The 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

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It’s quite amazing how a couple of weeks – or even a couple of minutes – can flip Formula 1 around. On both a macro and a micro scale, Azerbaijan illustrated this point perfectly.

It had been a race that was set to be fairly close between the Ferraris and the Mercedes’, at least on the evidence of qualifying, though it should have been a Ferrari front row lockout for the third consecutive race, had Kimi Raikkonen not made a mistake in the final sector of his fast lap. Instead, Raikkonen would start sixth and Sebastian Vettel would secure his third straight pole position, with Lewis Hamilton lining up alongside him and with Valtteri Bottas in third. The Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen had also gone quicker than Raikkonen, who must have been kicking himself.

Raikkonen might have been performing more self-flagulation following an untidy start to the race that saw him and the strong-starting Force India of Esteban Ocon tangle around turn 3, with Raikkonen having the inside line and Ocon perhaps not allowing enough room. Ocon got bumped straight into the wall, his race run. Behind him, there was another incident involving the Williams of Sergey Sirotkin, the McLaren of Fernando Alonso, the second Force India of Sergio Perez and the Haas of Kevin Magussen – the net result being that Sirotkin retired, pulling up on a slip road near Ocon’s stricken car, whilst Alonso and Magnussen both had punctures and limped back to the pits, as did Raikkonen for a new front wing. The race had barely begun and already there was a safety car, as well as two retirements.

Once the debris was taken care of, Vettel (who had made a smooth start) streaked away, demonstrating just how good the 2018 Ferrari is. Hamilton would edge away from his teammate and Bottas had an advantage over the squabbling Red Bulls, who would swap places, with Verstappen squeezing by Ricciardo. Ricciardo would then get taken by the Renault of Carlos Sainz, who would then go on to catch up with Verstappen, whilst the second Renault of Nico Hulkenberg would close in on Ricciardo. Within a few laps the Renaults (who were on the grippy ultrasoft tyre) were both past both Red Bulls, a strong display and a meaningful one for Renault, who have endured criticism from Red Bull over engine performance.

It was a short-lived moment for Hulkenberg. Normally so reliable, his lost control on the exit of turn 4 and put his car into the barrier. He was able to coast into a slip road, thus avoiding another safety car, but his race was over. His last unforced error? Azerbaijan 2017. Not his favourite venue. The Red Bulls would then start to get dicy with each other; Ricciardo, famed for daring overtakes, against an aggressively defensive Verstappen. The long run toward turn 1 saw Verstappen continue to close off the inside line, forcing Ricciardo around the outside, where he couldn’t quite make a move stick. At one point the two banged wheels as Verstappen simply refused to yield, whilst later on it appeared that Ricciardo had made it by, only for Verstappen to stick to the inside of turn 2 and retake position. Sainz had pitted, the ultrasofts simply not holding out, so for the Red Bulls, fourth place was at stake – as well as pride.

Up front, Vettel was controlling the pace with a gap of four seconds or so. One of the key differences between the Ferrari and the Mercedes is how they manage their tyres, with Ferrari getting the supersofts up to a good working temperature and holding them there, whilst Mercedes were struggling – Hamilton in particular didn’t seem to be enjoying the race and was the first of the front runners to stop – donning the yellow-walled soft tyre, the toughest compound available for the race. Here in particular he would struggle, getting out of the pits in third and unable to make an impression, whereas when Vettel pitted for soft tyres, the Ferrari appeared to extract better performance. Mercedes decided to take a chance and left Bottas out on the supersofts, hoping to make a switch to the faster ultrasoft tyres (and also hoping for a safety car). Further back, the battling Red Bulls finally swapped places for good, with Ricciardo muscling by Verstappen, though Verstappen wasn’t letting Ricciardo get away.

Shortly thereafter the Red Bulls pitted, with Ricciardo getting first dibs and taking on ultrasoft tyres. Verstappen pitted a lap later and, thanks to the ‘overcut’, actually emerged back ahead of his teammate. Up front, Bottas continued to have a steady lead but would need to pit at some stage, preferably with enough time to get out and catch Vettel, whilst not getting too caught up behind Hamilton. Timing would be crucial, though as it happened, it would ultimately be irrelevant.

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Lap 40 saw that moment, the ‘Senna/Prost’ moment. Ricciardo had once again caught Verstappen and once again Verstappen was closing off the inside line of turn 1. Ricciardo feinted a move and Verstappen moved to cover, then quicked moved back, arguably in the braking zone, which is against regulations. Ricciardo was carrying a lot of speed and went right into the back of Verstappen, putting both Red Bulls out of the race. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner cut an angry figure as he stormed off the team offices, no doubt prepared for a passionate conversation. A safety car was deployed and it saw Bottas, Vettel, Hamilton and a recovering Raikkonen all stop for fresh ultrasoft tyres. Slowly but surely the marshalls removed the Red Bulls and their debris, though the safety car period got extended by another crash, this time the Haas of Romain Grosjean, who had ended up sixth after being well down the order. He lost control whilst weaving to get heat into his tyres, putting his car straight into the wall. Oddly, he tried to blame the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson, but replays showed he had simply lost control.

It took a while, but with four laps to go the race finally restarted and Vettel, determined to regain the lead and take what had been a reasonably certain win, tried to bolt past Bottas up the inside of turn 1, but locked up, massively hurting his front-left tyre and allowing both Hamilton and teammate Raikkonen to get past. Bottas started to pull away from Hamilton and Hamilton was in turn pulling away from Raikkonen, whilst Vettel was starting to fall into the clutches of Perez. All of a sudden Mercedes looked set for a one-two finish, but there was another sting in the tale, or rather, a sting in the tyre of the desperately unlucky Bottas, who ran over a piece of missed debris and suffered a puncture on the run toward turn 1. This allowed Hamilton to take the lead, who would go on to claim his first win of 2018, in an unlikely fashion. Raikkonen came home second whilst Perez took third for Force India, with Vettel having to settle for fourth.

The chaotic nature of the race also held some strong performances from unexpected quarters – Charles Leclerc didn’t lose his head and took full advantage of the race’s circumstances to finish sixth for Sauber. Ahead of him was the quick and pacey Renault of Sainz. Alonso, despite a damaged car, managed seventh for McLaren and Lance Stroll claimed points for Williams with eighth. Ninth went to Stoffel Vandoorne in the second McLaren and Brendon Hartley took his first points in Formula 1 with 10th for Toro Rosso. All in all, eight of the ten teams in F1 scored points – admittedly because of retirements – but you can only seize the opportunity that’s presented, with several drivers doing exactly that. Luck has demonstrated its role in proceedings too – Vettel might have won if not for the safety car, but equally, his impetous nature was costly – he might have had other chances to get by Bottas. Hamilton meanwhile took win 63 of his career but admitted that Bottas and Vettel had better races. Elsewhere, both Ricciardo and Verstappen have accepted joint responsibility for their crash, though how this might influence Ricciardo’s career plans remains to be seen.

As I said at the beginning, Azerbaijan has demonstrated how things can change so rapidly in F1. From being victorious in China two weeks, to a DNF here around the streets of Baku for Daniel Ricciardo. Two weeks ago, Sebastian Vettel led the championship and should have extended that lead. Instead, Lewis Hamilon leads on 70 points, four clear of his rival. Kimi Raikkonen had leapfrogged his compatriot Valtteri Bottas to third, on 48 points. What will Spain bring us?

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