Fill your shoes with Champagne, secure your headrests and try not to see red, the streets of Baku have finally delivered on their promise of brilliant racing…
We’re not delusional, we know that the 2016 European Grand Prix held in Baku fell short of expectations, especially given the drama of the supporting GP2 races. But the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix made up for last year’s lacklustre event by providing arguably the best race of the season so far.
While neither of 2017’s main championship contenders, Sebastian Vettel or Lewis Hamilton, finished on the podium, it was their on-track altercation that has made the headlines, along with a surprise winner in Daniel Ricciardo and a sensational first-time podium for the young rookie, Lance Stroll.
Hamilton converted his pole-position into an early race lead whilst Vettel managed to avoid Valtteri Bottas bouncing off of the turn 2 curb and into Kimi Raikkonen to nab second behind his title rival. Cue nervous anticipation that we might finally see a race-long wheel-to-wheel battle between 2017’s leading men.
Well, we did, sort of…but who could have predicted that the drama would unfold behind the safety car? As Hamilton slowed, backing up the chasing pack and readying for a restart, Vettel careened into the back of him, breaking the front wing of his Ferrari. Vettel accused Hamilton of brake testing him, an act severely frowned upon, but the FIA have since clarified that Hamilton didn’t brake test Vettel, he merely failed to accelerate, as was Hamilton’s prerogative as the then race leader.
What happened next however, was more concerning. Believing Hamilton caused the contact on purpose, Vettel pulled alongside Hamilton and appeared to turn into the Mercedes, banging wheels with the three-time champ and attracting the attention of the race stewards.
It appeared to be a case of the red mist descending, a petulant outburst by a four-time world champion who should be conducting himself with more restrain than that. Indeed, the stewards awarded Vettel and 10-second stop/go penalty for dangerous driving – along with three points on his licence – and it could have been much more. We may have now witnessed the moment the battle for the 2017 world championship truly ignited.
It should have been, therefore, an easy run to victory for Hamilton but for a loose headrest. It was removed during a brief red-flag period – thanks to debris littering the track – and whether it wasn’t re-attached correctly or simply broke, it came free when running at high-speed.
Given the headrest is there for safety reasons, Hamilton was forced to make a pit-stop to secure it and remarkably rejoined the race right behind Vettel, both now running in the lower end of the points. They recovered to finish fourth and fifth, Hamilton coming home just two-tenths of a second behind Vettel, the Scuderia Ferrari driver extending his championship lead to 14 points.
But what does this mean for the title fight for the remainder of 2017? The fight has been respectful thus far, two multiple world champions fighting fairly, but Vettel’s moment of childish madness may have just damaged that respectful relationship. If it’s gloves off for the rest of the year then the fans will surely benefit from a visceral fight, as will Vettel and Hamilton’s rivals, those such as race-winner in Baku, Daniel Ricciardo.
Ricciardo has made a habit of winning difficult races; if there’s an issue at the head of the field Ricciardo is always there to pick up the pieces. In Baku, Ricciardo was in 17th during the early stages of the race courtesy of debris blocking a brake duct and forcing Red Bull Racing to pit him much earlier than planned.
Sublime race craft however, including a critical pass of both Williams Martini Racing cars after a safety car restart, saw Ricciardo earn the lead once Hamilton and Vettel dropped back in the pack. From there, he drove faultlessly to claim his fifth victory and ruin another pair of race shoes with his iconic ‘shoey’ celebration.
For once though, Ricciardo’s smile wasn’t the widest on the podium, that accolade went to rookie Lance Stroll. On a circuit where everybody seemed to struggle at some point during the weekend, with cars littering run-off areas and bouncing off concrete walls throughout practice and qualifying, Stroll never put a foot wrong.
Stroll has come under immense pressure during his first season in Formula One but having scored his first points last time out in Canada it seemed like the young Canadian had finally found his feet. And what a way to prove his doubters wrong; his faultless drive saw him run in second for much of the second half of the race, only to be mugged by the recovering Valtteri Bottas at the finish line.
Williams rate Stroll highly – they like the money his father brings to the team too, but given Strolls recent performances, that’s neither here nor there – and it’s going to be interesting to see if his third place in Baku opens the floodgates to more top results as he begins to help his team take the fight to their rivals.
It was a hotly contested podium in Azerbaijan, with the likes of Esteban Ocon, Kevin Magnussen and Felipe Massa all looking capable of finishing in the top three at various points during the latter stages. While Massa dropped out of the running with a broken rear damper, and Magnussen faded to finish seventh, it was Sahara Force India who shot themselves in the foot when it came to a potential double podium.
There was controversy in the Canadian Grand Prix when Sergio Perez refused to allow his faster team-mate through to challenge for a podium, but worse came in Azerbaijan as Perez and Ocon clashed on the exit of turn two following a safety car restart and broke the cardinal rule of not making contact with your team-mate.
Ocon, who left little room for Perez in the incident, has suggested the team will look at the incident behind closed doors – the usual PR spiel – while Perez has done nothing to hide the fact he blames his young French team-mate for the crash that ultimately saw Perez retire and Ocon finish sixth.
The tussle between Perez and Ocon has been heating up with every passing race and will doubtless be a highlight for the remainder of the year; expect to see a lot of pink from now on. What’s more, with Williams’ drivers both firing on all cylinders, the ‘pink panthers’ could find themselves under pressure for fourth in the constructor’s championship.
So it was a difficult day for Force India but perhaps it was worse still for the Renault Sport F1 Team. Jolyon Palmer continued his dreadful year by completing just 30-laps across the entire weekend; Renault could have saved money on a plane ticket for the struggling Brit.
The team’s hopes laid with Nico Hulkenberg therefore…who managed to crash into the inside wall at turn seven and thus prematurely end Renault’s weekend.
They were just two of seven retirements in Baku, along with Max Verstappen – just what could he have achieved? – Raikkonen, Perez, Massa and Daniil Kvyat. So if you’ve been asking yourself just what the McLaren-Honda F1 Team need to be able to score points this year, the answer is seven retirements, two safety cars and a brief mid-race stoppage.
Because yes, at last, Fernando Alonso came home in the points, finishing in ninth. And were McLaren happy about it? No, not really. The team’s racing director, Eric Boullier told Autosport “I’m not smiling, I’m not excited, because it’s not the reason why I’m racing, and especially not racing with McLaren.”
He makes a good point, and it didn’t help that the Sauber F1 Team scored a point too. McLaren should be racing at the head of the field, and amongst all the excitement and drama in Azerbaijan there was a golden moment where Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton were on track together, fighting for position. Now how good would that be if it was something we saw consistently?
Formula One now moves on to the Red Bull Ring and the 2017 Austrian Grand Prix, a race that has big shoes to fill if it’s to match the thrill of Azerbaijan. Will it be Mercedes versus Ferrari once more, or can Red Bull spring another surprise at their own track?