Baku’s first F1 race was a lifeless encounter but last year it provided the most dramatic and unpredictable race of the season.
Which of these was a true reflection of what we can expect of F1’s newest circuit? Encouragingly it seems to be the latter. For while Sunday’s race was not exactly a vintage sporting contest, it wasn’t short on spectacle either.
As in China, a genuinely compelling fight broke out between Ferrari and Mercedes, which was skewed by the appearance of the Safety Car. And once again it was Bottas, not Hamilton, who took the fight to the red cars.
Of the two, Hamilton delivered the better qualifying lap. He started alongside Sebastian Vettel, who claimed pole position for the third race in a row.
(Reflect on that statistic for a moment: Mercedes only missed three pole positions in the whole of 2014, 2015 and 2016 combined. Now they’ve missed three in as many races. They may have won this one but their days of dominance really are over.)
Once the race settled down after the inevitable post-first-lap Safety Car, Vettel drew away from Hamilton quite easily. Then, as in China, towards the end of the stint the Mercedes has stronger. Hamilton closed in.
But it was a viciously windy day, and on lap 22 Hamilton, leaving little margin as he braked for turn one, was caught out when a helpful headwind because an unhelpful tailwind. He locked up, skidded wide, and his deficit to Vettel more than double to eight seconds.
Around the time Hamilton had received radio messages telling him to first engage then cancel a chassis setting. “Something’s happened, I don’t know what,” he said on the radio. After going off a frustrated Hamilton told race engineer Peter Bonnington: “Don’t mess with me with the switch changes, OK.”
Hamilton pitted after the error which left him seemingly out of the picture. Ferrari advised Vettel that with the threat from Hamilton gone he could extend his first stint. Bottas was 12 second behind, and had only trimmed that to nine when Vettel came in on lap 30.
2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix in picturesBottas, his super-softs still working quite nicely, pressed on. Those like Hamilton and Vettel who had pitted for the harder soft compound tyres were taking time to make their new tyres work on the cool, gripless track (unusually, its surface had become smoother since the previous race). As late as lap 37, Bottas was still lapping seven-tenths quicker than Vettel. He was coming into contention for the victory.
Then the Safety Car came out, and Bottas was able to make his pit stop and get out of the pits in front of Vettel in much the same way the Ferrari driver had won in Australia. The only difference was that Ferrari, realising they wouldn’t beat Bottas out, brought Vettel in for fresh tyres too.
Fortune ultimately denied Bottas the win. But without the Safety Car could he have won the race by fitting a set of ultra-softs then chasing down Vettel? There’s little useful data from the end of the race, which makes it hard to predict if his pace would have been strong enough. But recall how he took second place off Lance Stroll at the end of last year’s race, and imagine if that had been on Vettel for the win…
Instead Bottas seemingly had the win in his pocket. And when Vettel threw his car off at turn one, Mercedes were on course for a one-two finish. But as Bottas came around to lead the 48th lap, he struck an unseen piece of debris and suffered a race-ending puncture.
That was the third race in a row Bottas could or should have won. The win would have put him in the thick of the title fight with Hamilton and Vettel, which as he showed last year is exactly where you want to be when you have a contract to negotiate. No wonder he chose to commiserate with, in his words, 10 pints of beer.
Magnussen’s ghastly move
Gasly fumed at MagnussenOne of his rivals would have been forgiven for requesting something stronger. Pierre Gasly had three hair-raising run-ins with rivals in as many days and none of them was his fault.
The same couldn’t be said for Kevin Magnussen. He and Gasly clashed twice, one during practice, and again at the end of the race, the latter leaving Gasly fuming. During the final restart Magnussen either was unaware Gasly was trying to overtake him as the pair accelerated to top speed, or tried to intimidate his rival by putting him into a wall.
The incident had the hallmarks of Michael Schumacher’s notorious squeeze on Rubens Barrichello at the Hungaroring a few races back, save for the fact Magnussen could at least claim to be on the racing line. But while Schumacher copped a 10-place grid penalty for that move, Magnussen received a worthless 10-second time penalty, plus two penalty points on his licence. The latter rubber-stamps his reputation as F1’s bad boy, as with eight penalty points he now has more than anyone else and is four away from a one-race ban.
Between this and a dire weekend for Romain Grosjean which ended with a crash behind the Safety Car, Haas again failed to capitalise on a fundamentally quick car: they’ve only scored more than one point with it in one of the races so far.
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Also point-less were Red Bull, who provided the race’s biggest talking point when Daniel Ricciardo rammed Max Verstappen into the turn one run-off area, from which they never reappeared. The biggest surprise about this collision was that it didn’t happen much sooner, as the pair spent much of the race fighting each other hard.
At times it seemed there was a touch more vigour than usual in Verstappen’s characteristically robust defensive moves. Notably when, at the exit of turn one, he swept wide into the side of Ricciado, provoking wheel-to-wheel contact.
The pair had fought hard all racePerhaps he was trying to reassert himself over the team mate who took the victory Verstappen squandered in Shanghai. Perhaps he was trying to demonstrate his resolve to ignore the growing criticism of his aggressive approach. Just as when he told the media before the race: “You learn from your mistakes but that doesn’t mean you have to drive slower, it actually means you have to drive faster.”
But it took two drivers to have this crash. Ricciardo had ample reason to feel frustrated as he successfully passed his team mate once, then fell behind again when he got unlucky in traffic after his pit stop.
Tellingly, Ricciardo admitted afterwards he’d been frustrated with himself for leaving the door open at turn two during the first restart which allowed Verstappen to get ahead of him to begin with. Ricciardo was making a bid for the inside line when the pair collided.
True, Verstappen made two moves to defend his position, which is a clear violation. But Ricciardo’s bid for the inside line looked optimistic. The verdict from the stewards and the team that both were responsible was probably fair.
Verstappen’s to-the-limit defending and Ricciardo’s bravura late braking are part of what make them heroic drivers. On this occasion both took it a bit too far and paid the price for it.
As, of course, did their team, a point Christian Horner rammed home to both of them afterwards. The RB14 appears to be the best car they’ve produced in the V6 hybrid turbo era, yet four races into 2018 they have fewer points than they had at this stage in each of the last two seasons.
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Perez seized his opportunityThe demise of the Red Bulls presented the midfield teams with a big opportunity to score points. Force India, enjoying their best weekend of the year so far at a track where they have always excelled, always should have been the ones to capitalise.
But that didn’t look that like happening at the end of lap one. Esteban Ocon indicated he learned little from last year’s race as he took himself out by needlessly closing the door on Kimi Raikkonen at turn two. Meanwhile Sergio Perez had been rammed from behind by Sergey Sirotkin and limped in for repairs on lap two.
Perez owed his eventual third place to a fair slice of luck. But he also had to hold his own on super-soft tyres against quicker rivals on ultra-softs. It would have been easy to lose his third place to a recovering Vettel on the final tour, but Perez turned his quickest lap of the race.
Further back – but not much further – Charles Leclerc had a coming-of-age performance for Sauber, beginning with a fine qualifying effort which put him 13th on the grid. His route to sixth place included passes on Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz Jnr – though the Renault driver later reversed the move.
At the track where he overcame personal tragedy to demolish the F2 field last year, Leclerc produced what will surely be the first of many tremendous F1 drives. But a race he won’t forget was one Bottas won’t want to remember.
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Quotes: Dieter Rencken