evans, who tried to re-claim the place but couldn’t make the move stick while he struggled with tyre management. Nabil Jeffri, who had dropped down during the restart to find himself ahead of Mitch, had worse tyre issues and became the head of a slow train. Mitch attempted to find a way past, eventually doing so on lap 15, right before the Malaysian driver ran out of rubber and found the escape road, becoming the ninth casualty of the race.
Mitch took advantage of having some clear air in front of him to do his fastest lap of the race on lap 17 and two laps later found Luca Ghiotto, whose tyres had gone, and passed him for sixth. At the rear of the field however, the two Racing Engineering teammates came together and Norman Nato came off second best, losing a wheel and bringing out the fourth and final safety car period which seemingly continued until well after the offending car and debris was cleared.
The twelve remaining runners eventually went racing again with two minutes remaining, but perhaps inevitably by this point, the restart claimed further cars - this time in the shape of Brit Jordan King, and Swede Jimmy Eriksson. Such was the rate of attrition that if the ten cars left in the race could stay on track for the final lap, they would all score points.
Mitch was all over the back of Oliver Rowland heading to the line, but wasn’t able to pass and so, from 15th on the grid and after managing to keep his nose clean throughout the frenetic race, he took a well deserved fifth place. Giovinazzi made up for his poor start and became the fifth different winner from five races.
The sprint race on Sunday wasn’t as dramatic, but still featured two safety car periods which were notable for their poor management by race leader Matsushita, earning him a post-race suspension for the next round.
Mitch lined up fourth on the grid and got away well, unlike his teammate who started in second and immediately dropped down to fourth. Evans was soon being held up by poleman Daniël de Jong, who had a terrible start, but tyre degradation caught up with him and the Kiwi found himself dropping back into the clutches of first Rowland and then Sirotkin, and he was fifth by lap seven.
King, Eriksson and Canamasas crashed on lap eight and when leader Matsushita misjudged the restart on lap ten - nearly overtaking the safety car and braking hard - the resultant bunching of the pack caused another casualty in the form of Armand. Despite his balance and tyre issues, Mitch was up to fourth when the second safety car was deployed for Armand’s stranded Trident. His race ended one lap later however, when more erratic driving from Matsushita as the safety car went in caused half the field to brake heavily catching those behind by surprise, including Gustav Malja, who ran into the back of the #7 car. Mitch limped back to the pits but was forced to retire. Giovinazzi eventually took the flag to claim a clean-sweep in Baku.
"I’ve never seen that before.” Said Mitch of Matsushita’s race two restarts. "I got collected by Malja and my rear wing broke in the end.
"I was disappointed to retire, but unfortunately wasn’t in a position to fight for the win. My rear tyres were going off from lap two onwards which was a real surprise as we made a change to make them last longer than they did in race one. The degradation came on that early so it was a shame as were in a good position to do well [from fourth].
"Our race one pace wasn’t bad – it wasn’t brilliant, but solid. I got a lot of help with the retirements, but I kept my nose clean. I ended up going down the escape route on the first lap to avoid an incident which put me at the back of the field but otherwise I would have ended up in the wall.
"We do have a lot of work to do, but I’m hoping the problems we’ve had with balance and tyre degradation this weekend are due to being at a brand new circuit and we’ll be able to build on the positive steps we made in Monaco at the next rounds.”