Daniel Ricciardo took a shock victory from tenth on the grid, capitalising on a chaotic race from Red Bull’s primary competitors. Valtteri Bottas took second – despite going a lap down in the early stages – in a photo-finish against Lance Stroll, the Canadian rookie taking his first career podium finish in third.
Ricciardo took advantage of the mayhem besetting the Mercedes’ and Ferraris – most of which were self-inflicted – to filter his way to the head of the field at the half-way mark. Lewis Hamilton had been leading the race from Sebastian Vettel, but controversy beckoned when Vettel accused the former of brake-checking him under a safety car, reacting furiously by pulling alongside the Brit and turning into him.
The first of the front-runners to hit trouble were Bottas and Kimi Räikkönen, with the former Finn defending on the inside of Turn 2 against his compatriot. Clipping the kerb on the inside, Bottas’ Mercedes was bounced into the side of the Ferrari, breaking his front wing and causing a right-front puncture, along with bodywork damage to Räikkönen’s car.
In the early laps many drivers were complaining of debris blocking their radiators, a recurring theme that would contribute to the wildly unpredictable events that were to come. Ricciardo was the first victim of the debris, pitting after only 6 laps to clear detritus from his brake ducts, which had been causing critical overheating through the clogging effect.
A third of the way through, a chain of safety cars turned the race upside down. The first domino fell with the retirement of Daniil Kvyat, his Toro Rosso grinding to a halt at the exit of Turn 12. As Max Verstappen came into the pits to retire with yet more mechanical gremlins – which had also blighted him in FP3 and Q3 – a safety car was deployed to allow Kvyat’s stricken car to be cleared.
As the field took advantage of the safety car to stream through the pits and take what was for most their one and only stop, the action got underway once more for only a few corners before a second SC was triggered. The accident from the opening exchanges had come back to influence the race for a second time, with a section of Räikkönen’s bargeboard knocked loose in the collision with Bottas falling off in the run down to the first turn.
This innocuous safety car led to the game-changing event of the race, with Hamilton charged with controlling the field in preparation for the second restart. Hamilton stayed off the throttle when exiting Turn 15, catching Vettel unaware and leading the scarlet Ferrari to run into the back of the Mercedes.
This led the German to see red, pulling alongside and turning into Hamilton, and the stewards ensured their wrath would be felt by giving Vettel a 10 second stop-go penalty.
Before the stewards had a chance to deliberate, the second restart did not go smoothly for those immediately behind the quarrelling lead duo. The Force India pair of Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon were fighting tooth and nail through Turns 1 & 2, and Ocon was able to sneak down the inside to momentarily take 4th place. His exit was sloppy however, pushing Pérez into the wall, causing himself a right-rear puncture and causing extensive damage to the Mexican, leading to Pérez’s eventual retirement.
Räikkönen’s miserable race continued, being caught up in the intra-team implosion directly ahead of him, causing a puncture which would damage the rear of his car extensively as he limped back to the pitlane.
By now, the first sector of the Baku circuit was saturated with bits of debris from a plethora of collisions, forcing the red flag to be thrown out to clear up the mess from the previous entanglement.
When the race resumed nearly half an hour later, Ricciardo made a crucial pass on the restart, overtaking the Williams pair of Stroll and Felipe Massa for third place behind Hamilton and Vettel. Massa had been running toe-to-toe with Stroll until the red flag, but his day was finished shortly after the race resumed thanks to a problem with his suspension.
Only moments after the same restart, Nico Hülkenberg almost caused a fourth safety car period, whacking the concrete barrier on the inside of Turn 7 with his front-right wheel, though was able to crawl his ailing Renault to the Turn 8 escape road and clear of trouble. It was a bitterly disappointing end to one of his best runs of the season, battling for solid points until that point.
Just as the stewards were handing down their 10 second penalty to Vettel for his earlier indiscretion, Hamilton was suffering from an extremely unusual problem which left him no option but to pit. The headrest in his W08 had not been fastened down correctly at the end of the red flag period, the aerodynamic effect of Baku’s long straights lifting it up. Try as he might, Hamilton could not push it back into position, so an unscheduled second stop was required to remedy the problem.
This effectively negated Vettel’s penalty in direct comparison to his title rival, able to stay out for an extra two laps at the head of the field and build a time advantage before taking his stop-go penalty.
This lead to a final lap sprint up the order between the title-contending trio of Bottas, Vettel and Hamilton, who progressively picked off midfielders as they marched towards Stroll in 2nd place.
The race had one final twist in the tale, with Bottas pumping in fast lap after fast lap to close in on Stroll’s second placed Williams. Going into the final lap, the gap seemed insurmountable, but the Finn was able to latch onto a monster tow through the final complex of turns, streaking past the Canadian on the right hand side approaching the line to steal second away in the dying milliseconds.
Despite his earlier collision with team-mate Pérez, Esteban Ocon was able to salvage sixth place, behind Stroll, Vettel and Hamilton respectively. Kevin Magnussen had spent a brief time in the final podium position after the red flag period was over, but was shuffled down to seventh, his Haas unable to compete with the superior pace of Mercedes, Ferrari and Force India.
Carlos Sainz Jr‘s race was not drama free, spinning out at the opening corner of the race whilst trying to avoid his Toro Rosso team-mate Daniil Kvyat, who was returning to the circuit after running wide at the start. He recovered to eighth place by the end, just ahead of Fernando Alonso who secured McLaren-Honda’s first points of the season. Pascal Wehrlein rounded out the points in tenth, despite hitting his own team-mate Marcus Ericsson while passing for the position at Turn 3.
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