2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix analysis
The 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix was a modern classic. It had elements of soap opera, late-braking bravery, inter and intra-team anguish and plenty of unexpected heroes. The ’18 edition of the race was, as a result, in danger of being over-hyped.
In the end, the race lived up to the blockbuster billing with a finale that would have earned a ‘fresh’ rating from Rotten Tomatoes.
In such an epic, there will invariably be big winners and big losers. Red Bull left Baku reeling after Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen broke rule number one in motorsport, with the pair colliding as a race-long dogfight ended in disaster.
Having fought hard to break what was a vehement defence of fourth place by Verstappen, Ricciardo pitted before his team-mate only a couple of laps after making the pass. With the overcut proving powerful given the tyre warm-up issues which had caused headaches all weekend, Verstappen found himself back in front after pitting one lap later.
Determined to regain the position, Ricciardo launched an immediate attack on Verstappen heading to Turn 1. He attempted his trademark manoeuvre – fade to the outside before diving to the inside. Verstappen flinched but didn’t fall for Ricciardo’s dummy and by the time the Aussie realised the fact, it was too late. Over-committed, he slammed into the back of his team-mate, taking them both out of the race from fourth and fifth.
Verstappen, however, was not blameless and the crash was undoubtedly a racing incident. When Ricciardo attempted the move to the outside, Verstappen tracked him before turning back towards the inside once Ricciardo committed. It was subtle but nonetheless two moves from Verstappen, who has a history of similar antics.
“We let the drivers race and then they are doing that,” said Red Bull motorsport advisor Dr Helmut Marko when speaking to Sky Sports. “Unbelievable. Both were wrong. 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.”
Team boss Christian Horner echoed these thoughts; “The drivers at the end of the day drive for a team and they both recognise that they have screwed up today. They will be apologising to the team, and all members of the team, because it is a team sport and that seemed to get forgotten about.”
Red Bull’s anguish led to delight at Mercedes, with the subsequent safety car effectively handing Valtteri Bottas the lead of the race. His stint from lap one to lap 40 on supersoft tyres was nothing short of remarkable and although the safety car allowed him to keep track position, he was somewhat unfortunate that it also allowed those behind to take a new set of ultrasoft tyres that he had worked so hard to fit for the final stint.
More unfortunate though, was Sebastian Vettel. Having seized pole position and assumed the race lead, the championship leader was imperious throughout the opening stint. It was a vintage display from Vettel – reminiscent of his dominant Red Bull days.
He was, however, one of a number of drivers to struggle to warm up the soft tyres after his pitstop and that allowed Bottas to extend his stint and ultimately stay outside of Vettel’s safety car pit window.
Having survived Vettel’s lunge at Turn 1 on the restart, Bottas had done everything he needed to do to seal career victory number four. A puncture as a result of running over a carbon fibre shard extinguished Bottas’s hopes, but the culpable debris on the pit straight was unfortunately unavoidable.
Contrary to initial opinion, it seems that it was deposited in the clash between Pierre Gasly and Kevin Magnussen on the race restart and was not simply a shard of debris missed by marshalls during the earlier track clean-up.
That fact might be a conciliation for race control and the organisers, but it provides no solace for Bottas. With three laps to go, he was set to take the lead in the drivers’ championship – a lead which, given that he has been the faster of the two Mercedes drivers for the past three races, would have been well deserved. Instead, Bottas is now 30 points behind after a 32 point swing in Lewis Hamilton’s favour.
These are the races which define championships. Hamilton has emerged from Baku with a four-point championship lead over Vettel, securing his first win of the season on what was an off-weekend for the reigning champion. He lacked the pace to challenge Vettel, and compromised his own strategy with a lock-up and flat-spot on lap 22 at Turn 1.
“I’m coming out of the last corner and I am just in disbelief as to the position that I’m in,” said Hamilton. “It was very emotional for me given that in previous years here I had been in the lead and done everything I needed to do and then something went against me.
“I said this morning, ‘third time lucky,’ and it really was that scenario. This happens to be a track where luck – you kinda need it because there are a lot of safety car and a lot of incidents that go on.”
Hamilton added that he felt “mixed emotions” given that his performance during the course of the weekend was somewhat in contrast to the eventual result; “[On one hand] I’m grateful for the opportunity to win a grand prix and secondly, on the other side I didn’t drive the way I feel like a normally drive, so that hurts a little bit.
“It’s not like my focus is anywhere else, but I struggled this weekend. We’ve got some work to do, but I can go home on a high note and take this hopefully into the next race.”
That high note being a race win and the championship lead. After the first four races in which he has been wrong-footed by a safety car, faced a five-place grid penalty, been off-colour for a weekend and out-raced by his team-mate in the next, to be leading the championship is a result with a capital ‘R.’