The thrills and spills of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix would have made many a Hollywood scriptwriter blush.
The streets of Baku were once again the stage for a truly dramatic Formula 1 race, where few cool heads and more than just a little bit of luck prevailed to deliver Lewis Hamilton an unexpected victory and the lead in the Drivers’ Championship standings.
The Englishman inherited first place with two laps to go when Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, who had craftily gained the lead with a late pit stop during a Safety Car period, suffered a spectacular right-rear tyre failure. The Finn was disconsolate, slouched behind the barriers as the realisation sunk in that a certain and richly deserved win had slipped through his fingers.
Sportingly, Hamilton delayed his post-race media commitments and made a beeline for the Mercedes garage to console his teammate.
While a marked departure from his relationships with former teammates Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosberg, was the sort of gesture that a few of the other teams could learn from. More on Red Bull Racing’s implosion later…
Hamilton snatched the championship lead and now holds a four-point margin in the standings by finishing ahead of his rival Sebastian Vettel, who fell to fourth after a rash lunge on the leaders at the final Safety Car restart.
The German had led the race from the off from pole position and avoided the many dramas behind him, but this time Ferrari found itself outfumbled with Mercedes’ decision to delay Bottas’ sole pit stop for an inevitable late-race Safety Car.
Three of the last four Grands Prix have hinged on the interruption of a Safety Car. Hamilton lost out at the Australian Grand Prix when Ferrari was able to get Vettel in front, and in China it was Daniel Ricciardo who profited – admittedly with more than a little skill on his part as well – to charge through the field on a set of fresher tyres.
Hamilton hadn’t been on the pace nor looked a likely race-winner all weekend, but fortune swings both ways and he was quick to acknowledge that it was his turn to profit.
Bottas’ late puncture was the final climax in a thrilling series of incidents and accidents. His move to the front of the field came by dint of the Safety Car being called out after Red Bull Racing suffered its own implosion when Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen collided on the approach to Turn 1.
Since its fiery Vettel-Webber days, Red Bull Racing has adopted a firm policy of allowing its drivers to race. The pair, both struggling with battery charge issues that saw them quickly fall out of contention for victory, waged a fierce wheel-to-wheel battle from the off.
Ricciardo made repeated attempts to pass his younger teammate but found each move thwarted by Verstappen’s bullish defence. They once rubbed wheels at the exit of Turn 1 and on more than one occasion came within inches of having each other off.
The end result – two badly damaged cars stranded in the Turn 1 run-off was as tragic as it was predictable. Having tried repeatedly to pass Verstappen around the outside of the left-hander as the Dutch youngster doggedly held the inside line for the corner, Ricciardo tried to sell him a dummy by feinting to the outside.
Verstappen jinked right to cover and then moved back to the left – against the rules – into the space where Ricciardo had committed he would brake. The Australian hit the rear of his teammate’s RB14, propelling both haplessly into retirement.
The Stewards summoned both to a post-race hearing and ruled each was at fault, issuing them with reprimands.
Team Principal Christian Horner was more forthright in the team briefing afterwards and gave this eloquent summary: “We are not apportioning blame, they are both to blame. They have been reminded that they are part of a team, they are highly paid individuals and have to act with the team’s interests at heart, not just their own. That message was delivered very clearly.”
The lengthy Safety Car gave Bottas – the last of the frontrunners not to pit – the opportunity to change onto Ultrasoft tyres and retain his lead over Vettel.
The full-course caution was extended when Romain Grosjean inexplicably crashed his Haas Ferrari on Lap 43 through the Turn 14 kink while trying to warm his tyres. The red-faced Frenchman later blamed an accidental flick of a steering wheel switch for his VF-18 suddenly spearing into the wall.
The race was one when almost every team would admit at least one of its drivers threw away the chance of points’ finishes, or at least a better result.
Nico Hülkenberg was one such culprit for Renault, crashing his car early on after doing the hard work with teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. to outgun and outrun the Red Bulls in the opening laps. The RS18 cars looked really hooked up in the opening laps on Ultrasoft tyres, but in the end the team walked away with 10 points for Carlos Sainz Jr.’s fifth place.
Completing the podium was Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen and Force India’s Sergio Pérez, who both put in sterling drives.
Räikkönen found himself with a damaged front wing after the second Force India of Esteban Ocon chopped across his nose at Turn 3, leading to the immediate retirement of the Frenchman as he was turfed into the barriers. The Ferrari driver pitted at the end of the opening lap and switched to the Soft compound Pirelli tyres to try and run the remaining race distance without a stop and bring himself back into the mix.
Ocon was swiftly joined by Williams’ Sergey Sirotkin. The rookie was rather too eager to make up places after the start and after brushing Hülkenberg exiting Turn 2, he banged wheels with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso as he found himself squeezed between the two of them. A furious Alonso limped back to the pits with both right tyres punctured – the Spaniard would soldier on to finish a creditable seventh – but Sirotkin was out with broken suspension.
One of the few drivers to keep out of trouble all race was Sauber rookie Charles Leclerc, who drove with a maturity his rivals could have learned from to finish a superb sixth and claim his first points finish of his Formula 1 career.
Behind seventh-placed Alonso, Lance Stroll finished eighth to give the Williams team its first points of the season ahead of Alonso’s teammate Stoffel Vandoorne. Brendon Hartley closed out the points placings in tenth.
Images via Formula1.com and Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team