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
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.
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.
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