Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes finally took their first victory of the season in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix around the streets of Baku, yet it was one snatched first from Sebastian Vettel, in the Ferrari, and then Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton’s Mercedes team mate.
This was, in short, a race that had it all.
Vettel, starting from pole position again, got his usual good start to lead into turn one, with the pack sorting themselves out behind him. The two Mercedes – Hamilton leading Bottas – lined up behind him, and Kimi Raikkonen in the other Ferrari found himself in a tight sport with Esteban Ocon, who had qualified very well in the Force India. The two touched, and with Ocon’s pink car buried in the barrier, the Safety Car was duly deployed.
A little further back and Sergey Sirotkin’s Williams collided with the McLaren of Fernando Alonso, leaving the increasingly frustrated Spaniard limping to the pits with damage, and the Russian out on the spot.
Red Bull Battle
After the restart, it became immediately clear there were not team orders in the Red Bull camp. Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen were at it hard from now on, with attempted and actual passes taking place on a regular basis, and the two touching at one point, but getting away with it – this time.
Out front, Vettel had cleared a gap of a few seconds to Hamilton, who was similarly dropping Bottas, but the Englishman traded fastest laps with the German, albeit seemingly unable to do anything about the Ferrari up ahead.
Going well at this point were the two Renaults of Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg – although the latter would soon touch a wall and retire – as well as the remaining Force India in the hands of Sergio Perez.
Hamilton had notably made a couple of errors and, after a lock-up that was close to troublesome, pitted for new soft tyres at the end of lap 21.
The Long Game
Vettel seemed comfortable out front as the pack began to make their pit stops. The leader took his on lap 31 – notably, about this time Bottas, now in second place, began to up his pace and set fastest laps – and emerged from the pits behind the lead Mercedes.
The two Red Bulls, still battling in 4th and 5th positions, were looking even more frantic, and on lap 41, the inevitable happened. With the Dutchman fresh from a pit stop, Ricciardo – sitting right behind – sensed an opportunity and tried to sell Verstappen a dummy. It didn’t work; the two cars collided in spectacular fashion, both out on the spot. The apportioning of blame is a tricky one here, but needless to say the team bosses were not at all happy.
The Safety Car came out once more, which played very nicely into the hands of Bottas, who had yet to make a pit stop. With the cars being led through the pit lane while the track was cleared, many chose to take advantage and fit fresh rubber.
During this period Romain Grosjean, running an excellent 6th for Haas, made an error while weaving to keep his tyres warm, and crashed out against the barrier. This extended the Safety Car period, and left Grosjean seriously angry, let alone embarrassed.
Victory Snatched Away
Fears that the race would be won under the Safety Car were put to bed when the race resumed at the end of lap 47, with three laps remaining. The Finn launched his Mercedes into the lead as required, but behind him Vettel took what would likely be his only chance, and went for a very late breaking manoeuvre. It failed, he ran wide, and was passed by Hamilton and Raikkonen – who had been running as low as 10th for most of the race.
Things were looking comfortable for a Mercedes 1-2, until a spectacular right-rear blow-out – caused by debris on the track – brought a distraught Bottas’s race to an end. It was a cruel blow, as he had driven a perfect, error-free race, and capitalised not only on running far longer than anyone else on the tyres he started on, but also on the Safety Car situation to great effect.
Hamilton inherited the lead, but behind him it was not over yet. Sergio Perez had taken advantage of Vettel’s loss of momentum and pushed the Force India through into a magnificent 3rd place, which he held on to bravely with Vettel trying everything to get by. It was a welcome podium for a team that has had a poor start to the season.
Hamilton was notably late appearing on the podium. The reason was he had, very graciously, sought out team-mate Bottas first, to offer him consolations and the kind words that the win should have been his. That’s sportsmanship.
This was perhaps the most unlikely podium, given the order at the start of the race, with Hamilton joined by Raikkonen and a delighted Perez, and the Force India team celebrating below as if they had won.
Vettel took a deflated 4th position, and now trails Lewis Hamilton by four points in the driver’s championship standings. Fifth position went to a very satisfied Carlos Sainz, who had driven an excellent race in the improving works Renault. A candidate for driver of the day was 6th place finisher Charles Leclerc, who has not had a great start to the season with Sauber, but didn’t put a foot wrong here, kept out of trouble, and bagged some points in an uncompetitive car.
McLaren again scored a double-points finish with Alonso salvaging 7th and Stoffel Vandoorne making an inspired choice to fit heated rubber for the last few laps to take 9th, while in 8th place was Lance Stroll in the Williams and the final point-paying position went to Brendon Hartley in the Toro Rosso.
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