Lewis Hamilton will arrive in Azerbaijan with a six-point lead over Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas at the summit of Formula One‘s standings.
The world champion, 34, is bidding to win the race in Baku for a second time and secure his third victory in as many grands prix this season.
Here, Press Association Sport dissects the key talking points ahead of Sunday’s race.
Championship leader keen to improve
Hamilton may be in the title box seat after establishing a commanding 31-point advantage over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, but the five-time world champion heads to Azerbaijan demanding improvement.
Indeed, the Baku street circuit has not always been a happy hunting ground for the Mercedes star. He was a fortuitous victor last season, after Bottas suffered a late puncture. He crashed in qualifying in 2016, before a loose headrest derailed his chances a year later.
Hamilton, who spent last weekend at the Coachella music festival, said: “It’s a great track, but one that I have struggled a little bit at. I am going there with the mindset that I have got to try and improve on my previous performances.”
Will Leclerc be asked to play second fiddle again?
Hamilton’s commanding victory at the last race in China was rather overshadowed by Ferrari’s team orders. For the third successive race, Charles Leclerc was subjected to an instruction.
In Australia and Bahrain, he was told not to attack Vettel. Then, in China, he was ushered aside for the German. Ferrari are throwing their support behind the four-time champion, but could they be forced to reconsider their strategy if Leclerc is faster than Vettel this weekend?
Could new Honda engine bring Red Bull into play?
Max Verstappen has looked handy in his Red Bull this season, without really threatening to win. But both the Dutchman and his Red Bull team will hope Honda’s brand new engine, in place for this weekend, will provide the power boost required to tackle Mercedes and Ferrari at Baku’s high-speed circuit.
Baku bidding for thrilling hat-trick
Eyebrows were raised when Bernie Ecclestone took Formula One to Azerbaijan in 2016. Yet, the combination of its long straights, slow corners, and narrow track, has ensured the unique street circuit has quickly become a firm favourite.
Hamilton and Vettel banged wheels two years ago as Ricciardo took the chequered flag. Last year, Ricciardo and Verstappen dramatically collided at 220mph. What drama lies in store this weekend?
Raikkonen to spring a surprise
And on that note, now could be the time to place a wager on an unlikely top-three finisher. Since 2016, Baku is the only race that a driver from outside the big three – Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull – has finished on the podium.
Sergio Perez (Force India – now called Racing Point F1) has placed third on two occasions (2016 and 2018), while Lance Stroll secured an unlikely third for Williams in 2017. Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen is 50/1 to finish on the podium on Sunday. You heard it here first.
Three races into the new season and already Lewis Hamilton has clinched two wins.
The Briton is hunting a sixth world title this year, which would take him just one behind the legendary Michael Schumacher.
After securing a fifth world crown with ease last season, the Stevenage man has enjoyed a strong start to the year and still only looks like he is operating in second gear.
In Bahrain, he took a lucky victory after engine trouble in the dying stages denied Charles Leclerc a first F1 win, and last weekend in China, he delivered a crushing triumph after beating team-mate Valtteri Bottas with a quicker start.
Although it’s still early days in the championship, here’s our three reasons why Hamilton’s charge to a sixth world championship won’t be a procession.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team-mate has proven he is refusing to play a bit part in the title fight by sealing a win in Australia and securing podiums in Bahrain and China.
Fastest all weekend in Shanghai, the Finn secured pole, but had a poor start and had to settle for second behind the Briton.
Still, the 29-year-old has looked a different driver to the one that struggled for large parts of the 2018 season and could really have a crucial say in this year’s championship.
Out of contract in December, the former Williams man has nothing to lose. He just needs to go out and push hard in every race, getting the best out of his vast potential.
With development driver Esteban Ocon in the paddock and probably set to replace him at the season’s end, a few wins and a consistent run of podiums is still not going to guarantee him an extension for another two years.
But a strong campaign, with more bite on race weekends, could put Hamilton under pressure and stretch the title race until the depths of the year.
Ferrari yet to show full hand?
Pre-season testing suggested that Ferrari had the quicker car, but that has not translated into victories over the first three races.
In Bahrain, Leclerc was on the cusp of clinching a maiden victory but an engine problem with nine laps remaining saw him drop down to third.
Still, after showing their speed in the Gulf, they struggled in China with Vettel finishing third and Leclerc in fifth.
The straight-line speed of the car is impressive and can really threaten Hamilton and the Mercedes, but it’s slowness on the corners seems to be affecting their competitiveness.
Having been more than a decade since the Italian marque tasted world championship success, with Kimi Raikkonen back in 2007, the pressure for the Prancing Horse to perform has never been higher.
The Scuderia have some work to do, with some internal issues like the aerodynamic window, but it would be harsh to count them out this early, especially with 18 races remaining.
Watch this space.
Verstappen to improve as season progresses
Max Verstappen has been touted as a future world champion for three years now, and could really challenge Hamilton at the top of the standings if Red Bull can improve the car as the season develops.
After splitting with French manufacturer Renault, Red Bull looked to have made significant strides with the new Honda engine during pre-season testing.
Verstappen wants to race at the front, but even with the positive developments in the off-season, more work needs to be done to get to know the engine better and this takes time.
It’ll be a work in progress for the Red Bull. But strategy wise, they have certainly looked sharp in both Bahrain and China.
In the three races so far, Verstappen has finished third, fourth and fourth – and has been miles ahead of team-mate Pierre Gasly.
If Christian Horner and his team can deliver as the season progresses, the aggressive and confident 21-year-old should be in the mix to secure podiums in most races.
Ferrari have stood by their decision to hand Sebastian Vettel preferential treatment in Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix.
As Lewis Hamilton moved into the lead of the championship for the first time this season, by virtue of winning Formula One’s 1,000th race, Charles Leclerc found himself under instruction to relinquish third place to his more experienced team-mate.
Leclerc, in just his third outing for Ferrari, had been reluctant to move aside for Vettel, and later dropped behind Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, too, after the Dutchman stole a march with an early stop for new tyres.
The Monegasque, who has now been issued a team order by Ferrari at each of the opening three rounds, admitted he was frustrated with the decision and wanted an explanation.
But Mattia Binotto, the rookie team principal for Ferrari, insisted they delivered the correct call in favouring Vettel, the four-time world champion and winner of 52 grands prix.
“We made the right choice,” he said.
“It was not easy to give the order, and I thank Charles for the way he behaved and showing he is a good team player.
“We tried everything we could not to lose time on the Mercedes cars ahead and that was among the only chance we got at the time. So, we tried. It didn’t work. It was right to give Seb that chance.”
Hamilton finished ahead of Valtteri Bottas as Mercedes secured a hat-trick of one-two finishes from the opening three rounds.
The Englishman, a six-time winner in Shanghai, is already 31 points clear of Vettel in the championship as he chases a sixth title.
Leclerc is a point further back.
“We definitely didn’t expect to have three one-twos, but I’m proud to have been part of the work that everyone has done and to be a part of these results,” said Hamilton as he celebrated his 75th career victory from 232 starts.
Hamilton, who is now just 16 wins shy of Michael Schumacher’s win record, jumped pole-sitter Bottas with a fine getaway.
“The start was where I made the difference,” he added. “After that it’s history.”
Provided by Press Association Sport