It would have taken nothing short of a predictive genius to foresee the drama that unfolded at the Baku circuit in Azerbaijan yesterday. As the tension built for race eight of the championship so far, the main topic of the week was yet again surrounding the relentless duel between the two top teams, Ferrari and Mercedes, and whether it would be Vettel or Hamilton stealing victory on Sunday in Azerbaijan. What ensued however was a fraught and chaotic race over 51 laps full of collisions with debris covering the track at every twist and turn and concluding in a very unpredictable podium of Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull in first place followed by Valterri Bottas in his Mercedes in second and last but by no means least, the rookie Lance Stroll in his Williams car in third. After having started in tenth on the grid, this was Ricciardo’s first triumph since the Malaysian Grand Prix last year and Red Bull’s first win of the season so far.
Qualifying was rife with mishaps as it was incredibly difficult to determine the right operating temperature for the tyres and many of the drivers struggled to gain any grip on the newly tarmacked and exceptionally narrow track. Jolyon Palmer crashed on Friday and then had further bad luck on day two when his Renault car caught fire and he was forced to quit. Felipe Massa experienced a terrifying near crash on Saturday when he lost control of his rear end at tricky Turn Eight but fortunately recovered in impressive style. Similarly, Daniel Ricciardo had trouble in his red Bull at Turn Six and also lost the rear which sent him smashing in to the wall. Vettel did not perform well in the early practise sessions and went on to miss the final practise due to a hydraulic issue with his Ferrari. Max Verstappen showed electrifying pace in both practises on Friday as did Kimi Raikkonen on Saturday. The final results on the grid saw Lewis Hamilton in pole position, the fifth of his 2017 season to date and the 66th of his Formula One career. Mercedes locked out the front row with his team-mate Valterri Bottas topping the timesheet in the final practise session and taking second place on the front row.
The action packed grand prix swung into mayhem early on when Valterri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen collided on Lap One after Bottas tried to regain his composure from a spin but bounced off the kerb and smashed into Raikkonen sending his Ferrari crashing into the concrete wall. The Baku circuit is renowned for it’s old city walls and narrow turns, particularly between Laps Eight and Ten where the streets are only seven metres wide and yesterday’s race was testament to just how challenging and difficult a course it is. Kimi gallantly soldiered on but unfortunately managed to pick up a puncture from the debris on the track when the two Force India drivers got caught in a tangle and later suffered damaging water pressure issues forcing him to retire from the race. Bottas actually came off far worse after the collision with front wing damage and a right-front puncture but managed to successfully complete the race in an admirable second place. Raikkonen was furious at the potential danger Bottas could have ultimately caused but stewards declared that no driver was to blame. “Not much I could have done” said Raikkonen when interviewed after the race, “I got hit at Turn Two and there was quite a lot of damage on the car already on the left-hand side.” Laying the blame entirely at Bottas’s door, he went on to say, “It was completely his fault but obviously I paid the price.”
Without a shadow of a doubt, the main point of discussion post-race has been the explosions that erupted between the top two drivers, Vettel and Hamilton after they clashed not once but twice on the track. The intense rivalry between them was never more apparent than on Lap Twenty as Hamilton was out in the front and leading the race behind the safety car due to scattered debris just before the restart. Vettel suddenly shunted Hamilton’s Mercedes from behind and proceeded to draw up next to the British champion and swerve his Ferrari into the side of him. To the onlooking fans, Vettel appeared to have a severely heightened case of road-rage that had boiled over and caused him to briefly take leave of his senses. However, it transpired after the race that Vettel vehemently believed that Hamilton had braked deliberately to cause the collision – an accusation that Hamilton strongly denied – and in the heat of the moment, the incensed Ferrari driver had pulled up level with him to raise his hand and make his feelings clear.
Vettel was penalised for his actions with a ten second penalty by the stewards for dangerous driving, far too lenient a punishment as far as Hamilton was concerned. “Driving alongside and deliberately driving into a driver and getting away scot-free pretty much – he still came away with fourth – I think that’s a disgrace, ” commented a seething Hamilton. “I think he disgraced himself today, to be honest.” The Mercedes driver insisted that he had been preparing to get back up to speed in the race but was forced to back off at first as he was not allowed to overtake the safety car. Having led the race from the beginning, Hamilton was forced to pull into the pits with a loose headrest after having tried to adjust it himself and attempt to dangerously drive with one hand at speeds of over 220 mph before he was ordered to come in by his team. This delay unfortunately cost the Mercedes driver valuable seconds and he finished the race in fifth, agonisingly one place behind Vettel in fourth. In fact, the German driver still succeeded in extending his lead on the championship board by fourteen points. Since the race on Sunday, a visibly rattled Hamilton has declared that if the two champions are to clash, then it should be done like “men” outside the car.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen had a far less successful race than his winning team-mate Ricciardo when he was forced to retire with engine failure. In a very promising fourth position on the grid, his high hopes of a podium place at Baku were extinguished early on. The teenager Lance Stroll looked for all the world to be driving the race of his life and was a mere one hundred metres away from the finish line when Valterri pipped him to the post on the final straight and snatched second place from right under his nose. No-one can take away the fact the young Canadian displayed great maturity during the race and to finish in third and achieve his first podium at such a youthful age is very commendable.
The Toro Rosso team saw their Spanish driver Carlos Sainz successfully finish in the points after a somewhat manic start where he spun out of control but managed to recover quickly. Daniil Kyvat was not so lucky however and had to admit defeat on Lap Nine when his car experienced technical issues. Jolyon Palmer together with his team-mate Nico Hulkenberg would have surely been feeling incredibly miserable after both of their Renault cars failed to complete the race. Palmer experienced a misfire on the way to the grid and was from then on destined for failure and Hulkenberg was running well in a midfield position until he unfortunately broke his front right suspension on shaving the wall.
An entertaining race full of emotion-charged events and disruptions with three safety car periods and a red flag making it a challenging grand prix for even the most experienced Formula One drivers who had to remain focussed and committed to the task in hand at all times. In a fortnights time the quest for the championship will continue in Austria at the Red Bull Ring circuit and it remains to be seen whether the professional relationship and mutual respect shown between Hamilton and Vettel up until the drama at Baku yesterday has been irrevocably damaged forever.