The Formula 1 World Championship’s fourth visit to Azerbaijan’s capital city Baku failed to reproduce the drama and unpredictability that has been its hallmark in previous years. Mercedes-AMG once again proved unstoppable, rolling on to a fourth consecutive 1-2 finish, breaking the Williams team’s hat-trick record of locking out the opening three Grands Prix of the season.
Valtteri Bottas, cruelly denied victory last year by a late puncture, vanquished any demons from 2017 with a poised and clinical drive ahead of teammate Lewis Hamilton. It was the Finn’s second win of the season following his victory at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, where his bonus point earned for fastest lap has given him a one-point advantage over Hamilton, a victory at the preceding Bahrain and Chinese races.
With Bottas finishing second to Hamilton at those two races, it is his strongest start to a season in his career and puts the Briton firmly on notice that he faces a very tough fight to defend his Drivers’ Championship title.
The pair had locked out the front row of the grid after Ferrari faltered on Saturday afternoon, with a curious decision to run Charles Leclerc on the slower Medium compound tyres perhaps a contributor to the Monégasque youngster binning his SF90 in the barriers at Turn 8. He had dominated practice and looked favourite to win pole, but instead qualified tenth-fastest.
Tenth became eighth on the grid thanks to penalties for the Alfa Romeos of Antonio Giovinazzi (new power unit elements) and Kimi Räikkönen (front wing non-compliance). With a fresh set of Medium tyres on which to start the race, he could run a long opening stint while those around pitted early to get rid of their Soft tyres.
Bottas and Hamilton made even getaways from the front row of the grid and ran side-by-side through the first two corners. It was white-knuckle stuff as neither wanted to give ground, but a better exit from Turn 2 allowed Bottas to slip ahead.
The pair quickly pulled clear of Leclerc’s teammate Sebastian Vettel, with Racing Point’s Sergio Pérez briefly holding fourth place ahead of Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen.
The top-three all pitted early on to make their switch to the Medium tyres, leaving Leclerc who – thanks to the pit stops of his rivals and some DRS-assisted overtaking moves – in the race lead. He needed to run long enough to ensure that his Soft tyres would be good enough to see him to the chequered flag after he eventually pitted.
Steadily the Bottas-Hamilton-Vettel-Verstappen train reeled him in, with the gap between the quartet ebbing and flowing thanks to backmarkers and DRS. The running order never changed and there was a sense of inevitability as they hauled Leclerc in.
Ferrari eventually called him into the pits – perhaps too late, some might argue – and once back on track he couldn’t unlock the speed he needed from his tyres. A Safety Car would bunch the field up but never eventuated; one of the race’s few moments of drama came with a clumsy incident between former teammates Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat.
Ricciardo, whose Renault had been handling terribly all weekend, made a rather desperate move up the inside of Kvyat’s Toro Rosso at Turn 3, but the Australian locked up and slid down the escape road. Kvyat was forced off too, but then found the side of his car being hit by the Renault as Ricciardo reversed back up the escape road, oblivious to the Russian driver’s presence. Both would retire and Ricciardo would get a three-place grid penalty for the next Grand Prix in Spain.
With Leclerc unable to mount a challenge on the leading four, he made a second pit stop with a few laps to go to have a crack at snatching the bonus point for fastest lap on a fresh set of Soft tyres. The ploy worked, but a fifth place is hardly what he wanted or Ferrari expected this weekend.
Bottas was briefly threatened by Hamilton in the final laps but managed the race to the chequered flag, winning by 1.5 seconds.
“It means a lot to win,” he said after the race. “It’s incredible the level we’re performing at as a team. that’s why I was saying to the guys I’m so proud to be part of that. We’re all performing really, really well. It’s only my fifth win and it feels good and payback from last year.”
Vettel again finished in third place, slipping to 35 points behind Bottas in the Drivers’ Championship standings. At a race where Ferrari brought a wealth of upgrades and many had predicted they would win, it was another bitter pill for the Scuderia.
Mercedes will bring its own upgrade package to Spain’s Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, where Ferrari had been the benchmark team in February’s pre-season testing. They will need to recapture that form, and urgently.
“It’s boring, isn’t it?” Vettel quipped, when asked about Mercedes’ current dominance. “We have to work harder, work better, they are doing phenomenally well. I know we can improve, I think we have a good car we just haven’t managed yet to put it where it belongs. I am sure it is going to turn around.”
Verstappen finished a strong fourth for Red Bull Racing, with Honda’s upgraded ‘Spec 2’ engine delivering the team an extra dose of straight line speed complement what is clearly a strong chassis. The Dutchman’s teammate Pierre Gasly, who started from the pit lane, mirrored Leclerc’s strategy and looked on course for a top-six finish until his driveshaft packed it in.
Sergio Pérez claimed the ‘best of the rest’ mantle by finishing sixth in his Racing Point, with the Silverstone team having a double celebration with teammate Lance Stroll securing ninth place. Between them were the two McLaren Renaults of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Lando Norris, delivering the Woking squad its first two-car points’ result of the season.
Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Räikkönen claimed the final point for tenth place, having also started from the pit lane.
|FORMULA 1 SOCAR AZERBAIJAN GRAND PRIX 2019 – FINAL CLASSIFICATION (51 LAPS)|
|Driver||Team / Entry||Laps||Result||Pts|
|1.||Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes-AMG Motorsport W10||51||1:31:52.942||18|
|2.||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes-AMG Motorsport W10||51||+ 1.524||25|
|3.||Sebastian Vettel||Scuderia Ferrari SF90||51||+ 11.739||15|
|4.||Max Verstappen||Red Bull Racing RB15||51||+ 17.493||12|
|5.||Charles Leclerc||Scuderia Ferrari SF90||51||+ 1:09.107||11|
|6.||Sergio Pérez||Racing Point F1 Team RP19||51||+ 1:16.416||8|
|7.||Carlos Sainz Jr.||McLaren F1 Team MCL34||51||+ 1:23.826||6|
|8.||Lando Norris||McLaren F1 Team MCL34||51||+ 1:40.268||4|
|9.||Lance Stroll||Racing Point F1 Team RP19||51||+ 1:43.816||2|
|10.||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo Racing C38||50||1 lap behind||1|
|11.||Alexander Albon||Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda STR14||50||1 lap behind|
|12.||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo Racing C38||50||1 lap behind|
|13.||Kevin Magnussen||Haas F1 Team VF-19||50||1 lap behind|
|14.||Nico Hülkenberg||Renault F1 Team RS19||50||1 lap behind|
|15.||George Russell||ROKiT Williams Racing FW42||49||2 lap behind|
|16.||Robert Kubica||ROKiT Williams Racing FW42||49||2 laps behind|
|Not Classified||Team / Entry||Laps||Reason|
|DNF.||Pierre Gasly||Red Bull Racing RB15||38||Driveshaft|
|DNF.||Romain Grosjean||Haas F1 Team VF-19||38||Brakes|
|DNF.||Daniil Kvyat||Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda STR14||33||Collision|
|DNF.||Daniel Ricciardo||Renault F1 Team RS19||31||Collision|
Points are awarded to the top 10 classified finishers on a 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 scale.
Charles Leclerc is awarded an additional 1 championship point for posting the fastest lap of the race by a points’ finisher.
- Daniel Ricciardo will serve a three-place grid penalty at the Spanish Grand Prix for causing an avoidable collision with Daniil Kvyat.
Images via Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport