Valt­teri Bot­tas drove the per­fect race in Azerbaijan to snatch cer­tain vic­tory from Se­bas­tian Vet­tel… until a chance im­pact with on-track de­bris


As dark­ness fell on Baku a for­lorn-look­ing Mercedes sat in the Azerbaijan pit­lane. A red plas­tic bag draped over its right-rear wheel cov­ered the ev­i­dence of the punc­ture that had af­flicted Valt­teri Bot­tas just three laps from vic­tory.

Bot­tas was all set to head a Mercedes 1-2 but, as he crossed the line to start lap 49 of a chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix, a piece of de­bris bit into his tyre and forced him into re­tire­ment – gift­ing the win to his team-mate Lewis Hamil­ton.

Se­bas­tian Vet­tel had led for most of the race but lost out to Bot­tas dur­ing a late Safety Car – de­ployed so mar­shals could clear up af­ter the two Red Bulls hit each other. Then Vet­tel threw away his fi­nal shot at vic­tory by lock­ing his wheels dur­ing a bold move to try to re­claim the lead from Bot­tas. Not for the first time, chaos reigned on the streets of Baku.


Kimi Räikkö­nen’s week­end was de­fined by his fail­ure to se­cure pole. Though he has been per­form­ing with more dis­tinc­tion this sea­son than in those im­me­di­ately past, he was un­done by a small mis­take in his fi­nal Q3 run: af­ter go­ing quick­est of all in the first two sec­tors he over­cooked his ap­proach to the fi­nal turn, just kept his car out of the wall, then fish­tailed un­der trac­tion as he over­com­pen­sated for his er­ror. That handed Vet­tel his third pole of the year and con­signed Kimi to sixth on the grid.

“I was on a good lap, but just got side­ways,” said Räikkö­nen. “It was the worst place to make a mis­take be­cause you are los­ing time all the way to the fin­ish line – pretty shitty end­ing.”

Vet­tel started ahead of the two Mercedes of Hamil­ton and Bot­tas, who only just lost out to his team-mate. It was a sim­i­lar story for the two Red Bulls be­hind as Daniel Ric­cia­rdo edged ahead of Max Ver­stap­pen by less than a tenth of a sec­ond.

The most sig­nif­i­cant drama in qual­i­fy­ing came in Q1 when the two Toro Ros­sos avoided an almighty shunt. Pierre Gasly was on a hot lap com­ing up quickly be­hind Bren­don Hart­ley, run­ning slowly with a punc­ture. Af­ter a late change of direc­tion, Gasly nar­rowly avoided can­non­ing into the rear of his team-mate. It was very close and some­thing Gasly de­scribed as “the scari­est mo­ment of my ca­reer”, adding, “I could al­ready see my­self in the air.”


The lead­ers made a clean fist of the start as Vet­tel led Hamil­ton, Bot­tas, Ric­cia­rdo and Ver­stap­pen into the nar­rower sec­tion be­hind Azerbaijan’s im­pos­ing seat of gov­ern­ment. But the fun­nel ef­fect caught out sev­eral driv­ers be­hind as Räikkö­nen lost out to Force In­dia’s Este­ban Ocon and then col­lided with him as he at­tempted to repass at Turn 3, an im­pact that sent Ocon into the wall.

Fur­ther back, Ser­gio Perez’s Force In­dia took a whack up the rear from the Wil­liams of Sergey Sirotkin, who then tan­gled with Fer­nando Alonso’s Mclaren and Nico Hülken­berg’s Re­nault as they ran three abreast. The re­sul­tant Safety Car de­ploy­ment en­abled Räikkö­nen, Perez and Alonso to limp back to the pits for re­pairs with­out los­ing a lap, open­ing the way for them to re­cover to po­si­tions that seemed un­likely at this stage of the race.

Rac­ing re­sumed on lap five, and as the lead­ing trio stretched away the Red Bulls fell vic­tim to Car­los Sainz’s hy­per­soft-shod Re­nault and be­gan fight­ing with each other. Ver­stap­pen stole fifth but Ric­cia­rdo even­tu­ally fought back and made a move stick, bang­ing wheels in the process. “Close, hard and fair rac­ing,” was how team prin­ci­pal Chris­tian Horner de­scribed this. But dis­as­ter was to fol­low…

Like Mercedes and Fer­rari, Red Bull’s strat­egy was to go as long as pos­si­ble into the race on the su­per­soft tyres with a view to putting on the more frag­ile hy­per­softs later. Hamil­ton was un­able to do that af­ter a change in wind direc­tion prompted him to lock up his wheels and flat-spot them badly enough to re­quire a change on lap 21,

com­mit­ting him to softs that he strug­gled to bring up to oper­at­ing tem­per­a­ture. But de­spite their in­ternecine duel the Red Bulls held out until lap 37, when Ric­cia­rdo came in fol­lowed by Ver­stap­pen – who was able to pick up DRS from a back­marker on his in-lap and emerge in the lead.

On lap 40, the seem­ingly in­evitable came to pass and the two Red Bulls col­lided at Turn 1, and although it was Ric­cia­rdo who hit the back of Ver­stap­pen the ste­wards later ap­por­tioned blame equally. The sec­ond ap­pear­ance of the Safety Car worked beau­ti­fully for Mercedes, who brought Bot­tas in for ul­tra­softs and sent him out ahead of Vet­tel, much to the four-time champ’s cha­grin.

When Ro­main Gros­jean lost con­trol of his Haas while warm­ing his tyres the cau­tion pe­riod had to be ex­tended, leav­ing just four rac­ing laps at the fin­ish. In des­per­a­tion, Vet­tel tried to re­claim the lead at Turn 1 but locked up and went wide; Bot­tas looked as­sured for the win.

But when Bot­tas ran over de­bris on the main straight (a pos­si­ble legacy of Kevin Mag­nussen swerv­ing into Pierre Gasly at the restart) his tyre shred­ded, en­abling Hamil­ton to in­herit vic­tory ahead of Räikko­nen, while Perez mugged Vet­tel to claim his first podium since Baku 2016.


The al­most in­evitable clash of the duelling pair of Red Bulls fi­nally came on lap 40 Bot­tas was cru­elly robbed of vic­tory when he ran over de­bris with only three laps left Hamil­ton, third be­hind Bot­tas and Vet­tel at the restart, took ad­van­tage of the...

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