It wasn’t that long ago that Azerbaijan’s appointment to the Formula 1 calendar was greatly lambasted; it was a country with no motor racing heritage, a place few could spell and even less could pin-point on a map. The inaugural event in 2016, a procession through the streets of Baku, only fuelled the naysayer’s argument.
The difficult second album dulled the fire somewhat, when in 2017 Azerbaijan produced a race for the ages. And now, a thrilling 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix has cemented the event’s place as a favourite on the calendar.
Formula 1 can be a fickle place.
FORTUNE FAVOURS THE BRAIDED
If you thought Lewis Hamilton was somewhat subdued as he collected his winner’s trophy in Baku, it likely wasn’t the dawning regret of a questionable haircut, rather, acknowledgement of a somewhat undeserved grand prix victory.
Indeed, Hamilton delayed the podium ceremony to console his luckless team-mate Valtteri Bottas, the driver Hamilton himself says “deserved to win the race.” A classy move from a driver so often accused of lacking such old-school values.
But before Bottas’s chance of victory went up in so much discarded rubber and Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport waved goodbye to their first one-two of the year, amongst the close-calls and collisions, Hamilton looked destined for a distant third place…
A straight-forward race would likely have seen Sebastian Vettel dominate from start to finish, such was his pace in his Scuderia Ferrari. But this is Baku; not the place for a straight-forward race.
The early safety car, deployed on lap one courtesy of a track littered with debris, some parts as large and Esteban Ocon‘s Sahara Force India and the Williams Martini Racing of Sergey Sirotkin, was enough to allow those involved in the chaos time to seek repairs and rejoin the field.
But way ahead of a hobbled Kimi Raikkonen and a limping Fernando Alonso, Vettel, who started from pole-position for the third race in a row, led from the restart and proceeded to leave Hamilton in a wake of Caspian sea breeze and fallen leaves.
In vain pursuit, Hamilton flat-spotted his front left tyre and was forced to pit of lap twenty-two, swapping Pirelli‘s red-striped Supersofts for the yellow walled Softs. In doing so, he put himself on the back foot, handing a strategic advantage not only to Vettel, who wouldn’t stop until lap thirty, but to Bottas too.
The second safety car, called upon after the public implosion of Aston Martin Red Bull Racing (more on that shortly) gifted Bottas a free pit-stop and the race lead, Vettel having stopped behind the safety car also, his second of the afternoon.
At the restart — delayed courtesy of Romain Grosjean‘s faux pas of crashing behind the safety car — Vettel “saw a gap and went for it, but obviously it didn’t work.”
No, Sebastian, it didn’t. An enormous lock-up into turn one flat-spotted Vettel’s tyre and removed him from contention with just four laps to go.
Bottas held the lead then, and looked set for victory. But waiting dormant on Baku’s lengthy straight, a sharp shard of discarded carbon fibre would destroy his right rear tyre and any chance he had of taking the victory.
Hamilton inherited the lead with three laps remaining therefore, a lead he never looked destined to achieve without divine intervention, in this case taking the form of ruined rubber.
It’s easy to see then, why we didn’t witness the trademark Hamilton jubilation at his sixty-third grand prix victory. But earned or not, Hamilton has taken the championship lead. Perhaps more daunting for his rivals, he has also opened his 2018 winning account, one that is likely to bulge towards the end of the year.
But let’s face it, Hamilton’s first victory of 2018 was not the main talking point to emerge from Azerbaijan…
WHO HAD LAP FORTY? ANYONE?
It seemed destined to happen, didn’t it? If you were comfortable on the slippery slope that is gambling, you would have bet your house on Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen having the sort of contact that gives Christian Horner nightmares.
And it happening on lap forty would have been a good bet, too. The last time Red Bull so publicly imploded was at the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix when Vettel and then team-mate Mark Webber collided…also on lap forty.
The symmetry will be of no comfort to anyone within Red Bull though, not least Ricciardo and Verstappen.
The pair, who had been evenly matched throughout the race, had banged wheels on a few occasions and came close a few more. The wheel-to-wheel, intra-team fighting had us fans on our feet as Horner had kittens on the pit wall.
It came to a head when Ricciardo and Verstappen met in the middle at the turn one braking zone, sending both careening towards the exit and left to buy a ticket to get back in. Who was at fault? The general consensus, one that excludes Niki Lauda and his belief that Verstappen was to blame, says both are at fault.
Verstappen, as has been his style on a number of occasions in the past, jinked this way and that within the braking zone, while Ricciardo, coming in hot with DRS fully engaged committed to a move that Verstappen had at the last moment covered.
Ricciardo, Verstappen or six and two threes, it’s certainly a moment that won’t see the cutting room floor when the end of season highlights package is pieced together. But have we seen the end of the free-to-race Red Bull rivalry?
You’d like to think not. Dr. Helmut Marko, Red Bull’s rather intimidating motorsport advisor, has already reiterated the team’s position on team orders: “We always let the drivers race, we don’t have a number one, we don’t have a number two, but we expect responsibility from the drivers.”
It was also revealed post-race that Red Bull had discussed potential clashes between their two drivers before the race, but according to Marko, interfering with the race from the pit wall is “against our philosophy”.
There’s hope then, that we haven’t seen the last of the increasingly visceral Ricciardo/Verstappen rivalry.
A DAY FOR THE UNDERDOGS
While there was heartbreak for Red Bull, Bottas and Grosjean, the chaos of Baku afforded some of F1 2018’s underdogs a chance to shine.
Emerging from the chaos like a hero emerging from a burning building, Sergio Perez delivered an unexpected podium for Force India. And not for the first time; it seems Perez is the man you want in your corner when things get a bit…crashy.
Likewise Charles Leclerc. Alfa Rome Sauber’s super-rookie showed remarkable maturity in keeping all four wheels pointing in the right direction and was rewarded with sixth place and his first points in Formula 1.
But as Formula 1 now heads to Barcelona for the 2018 Spanish Grand Prix, all eyes will be on the battle at the head of the field. In four races we’ve witnessed three different winners from three different teams. Will we see another winner in Spain or will the likes of Sebastian Vettel or Lewis Hamilton take this championship by the scruff of the neck and begin to lay claim to another title success?
We can only wait, and console ourselves in the meantime with the fact that we don’t answer to Christian Horner or Helmut Marko.