THE END OF THE AF­FAIR

A crazy race with an im­prob­a­ble top three and a great win for Ricciardo. But of far greater im­port was the new feud be­tween Vet­tel and Hamilton

F1 Racing - - RACE DEBRIEF AZERBAIJAN GP -

The gloves are off in the Se­bas­tian Vet­tel vs Lewis Hamilton ti­tle bat­tle. Dur­ing an un­pre­dictable race at the rough, tough Baku City Cir­cuit, the two men most likely to take the 2017 For­mula 1 world cham­pi­onship down to the wire came to blows out on track and de­parted Azerbaijan with a good old­fash­ioned feud in the off­ing.

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo may have won the race on the day, but for the two main pro­tag­o­nists – and their teams – the fight just got a whole lot more in­tense. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Hamilton and Vet­tel will never be the same.

QUAL­I­FY­ING

LEWIS HAMILTON’S pole time for the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix was one of the sweet­est of his ca­reer. More than 0.4s faster than the best of the rest, it wasn’t sim­ply the ac­cu­racy of the lap, nor its 1m 40.593s brevity that made it so spe­cial. It was also the man­ner of its de­liv­ery and the pres­sure un­der which it was set.

Hamilton, like all the late Q3 run­ners, was pre­sented with a sin­gle end-of-ses­sion chance to bounce pro­vi­sional pole-sit­ter, his Mercedes team-mate Valt­teri Bot­tas, from the top spot.

A shunt for Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo at Turn 6 had brought out the red flag with just 3m 33s re­main­ing. This would al­low only enough time in the punc­tu­ated ses­sion for one more tyre-warm­ing lap, fol­lowed by a fi­nal su­per­soft flyer. And, boy, did Hamilton nail it. The man who lost the game of F1 mu­si­cal chairs, a flushed-look­ing Bot­tas, re­lated that he’d felt un­com­fort­able with the bal­ance of tyre tem­per­a­tures front-to-rear dur­ing the last­gasp shoot-out. But the truth was that Lewis had brought a bazooka to a gun­fight.

The Fer­raris bagged row two – Kimi Räikkö­nen once again edg­ing Seb Vet­tel – while Ver­stap­pen wound up fifth-fastest, al­ways seem­ing more com­fort­able than team-mate Ricciardo, whose shunt, in­deed, ar­rested the ses­sion and con­demned him to a P10 start.

Ser­gio Pérez and the con­sis­tently im­pres­sive Este­ban Ocon lined up P6 and P7 – the re­sult be­ing a par­tic­u­lar re­lief for Pérez, whose Turn 8 biff dur­ing FP1 wiped the right sus­pen­sion off his Force In­dia and prompted overnight kerb changes. They were fol­lowed by the Wil­liams duo, Lance Stroll pip­ping Felipe Massa for the first time.

RACE

WHEN SEB VET­TEL’S Fer­rari tapped the rear of Lewis Hamilton’s lead­ing Mercedes, just af­ter the exit of Turn 15 on lap 21 and then ac­cel­er­ated along­side him be­fore de­liv­er­ing a fur­ther glanc­ing blow in a vi­o­lent flash of road-rage, their short­lived love-in van­ished in a chirp of Pirelli on Pirelli.

Con­tact came as Vet­tel jock­eyed for ad­van­tage at the Safety-Car restart that fol­lowed a red-flag race stop­page to clear the cir­cuit of body­work de­bris. Hamilton was seem­ingly in con­trol of the race at this stage, lead­ing from his bril­liant Satur­day pole and man­ag­ing his gap to the heavy Mercedes sa­loon out front.

Had Lewis brake-tested Seb? No, said the race stew­ards, who would later haul Vet­tel in for a ten-sec­ond stop-go. And no said Mercedes, who re­leased teleme­try data post-race show­ing that Hamilton hadn’t squeezed the ‘slow’ pedal.

On any other day, Vet­tel’s penalty would surely have been enough to leave an oth­er­wise dom­i­nant

HAD LEWIS BRAKE-TESTED SEB? NO, SAID THE RACE STEW­ARDS, WHO WOULD LATER HAUL VET­TEL IN FOR A TEN-SEC­OND STOP-GO. AND NO SAID MERCEDES

Hamilton out front, cruis­ing to vic­tory num­ber 57. But one of the many twists of this chaotic af­fair was an un­sched­uled Hamilton pitstop on lap 31 to re­place cock­pit foam pad­ding that had worked loose. He would emerge in ninth, al­low­ing Vet­tel to lead for two laps be­fore his stop-go. When both pro­tag­o­nists were back up to speed, Vet­tel was ahead, and he’d re­main so till the flag, de­spite a fu­ri­ous charge from Hamilton that took him to within 0.2s of his neme­sis.

The pre­dictable war of words be­gan al­most im­me­di­ately, but their fury was lost in their own per­sonal echo cham­ber, for an en­tirely dif­fer­ent lead bat­tle had emerged through the fog of Vet­tel-Hamilton war­fare.

Daniel Ricciardo took the lead on lap 34 and stayed there to record a win that had seemed im­pos­si­ble af­ter he’d dropped to 17th on lap 6, to re­move Fer­rari body­work from in­side his Red Bull’s brake duct. Ricciardo’s ap­par­ently vain vic­tory quest was made pos­si­ble by mul­ti­ple Safety Cars, the re­spec­tive de­lays for Hamilton and Vet­tel and his own op­por­tunis­tic alacrity at the restarts. A su­perb Turn 1 lunge on lap 27, af­ter restart num­ber three, took him past Felipe Massa, then Lance Stroll and into the third place that set up his win.

That left Stroll in a con­fi­dent-look­ing fourth – soon to be­come sec­ond. It briefly seemed pos­si­ble that he might even be a con­tender for the win in only his eighth grand prix, given Re­nault’s patchy 2017 re­li­a­bil­ity record. Who could be cer­tain that Ricciardo’s PU would last to the flag, af­ter a lap 12 tech­ni­cal fail­ure for team-mate Max Ver­stap­pen?

But last it did, and even P2 was snatched away from Stroll, as a storm­ing Valt­teri Bot­tas, who’d risen Lazarus-like from last place fol­low­ing a lap 1 punc­ture, stole the place with a last-gasp DRS-as­sisted charge to the fin­ish line.

Sixth place went to Este­ban Ocon, but, of course, not in any straight­for­ward fash­ion. He and his team-mate Ser­gio Perez col­lided af­ter the sec­ond race restart, send­ing Pérez into what had ini­tially seemed to be an un­for­tu­nate re­tire­ment. Force In­dia man­aged to fix his car dur­ing the red-flag stop­page, how­ever, al­low­ing him back into the race be­fore a sec­ond, fi­nal, re­tire­ment. That was a harsh re­sult for Pérez who had run in third from the start and looked to be a podium con­tender.

Kevin Mag­nussen, Car­los Sainz, Fer­nando Alonso and Pas­cal Wehrlein closed out the top ten, Alonso’s points be­ing McLaren’s first of 2017. “We should have won that race,” was Fer­nando’s some­what baf­fling ver­dict. But if his words didn’t make much sense, nei­ther did any­thing else in this crazy, crazy race.

Clock­wise from top: Lance Stroll si­lences his de­trac­tors by be­com­ing the youngest rookie ever to grace the podium; Seb Vet­tel, serves his 10s stop-go penalty; Lewis’s cock­pit prob­lems cost him the win

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