Williams is not under the illusion it has made as much progress as its Azerbaijan Grand Prix qualifying performance suggests, according to chief technical officer Paddy Lowe.
Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin were 11th and 12th fastest in qualifying and will both move up a position on the grid thanks to Nico Hulkenberg’s five-place gearbox penalty, with the Canadian ending up just 0.103s away from getting a Williams into Q3 for the first time in 2018.
Stroll’s time was 2.087s off Sebastian Vettel’s pole position time, with the team’s previous best performance this season a deficit of 2.967s in China.
But Lowe warned that as well as Williams taking a step, circuit characteristics have contributed to its improvement and that it does not represent a transformation in the team’s form.
“It’s great morale for the team to get two cars into the top of Q2 and almost into Q3 and underneath that there are some incremental improvements we’ve made in all sorts of areas, whether to the car or operationally,” said Lowe when asked about the step forward by Motorsport.com.
“But on the other hand, this circuit suits our car well, it was the same last year. We’re not under the illusion that we’ve made this much progress in terms of overall performance.”
Sirotkin, who made a mistake in the final corner on his final Q2 lap thanks to a gust of wind and believed he could have gone quicker, suggested the improvement was partly down to improvements made and partly down to the track configuration.
The majority of the corners at the Baku circuit are short, slow speed turns that do not expose the weaknesses of the car as much as those on an orthodox circuit might.
“We saw in China we were once P10 in practice, now we have [been] a couple of times in the top 10,” said Sirotkin. “It’s quite obvious that we are step by step coming to where we want to be.
“It’s not all up to pure progress we made with the car; half is obviously the improvement and the understanding with the car and the other half is the track. It’s still not the best track for us, but it probably has less painful corners for us than some other tracks should have, and some of our weaknesses are less visible on this track.”
Lowe does not believe the Mercedes-powered customer teams being able to use the most potent modes of the engine explains Williams's step forward. Force India’s Otmar Szafnauer suggested earlier in the weekend this could be worth up to a tenth of a second in qualifying.
“I think people will talk a lot about that but if that was a factor then you would see the same differentials emerge with the top three teams and you would see Mercedes massively quicker at this race compared to the other two,” said Lowe. “I don’t believe it’s the explanation.”