Bonkers Baku does it again. For a season that started on a subdued note, Formula 1 delivered a barnstormer for the second race in succession. Like 2017, the blustery high-speed blast through city streets saw heroics, heartbreak and inter-team handbags. The Red Bull duo might have written the headlines in Baku, but rising through the chaos was a terrific trio of exceptionally level-headed performances…
Top of the class…
Charles Leclerc – Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team
When Ferrari’s wunderkind signed with Sauber, there was always the promise of giant-killing performances. However the Monegasque looked tentative in the opening races, and worst still, looked to be struggling to control his machinery during a messy weekend in Shanghai. And yet, in Baku, Leclerc’s star started to shine.
Albeit aided by some upgrades, Leclerc exacted stellar pace all weekend; out-qualifying team-mate Marcus Ericsson by 1.5s and missing out to the McLaren of Fernando Alonso by just 0.055s. His race was superb: easily keeping pace with the midfield runners and producing an assured pass on Alonso after his pit-stop. Sixth place was the reward for the race that announced Leclerc’s arrival in F1; and with the C37 showing good progress, there is scope for plenty more heroics across the remainder of the season. Just as Baku dominance against the backdrop of family tragedy became a springboard to last year’s F2 title, another Azerbaijani showcase is only like to see Leclerc’s confidence skyrocket.
Sergio Perez – Sahara Force India F1 Team
One of F1’s finest Sunday specialists went into the weekend in Baku waiting for his first points in 2018. Happily, the struggling Silverstone-based squad catapulted itself back into its customary slot as best-of-the-rest. Unhappily for the Mexican, he spent the early part of the weekend markedly trailing the impressive pace of team-mate Esteban Ocon. It was impressive therefore that Perez could peg back the gap to Ocon; trailing the Frenchman by just 0.024s in Q3.
The story of Sergio’s first podium for almost two years was characteristically tenacious and opportunistic. Contact with Kimi Raikkonen in the first corner was all but unavoidable, and he was soon building the foundations of an excellent recovery drive. Whilst Romain Grosjean‘s spin saved him from fending off the ultra-soft-shod Haas in the dying laps, the Mexican did produce what he described as the best laps of his life to resist the regrouping Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel. F1’s serial opportunist returns with a bang…
Fernando Alonso – McLaren F1 Team
Alonso’s effort in Q2 saw him lap within 0.009 of his best from Q1, and owing to the fact that team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne was almost half a second back, it is safe to assume the Spaniard wrung everything out his McLaren in qualifying. In the race, through no fault of his own, Alonso found himself in the middle of a closing wedge, as both Nico Hulkenberg and Sergey Sirotkin failed to afford the McLaren enough room.
Dragging a hobbling car with two front punctures back to the pits was a feat in of itself, so to recover thereafter to a superb seventh, despite sustaining floor damage, was fairly remarkable. The relative anonymity of Alonso’s recovery perhaps illustrates just how browbeaten the paddock is when it comes to reporting the Spaniard’s heroics in substandard machinery. The man himself clearly agreed as Fernando felt inclined to declare that “no one else“ would have persevered with such a damaged car. Not a man in need of a PR agent…
Homework to do…
Max Verstappen – Aston Martin Red Bull Racing
A crash in FP1 was the worst possible start to an important redemptive weekend for the under-fire Verstappen. He recovered with his usual aplomb, but a distant tow from Raikkonen put Daniel Ricciardo ahead come Q3. Max went into Sunday as a man under immense pressure to show a more calculated racing nouse. He would fail in perhaps the most catastrophic manner possible.
From the outset, Verstappen’s race sent a very clear message: that his track position was more important to him than the team’s final result. A late move up the inside of T2 and contact on the apex of T1 on lap 13 were already within inches of inter-team disaster. Come the fateful lap 39, Ricciardo should perhaps not have committed to such a small gap, however, it is entirely likely that the Aussie would have made the move stick had Verstappen not darted back to the inside line. Going forward, the young Dutchman must urgently recapture some of the maturity that distinguished his superb 2017 season, or else risk irreversible damage to his career trajectory.
Marcus Ericsson – Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team
In a dramatic reversal of the Shanghai formbook, it was Ericsson who took Leclerc’s baton as the most ponderous Sauber in Baku. Albeit having lost track time to gearbox troubles in FP2, the Swede lapped 1.8s slower than Leclerc in Q1, with the rookie seeding through to Q2 for the first time. Ericsson went on to make substantial contact with Kevin Magnussen on the opening lap, and whilst Marcus could drag his beleaguered Sauber back to 11th at the flag, Leclerc’s performance rather indicated that points were on offer.
Romain Grosjean – Haas F1 Team
The Frenchman’s weekend in Baku heeded the familiar pattern of lairiness, frustration, error and dejection. Albeit on a circuit where Haas had not expected great things, Grosjean’s difficulty in staying on the racetrack on Friday was nothing unusual for 2018. However, things got worse as a gearbox fault left him unable to reverse out of an escape road and unable to qualify.
An early pit-stop put Romain on track to score solid points, running in P6 on fresh ultra-soft rubber as the safety car emerged for the second time. An accidental switch change and cold tyres may have hastened his journey to the barriers, but there is no exonerating Grosjean from the fact he crashed under the safety car. The suggestion from engineer Gary Gannon that Ericsson might have hit him had the whiff of wishful thinking. Considering his non-existent points tally, it is difficult to see how this latest blow won’t have a more lasting effect on the distraught Frenchman’s confidence.
Lewis Hamilton‘s first victory for six months was probably not the confidence-builder he needed. The reigning champion ran Vettel close in qualifying, but couldn’t match the German in the race; with Lewis locking-up and running wide just prior to his pit-stop. Meanwhile, an apparently subdued opening stint from Valtteri Bottas actually saw the Finn cannily extend the life of his super-soft on a strategy that would have resulted in victory but for the cruel denial of a puncture. At Scuderia Ferrari, Kimi Raikkonen’s superb pace in qualifying was again squandered by an error, whilst the more dependable Vettel looked on course for victory; only to be denied by an untimely safety car and a hamfisted assault on Bottas.
Hulkenberg’s Saturday dominance over team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr continued in Baku, however, a crash put a black mark on the German’s impeccable record in 2018, whilst Sainz produced a mature drive to fifth. Esteban Ocon was the weekend’s fastest midfield runner (although his team-mate was too close for comfort in Q3), with the previously struggling VJM11 making great strides. Otmar Szafnauer blamed Raikkonen for the Frenchman’s first lap exit, although it’s difficult to see how the Finn could have avoided Ocon’s insistent squeeze into the apex of T3.
Elsewhere, damage saw Kevin Magnussen slip out of the points in a disappointing weekend for Haas, whilst a couple of points might have saved the blushes of a struggling Stoffel Vandoorne had his irrepressible team-mate not finished seventh with a damaged floor. The Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda duo continued their magnetic relationship, as Brendon Hartley failed to keep his ailing car off-line in qualifying, relying only on Pierre Gasly‘s catlike reactions to avoid a potential aeroplane crash at 200mph. The Frenchman would have scored a point too, had Magnussen not shoved him into the wall late in the race. Williams Martini Racing enjoyed its most competitive race of 2018 and its first points of the season, courtesy of Baku-aficionado Lance Stroll. Clattering into the barriers at T3 in final practice was Sirotkin’s first significant error of the season, however further contact with Perez on the opening lap capped-off a messy weekend for the rookie.