It was time for some city circuit action on the Formula One calendar already as the teams headed to Baku for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix with Sebastian Vettel still leading the driver’s standings despite the disastrous Chinese GP result. This challenging circuit with its unforgiving sharp turns with solid walls either side is known to have produced some exciting results that tend to surprise just about everyone, most recently last year’s incident with Vettel and Hamilton that saw neither drivers on the podium.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo winning the Chinese GP and denying Mercedes a win in three races had already stirred the pot while giving the Aussie driver plenty of confidence returning to a track that he won at last year. The narrow sectors and tight corners are not all that make Baku a tricky circuit as the windy weather meant keeping the car stable through the fast sections and the super long straight was a tricky task for even the most experienced of drivers. The top three teams were running close throughout practice but Hamilton wasn’t on top in either of the three sessions with Ferrari turning up the pace in the final practice even with all the lock-ups and sliding into the run-off areas.
At the start of qualifying, Vettel started off wary to avoid trashing his Ferrari into a wall without having tyres up to temperature or being caught out by a tailwind and was doing just enough to make it to Q3. Meanwhile his teammate Kimi Raikkonen seemed to be quicker throughout and it seemed like Ferrari were going to lock out the front grid again. But it was not to be as the Finn had a major slide in the final sector of his final run in Q3 which put him further back to start sixth on the grid while Vettel took his third consecutive pole of the season. Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas qualified second and third fastest ahead of the Red Bulls with Ricciardo outpacing Max Verstappen. It was the best qualifying for Force India all season getting both cars into the top 10 ahead of direct competitors Renault while McLaren and Haas struggled for pace.
Safety Car deployment is a given in a circuit like Baku and straight into the first corner, the Force India cars were involved in a bit of a collision with the rest of the grid that sent a lot of debris all over the track. Vettel, Hamilton, Bottas and the Red Bulls got away clean enough but Raikkonen got caught up with Esteban Ocon. Fortunately, the Finn came away with some front wing damage and a ruined set of SuperSoft tyres while the Force India car lay broken after sliding into the wall. A couple of corners later, poor judgement from Sergey Sirotkin saw him brake hard that led to Fernando Alonso hitting the back of his Williams. The duo made it out of the corner but then they were three wide into the next straight with Alonso on the inside, Sirtokin in the middle getting taken out by Hulkenberg as he swiped across the track to defend his position. The Russian rookie was forced to retire his broken Williams while Alonso punctured both wheels and somehow managed to drag his two-wheeled McLaren into the pits where the crew did an impressive job of getting him all patched up to rejoin the track with the Safety Car already deployed. Kimi had pitted too for a new nose and switched to Soft compound tyres, the hardest option for the weekend, to last him until the end of the race.
At the start of Lap 5, the Safety Car was returning to the pits and all eyes were on Vettel and Hamilton, positions reversed as compared to last year, the Brit eager to pounce ahead of the German at the restart. But as one would expect from a 4-time F1 World Champion like Sebastian, he managed to wait out the restart till the last moment and was still able to get a good run away from Lewis. The Red Bulls were looking lairy with Verstappen in front of Ricciardo while Carlos Sainz had made the most of the initial chaos and was up in sixth after having started tenth followed by teammate Nico and Sergio Perez further back. The Renault cars were running on the quicker UltraSoft tyres and were able to overtake both Red Bulls but it wasn’t a worry as they would have to pit much sooner. Meanwhile, Verstappen was making life very difficult for his own teammate as he defended against Ricciardo in some very tense moments, barely ten laps into the race.
Up ahead things seem settled as Vettel was a comfortable number of seconds ahead of Lewis’ Mercedes and way ahead of Bottas. The action, however, was at the back as the four Renault engined cars fought for track position, but it was Hulkenberg who came out worse after clipping the wall and puncturing his tyre which forced him to retire from the race. Kimi meanwhile was making his way back up the pack and so was Alonso, but even more interesting was the Sauber of Charles Leclerc in seventh after having started 14th on the grid. Sainz was running in P4 when he had to come into the pits having made the most of his UltraSoft tyres while the Verstappen continued to keep Ricciardo at bay which also happened to put them both further behind the leaders, something that surely would have been eating at the mind of the more experienced driver who clearly had more pace.
The SuperSoft tyres seemed to be lasting fairly well but Hamilton was the first of the leaders to pit after he had a major lockup into Turn 1 on Lap 22of 51 which left major flat-spots on both his front tyres. The defending champion returns to the track on Soft tyres ahead of Verstappen while Vettel continues the blistering pace in the lead ahead of Bottas. The front order seems settled with Vettel and the two Mercedes while Max (P4) continues to hold up Daniel (P5) and the two come breathtakingly close way too often. It’s Lap 31 before Vettel finally pits to change to a set of Soft tyres but Bottas stays out setting the fastest lap times and waiting for another safety car situation to switch to UltraSoft tyres for the final stints. Kimi is up in P6 and slowly reeling in the Red Bulls with Perez, Sainz, Alonso and Leclerc behind the pack. Daniel finally got past Max a lap before coming into the pits on Lap 38 to switch to UltraSoft tyres but oddly he was slow on his out-lap and came out still behind when his teammate exited the pitlane. Here we go again.
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Not for long though. Ricciardo was in Verstappen’s slipstream with DRS open as the two hurtled down the long start-finish straight and then the inevitable happened. Daniel tried to feint to the outside before diving back down the inside while Max saw it coming and corrected course at the last moment to follow the inside line as well. But it was too late as Daniel had had enough of his cocky young teammate slowing him down and had committed to his line, thus ploughing into the back of Max’s car and taking them both out of the race on Lap 40. Safety car comes out and Bottas comes in for his UltraSoft set and then so do Vettel, Hamilton and Raikkonen which meant it would be a dash to the finish and Bottas would have the advantage of being in front. It is taking a fair amount of time for the debris to be cleared and Alonso is voicing his opinion over the team radio when the unexpected happened.
What with all drivers trying to keep their tyres warm and grippy, swerving around on a tight street circuit with gusts of wind playing havoc with downforce, you’d expect the world’s best racers to manage this without incident. Unfortunately, Romain Grosjean was not on the same page as he somehow managed to lose control of his rear end while trying to keep his tyres warm and crashed headfirst into the wall on a short straight. That’s a blooper real that will be immortalised in memes on the interweb but it is particularly disappointing for the Haas driver who was running in P5 despite his crash in qualifying causing him to start last on the grid. It didn’t help that his crash was an inconvenient location and further extended the Safety Car session by a few laps as a truck was called to clear his car from the track.
Meanwhile, Bottas was in the lead with the fastest freshest tyres, same as Vettel, Hamilton and Raikkonen and looked to be in a good position to take his first win of the 2018 season. He got a good restart after the Safety Car finally got off the track at the end of Lap 47 and Vettel made a lunge down the inside into Turn 1 but his cold tyres locked up and he nearly went off the track and suffered a significant flat-spot on his front left, allowing Hamilton and Raikkonen to slip through and soon Perez too. With barely three laps left to go, some of us made the unwise decision to assume that the top three were set and would finish as they are, but the spirit of the Baku circuit struck again.
On the next lap, race-leader Bottas drove over some debris down the start-finish straight and his rear-right gave out immediately, forcing him to retire which put Hamilton into the lead and Raikkonen was not close enough to be a threat with so few laps left to go, especially not when he too was struggling to find grip. And so it was Mercedes’ first win of the season with Lewis Hamilton taking the chequered flag in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix for the first time in his career and Kimi Raikkonen finished second after being involved in a minor collision at the start of the race. Sergio Perez did a fantastic job in the Force India car to make his way through the chaos and ahead of Vettel to finish third, his 8th podium finish in F1 and his first since Baku in 2016 which was known as the European Grand Prix that year. Sebastian Vettel finished an unexpected fourth with Sainz recording another best finish with Renault in fifth.
But the biggest surprise performer of the day was Charles Leclerc who managed to score his first ever points in Formula One in his debut season after finishing sixth in his Alfa Romeo Sauber, a brilliant display of temperament in an extremely chaotic grand prix. Fernando Alonso also managed a spectacular recovery by finishing seventh despite his double puncture at the start, helped by the retirement of the Red Bulls and the Haas of Romain Grosjean. Last year’s surprise podium finisher Lance Stroll continued to struggle for pace in the Williams but managed to finish eighth and earned his team much-needed points. Stoffel Vandoorne did another steady drive to get his McLaren across the line in the points again in ninth place ahead of Marcus Ericcson. However, due to a penalty for causing a collision at the start, he moved down to 11th giving Brendon Hartley the point and P10 finish. Valtteri Bottas has been classified P14 despite his DNF which means Kevin Magnussen was the last to cross the finish line in P13.
This has been an incredibly long and detailed race report but it’s hard to leave out the details that make the Baku GP offer the most unexpected results. Including the fact that though Lewis Hamilton did not enjoy winning this way, he is now leading the Driver’s Championship from Sebastian Vettel by four points. It’s too early to call with 17 races still to go but this will definitely give the defending champions a boost after their win-less hattrick at the start of the season. The action will resume in Spain at the Catalunya circuit in two weeks time so stay tuned and subscribe for more updates. Can Ferrari still outpace Mercedes on the classic European circuits, or will Red Bull finally get their act together as a team and focus on winning races?
Share your thoughts about the Azerbaijan GP in the comments below and let us know who you think was more at fault for the incident involving the Red Bull Racing Team.
Final Race Standings:
- L. Hamilton Mercedes – 1:43:44.291
- K. Raikkonen Ferrari +2.460
- S. Perez Force India Mercedes +4.024
- S. Vettel Ferrari +5.329
- C. Sainz Renault +7.515
- C. Leclerc Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +9.158
- F. Alsono McLaren Renault +10.931
- L. Stroll Williams Racing Mercedes +12.546
- S. Vandoorne McLaren Renault +14.152
- B. Hartley Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda +18.030
- M. Ericcson Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +18.512
- P. Gasly Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda +24.720
- K. Magnussen Haas Ferrari +40.663
- V. Bottas Mercedes DNF
- R. Grosjean Haas Ferrari DNF
- M. Verstappen Aston Martin Red Bull Racing DNF
- D. Ricciardo Aston Martin Red Bull Racing DNF
- N. Hulkenberg Renault DNF
- E. Ocon Force India Mercedes DNF
- S. Sirotkin Williams Racing Mercedes DNF