After edge-of-seat suspense and action in Bahrain and China, Formula 1 had a certain standard to live up to as it pitched tent in Baku for the 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix. For the second year in succession, the street race offered a complete nail-biter of a Grand Prix from start to finish.
Mercedes win some, lose some thanks to luck
Lewis Hamilton, the eventual race winner, inherited the lead from teammate Valtteri Bottas after the latter suffered from a right rear puncture 3 laps before the finish. Bottas drove a perfect race despite managing only third in the early stages as Vettel led Hamilton till the first round of pit-stops. For the second race in succession, Ferrari were outfoxed by the Mercedes pit-wall as they used an alternate tyre strategy that helped Bottas leapfrog both Vettel and Hamilton for the lead of the race. As for Hamilton, though he was running second, a driver error and inability to manage tyres meant that Mercedes couldn’t employ the same strategy for the reigning champions as they did for Bottas.
Raikkonen and Perez find their way to the podium
Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari’s #2 driver, had an eventful race with an opening lap incident with an overly eager Esteban Ocon followed by a number of other small skirmishes on track. The Finn finally finished 2nd - claiming his 3rd podium in 4 races. Force India’s Sergio Perez drove a cheeky race to claim 3rd - his second podium in Baku; the first being in 2016. Sebastian Vettel finished 4th after a bold move to overtake for the lead of the race during the second restart saw him flatspot his tyre - 10/10 to Vettel for attempting to overtake the fastest cars on track in one straight move! Renault’s Carlos Sainz Jr. drove an aggressive race to 5th - his battles with the Red Bull Racing drivers in the early parts of the race would have made his bosses at Red Bull Racing sit up and take notice.
A race full of surprises
Along with a surprise podium, Baku also threw up a surprise list of finishers in the top-10. Lance Stroll continued his love affair with Baku by claiming 8th; he was on the podium last year. Charles Leclerc scored his first-ever Formula 1 championship points by finishing 6th. Brendon Hartley, the reigning World Endurance Champion and Toro Rosso driver, finished 10th and scored his first Formula 1 point. The Mclaren drivers - Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne - finished 7th and 9th respectively. However, after witnessing Alonso return to the pits at the end of lap 1 with just two wheels on his car, no one would have bet the Spaniard to finish the race in the points.
The zeroes from Baku include Romain Grosjean who crashed his Haas into the wall while under the Safety Car - he was caught out unawares as he weaved aggressively to keep his tyres up to temperature. Nico Hulkenberg, who was running as high as 5th, tapped the wall hard with his left rear leading to retirement from the race. Sergey Sirotkin had a Vettel-Raikkonen-Verstappen moment from Singapore on the opening lap and had to retire for no fault of his own. However, the bigger zeroes from Baku were the two Red Bull Racing drivers - Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo.
Red Bull Racing - Civil War
After fighting hard and fair for most of the race, the two Red Bull Racing drivers were a delight to watch for the fans. Verstappen defended aggressively, while Ricciardo was clinical in his attacking moves; after multiple attempts Ricciardo finally made a clean move on Verstappen only to see the positions reversed in their round of pit-stops. The Red Bull Racing issued a cheeky message to Ricciardo asking him to overtake Verstappen again and it was during his second overtaking attempt that he ended up rear-ending his teammate leading to Red Bull Racing’s second double DNF in four races.
Who is to blame for the crash? While the paddock and media are split; the split isn’t 50:50, which means that there is one driver to blame slightly more than the other. Niki Lauda, the former three times Formula 1 World Champion, apportioned 70% of the blame to Verstappen and the remaining 30% to Ricciardo. The general consensus is that Verstappen probably made two moves in the braking zone and maybe braked a little too hard too early and this meant that Ricciardo had nowhere to go but into his teammate. Irrespective of the outcome, Red Bull Racing’s managing of this situation will go a long way in helping Ricciardo decide his future with the team.
The 2018 Spanish Grand Prix is up next and when the races are this fun and unpredictable, the gap of a fortnight does seems a little too long. Let’s hope that the excitement continues at the Circuit de Catalunya.
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