Bottas punc­ture hands Hamil­ton un­likely vic­tory

Fin­nish driver cru­elly de­nied while Mercedes team-mate picks up the pieces

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Sports - GILES RICHARDS in Baku

Lewis Hamil­ton won the Azer­bai­jan Grand Prix for Mercedes, after a dra­matic fi­nale cost his Mercedes team-mate Valt­teri Bottas a likely win. A late safety car prompted by a clash be­tween the two Red Bulls proved de­ci­sive and ul­ti­mately hugely to the Bri­tish driver’s ben­e­fit. His cham­pi­onship ri­val Se­bas­tian Vet­tel fin­ished only fourth in a race he had largely con­trolled. His Fer­rari team-mate Kimi Raikko­nen was sec­ond, with force In­dia’s Ser­gio Pérez in third.

The win for Hamil­ton, wholly un­ex­pected as he did not have the pace of the Fer­rari all week­end, has moved him in front of Vet­tel in the world cham­pi­onship for the first time this sea­son. It was at the ex­pense of Bottas how­ever, who was lead­ing when he suf­fered a punc­ture that took him out of the race.

Vet­tel had looked in con­trol for a com­fort­able win hav­ing led from pole and with a clear edge on Hamil­ton who started from sec­ond. The Bri­tish driver was strug­gling for grip how­ever and pit­ted early and was matched seven laps later by Vet­tel. Bottas stayed out, in­her­it­ing the lead and able to run well on his rub­ber un­til lap 40 when the Red Bull’s of Daniel Ric­cia­rdo and Max Ver­stap­pen hit one another. Just as at the last round in China, stopping un­der the safety car proved key and Bottas was able to stay in front.

De­bris

The restart on lap 48 proved cru­cial, Bottas held his po­si­tion but Vet­tel in sec­ond was far too hot into turn one, went wide and flat-spot­ted his tyre. It al­lowed Hamil­ton through and Vet­tel then lost fur­ther places to Raikko­nen and Pérez. The race looked to be­long to Bottas but a lap later the Finn picked up some de­bris and took a ma­jor punc­ture that re­moved him from con­tention. Mercedes and Hamil­ton had their first win but far from how they were ex­pect­ing it.

The win is Hamil­ton’s first of the sea­son and more than he would have an­tic­i­pated after strug­gling for grip in both prac­tice and qual­i­fy­ing. His 63rd ca­reer vic­tory is his first in Azer­bai­jan and com­pletes the Bri­tish driver’s achieve­ment of hav­ing now taken a podium at ev­ery cir­cuit on the 2018 cal­en­dar.

The vic­tory will be hugely pleas­ing and of some re­lief to the Bri­tish driver and his team. Mercedes now have their first vic­tory of the sea­son but high­lighted in Baku, es­pe­cially for Hamil­ton, was the is­sue that they are still not get­ting to grips with putting their tyres in the cor­rect op­er­at­ing win­dow that has seen them strug­gling for per­for­mance thus far. They did how­ever call the strat­egy for Bottas su­perbly to put him in con­tention and then make the most of it when the safety car was de­ployed.

Hamil­ton won nine races on his way to his fourth world cham­pi­onship last sea­son but hav­ing clinched it with ninth place in Mex­ico this is the first race he has won since then. He and Mercedes how­ever know a stern test awaits. The open­ing four rounds sug­gest that Fer­rari have a solid plat­form across tracks and con­di­tions where Hamil­ton’s ride is prov­ing more dif­fi­cult to man­age.

Wrestling a vic­tory here given the strength of the op­po­si­tion at the Baku cir­cuit will feel like a ma­jor achieve­ment and as the teams re­turn to west­ern Europe will have given much-needed im­pe­tus to his ti­tle chal­lenge.

For Red Bull it was an af­ter­noon that will re­quire a stern de­brief with their driv­ers. The two came to­gether on the main straight in lap 40, with Ric­cia­rdo go­ing into the back of Ver­stap­pen, caus­ing the safety car to be de­ployed.

Lewis Hamil­ton cel­e­brates win­ning the Azer­bai­jan Grand Prix

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