Action in Azerbaijan – The 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

The narrative for this race kept changing. In practice, especially the first two sessions, it seemed Ferrari had a small edge on Mercedes, and Red Bull suddenly looked potent. A lot of drivers – including Vettel and Hamilton – appeared to struggle to get the best out of their tyres on a slippery surface. Who would take this weekend by the scruff of the neck and wrestle the best from their car?

Come qualifying, that question appeared to have been answered. Mercedes found another gear, and both Hamilton and Bottas began pumping out times that, in the end, were ominously out of reach for anyone else. Vettel had an excuse – his Ferrari was running an older engine after a water leak issue in practice – but Raikkonen was still over a second off Hamilton’s pace, despite having no mechanical trouble to plague him. Mind you, Hamilton was nearly half a second up on Bottas too, the result of one final, flying lap in Q3, when it had appeared he might have to settle for second, following a late red flag to the session when Ricciardo pinged the wall in his Red Bull.

Red Bull – largely in the shape of Verstappen – weren’t far off Ferrari’s pace throughout qualifying – a small upgrade to the Renault engine has clearly helped them. Would it aid them in the race? And could Ferrari’s race pace threaten the otherwise dominant Mercedes?

The very start of the race saw Hamilton get away cleanly and Bottas and Raikkonen collide at turn 4. Raikkonen was trying to nose his Ferrari past the Mercedes, going around the outside, and Bottas clipped the kerb, unable to control his car and bouncing into the Ferrari. Bottas came off a lot worse, suffering a puncture, and having to limp around near enough the entire track to change tyres and the front wing. This put him a lap down almost immediately. Further back, Kvyat’s Toro Rosso slipped off the track at turn 1 and nearly collected his own teammate Sainz, forcing Sainz into a spin to avoid serious contact.

The result was Vettel moving into second place, and Perez of Force India into third. Hamilton would quickly open up a decent gap, whilst on lap 8 the Renault of struggling Palmer would retire, slowly pulling into the pits.

By lap 10 Hamilton had opened a 3.6 second lead over Vettel, but the gap was holding steady. Was Vettel holding Hamilton to an honest distance? Meanwhile, Ricciardo would make a great move to hurl himself in 13th after an early stop, brilliantly passing Ericsson and Sainz into turn 1. On lap 11, we said goodbye to Kvyat, and by this point, we saw a good duel between Verstappen and Perez for the final podium place, with Raikkonen starting to close on the battling pair. It was a short-lived battle, as Verstappen’s engine would start to give up on him – not for the first time this season. His expletives on the radio summed up his mood. Lap 12 saw the safety car out to take Kvyat’s car off the track (a slightly delayed decision), and Hamilton took advantage to pit for the soft tyre straight away, as did Vettel, and pretty much all the front runners.

Lap 13 confirmed the fourth retirement in six races for young Verstappen – a mighty disappointment for him. It also saw Stroll of Williams briefly move up to third, having chosen not to pit under the safety car, at least not to begin with. He pitted a lap later, dropping to 7th.

Watching the cars weave under the safety car (that Hamilton was complaining was going too slowly, concerns echoed by Perez) was quite amusing and dizzying at the same time, but it felt like the safety car spell was going on forever. On lap 15 lapped cars (Bottas) could un-lap themselves, but we still waited. Finally, on lap 16, it was to come in, so we’d go racing again. Perez made a move on Vettel but couldn’t get by – Ocon did get by Raikkonen, who appeared to take front wing damage. Ocon immediately turned his attention to the Williams of Massa, and then we got yet another safety car again… Groan!

This time it was to clear debris from Raikkonen’s car, but the problem of tyre temperatures would only get worse. On lap 19 Vettel had cause to be quite annoyed at Hamilton’s late braking that might have caused damage to Vettel’s front wing, and in the restart, Vettel somehow held on to second, Massa launched into third, and the two Force Indias collided at the exit of turn 2. Raikkonen earned a puncture, and on lap 20 the safety car was deployed again. Perez had to retire, whilst the damage to the rear caused by the puncture forced Raikkonen to retire too. In all the chaos, we suddenly had Williams running third and fourth. On lap 22 the race was red-flagged, to give the marshals a chance to clean up the track.

It emerged from the replay of the safety car incident that Vettel had indeed suffered front wing damage after Hamilton’s little brake-testing moment, but Vettel’s reaction was also quite controversial, with Vettel turning into Hamilton and banging wheels, seemingly deliberately. It emerged that Perez could in fact return to the race – repairs to cars are allowed under red flag conditions, just not tyre changes. This also led to the return of Raikkonen.

After what felt like an age, racing finally began on lap 23, albeit under the safety car. Massa felt he had an issue with the car as proceedings got underway again, and then we had a grand prix again!

Ricciardo pulled off a classic move under late braking to go from fifth to third into turn 1, whilst Vettel was holding onto the back of Hamilton. Massa held off the Renault of Hulkenberg (who was up to sixth), initially at least, keeping whatever his problem was under control. It became apparent that Massa was seriously struggling, but it was a brilliant move from Magnussen in his Haas that saw him leap by both Hulkenberg and Massa to move into fifth. Alonso was soon by Massa too, moving into seventh, which became sixth when Hulkenberg retired, having broken his front right suspension and pulling off into a run-off area.

So, within a few laps of the restart it was all change, apart from the front two. Ricciardo was in third, Stroll fourth, Magnussen fifth and Alonso sixth. Sainz was seventh, Ocon was eighth and Bottas was ninth, whilst Grosjean had the other Haas up to 10th.

Another little factor emerged on lap 28 – Hamilton’s headrest (a key component of safety) had worked a little loose. Would he end up having to stop to deal with it? Well, on lap 31 Hamilton had to stop to change his headrest, and Vettel had to pit for a ten second stop-go penalty for banging into Hamilton! This put Ricciardo into the lead and Stroll into second!

By lap 36 Vettel (who had emerged ahead of Hamilton) and Hamilton had cleared Alonso’s McLaren and began to press. Up ahead was Bottas, who had at one point been a lap down, yet was now in fifth. Magnussen was up into third for Haas, with Ocon and Bottas right behind him, and Vettel and Hamilton were closing in rapidly. Ricciardo was, in the meantime, comfortably leading Stroll. On lap 38 both Ocon and Bottas dove by Magnussen into turn 1, the Haas just not quite in the same league. The two Saubers had a moment when they touched, a worrying development with Ericsson sitting in tenth and the points.

Vettel and Hamilton continued to scythe their way up the field, moving up to fifth and sixth respectively, with Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Bottas ahead, though Bottas would get by Ocon on lap 40 into turn 1, moving into third and starting to push toward Stroll and Ricciardo. Force India took the decision to retire Perez on lap 41, to preserve the car. On track, Vettel was starting to close on Ocon, with Hamilton keeping Vettel honest. Bottas was gunning down Stroll at a considerable rate of knots. Would it be enough for him to catch Stroll? The rate at which Bottas was catching began to slow down a little as Stroll was told to up his pace.

So, Hamilton was catching Vettel, who was catching Bottas, who was catching Stroll. Hamilton was hoping Bottas would slow down and back Vettel up – a pretty unreasonable request, given Bottas was chasing second. There was a late retirement for Raikkonen on lap 48, who had struggled throughout.

Going into the final couple of laps, Bottas was nearly on Stroll, and Grosjean wisely got out the way of Vettel and Hamilton as they closed in on one another. Williams were willing Stroll on, and Hamilton was boring down on Vettel. Into the final lap, Hamilton was pressing, but would there be a chance to pass on an awkward track? Ricciardo took his fifth career win, more on that later. Bottas pinched second from Stroll on the final straight, right at the death, and Vettel kept Hamilton at bay to take fourth.

For Stroll in particular, despite just narrowly missing out on second, the result was a terrific boost for a guy who had three DNFs at the start of the season, but has now scored points at the last two races, and gained his first podium. He kept his cool despite the drama unfolding around him and can be very proud of his achievement. For Bottas and Ricciardo, both demonstrated superb recovery drives – and their results underscore their ability. There will be others who will rue collisions, brushes with the wall, and technical trouble, with Verstappen in particular wondering if he might have had a chance at victory before his car gave up. Force India were well-placed for a possible one-two, had they not collected each other at one of the restarts. We might have also seen more points for Renault if Hulkenberg hadn’t banged the wall. Still, the day belongs to Ricciardo, whose opportunistic side saw him get a great win. Red Bull ran pretty well here – can they do it again next time?

There will be many conversations about that incident between Hamilton and Vettel behind the safety car. Did Hamilton unreasonably brake in front of Vettel? The stewards didn’t seem to think so, but whether Hamilton did or didn’t, Vettel’s reaction was stupid. There may well be more fallout from this – we shall see. Austria is next. Who will prevail there?