LUCKY LEWIS BAGS BAKU
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.
“VETTEL THREW AWAY HIS FINAL SHOT AT VICTORY BY LOCKING HIS WHEELS DURING A BOLD MOVE TO TRY TO RECLAIM THE LEAD FROM BOTTAS. CHAOS REIGNED ON THE STREETS OF BAKU
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...