Australian Dan Ricciardo has won a drama and carnage filled Azerbaijan Grand Prix, after brake issues in the opening laps saw him drop as low as 17th.
The victory was the fifth of Ricciardo’s career and is certainly the most surprising, considering his crash in Q3 on Saturday, resulting in the Australian starting from 10th on the grid.
18 year old rookie Lance Stroll, kept his nose clean throughout the long afternoon, before being pipped only metres from the finish for second place, thanks to a resurgent Bottas in his flying Mercedes.
The drama started on the opening lap when Bottas bounced off the inside kerb at turn two and collided with Raikkonen, forcing the Finn into the pits for a new front right tyre and a new nose, dropping him down by several laps and seemingly out of contention. The Raikkonen Ferrari suffered minor damage, that would be compounded as the afternoon went on.
Through the first segment of the race, Hamilton held the lead from Vettel, Verstappen, Perez, Raikkonen and Massa, whilst Ricciardo pitted for fresh rubber and to clear his break scoop of debris.
Several laps later whilst backing the field up under the safety car, Hamilton slowed suddenly on the exit of turn 16, and Vettel, clearly caught unaware ran into the back of him. The contact was only minimal and the damage minor at worst, but Vettel’s fury and subsequent reaction was anything but.
The German quickly pulled his Ferrari out of the queue and alongside his British rival before turning into the Mercedes!
Again, contact was only minimal and no apparent damage was inflicted, but social media was lit alight and Hamilton reacted with bewilderment, telling his team, “Vettel just literally came along side me and turned into me!”
The race restarted on the very next lap, with Vettel under assault from Felipe Massa and the two Force India’s of Perez and Ocon. Then in a horror moment for the Pink team, Ocon tagged Perez down the inside at turn 2 (in a remarkably similar incident to the opening lap contact between Bottas and Raikkonen), resulting in damage for both cars and ending any hopes of a podium finish or a possible race win.
With debris now strewn about all over the circuit, Fernando Alonso correctly predicted the need for a red flag to allow the marshals time to clean up the track.
With the remaining cars lined up in the pit lane, teams took advantage of the temporary halt to grab new tyres and repair any minor damage for the second half of the race. However, the rules do stipulate that repair work can only occur in the fast lane and not in team garages, something Perez and Raikkonen did not adhere to and they were duly punished following the restart.
From the restart, Hamilton and Vettel got away cleanly, however third place Massa had reported an issue in the warm up lap, and his concerns were confirmed on the start finish straight, when teammate Stroll and a flying Ricciardo flew past him into turn 1. Hulkenburg and Magnussen went past on the following lap, as Massa’s engineer identified the issue as a broken rear damper, sending the unfortunate Williams into retirement.
The bad luck trend hit Nico Hulkenburg next after he nicked the wall and broke his front right suspension, whilst sitting in 6th place. Then it was the turn of the race leaders, Hamilton and Vettel.
In a bizarre twist, after the red flag stoppage, it appeared Hamilton’s headrest had been incorrectly fitted before the restart, and in the longer straights Hamilton attempted to push it back down, although in vain. It became a safety issue and Hamilton was obliged to pit for a new headrest costing him the lead of the race. Ferrari’s joy at Hamilton’s misfortune lasted only moments however, as Vettel was then struck down with a 10 second stop and go penalty for dangerous driving via the earlier incident with Hamilton behind the safety car.
This dropped the lead of the race into the lap of Red Bull’s Ricciardo, who seemed slightly bemused by what had taken place, and now began to pull a lead out on Stroll, Magnussen, Ocon, Bottas, Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton who rejoined close together, but in the opposite order.
Vettel and Hamilton both made quick work of Alonso’s powerless McLaren, whilst Magnussen fell to Ocon, Bottas, Vettel and Hamilton in quick succession.
With 11 laps remaining, Bottas made his move past Ocon and onto the podium along pit straight, and set about chasing down Stroll, which appeared to be a bridge too far, considering laps remaining and a sizeable gap. But bridge the gap he did, and in a most remarkable cherry on top of a most outlandish race, he zoomed past Stroll in the shadow of the chequered flag to regain some pride for Mercedes.
Ricciardo couldn’t hide his trademark grin on the podium or in the post race press conference, and he certainly acknowledged his good fortune, “”It was just a crazy race, we knew the podium was a chance after the restart and then we heard about the problems with Lewis and Seb.”
Stroll was also overjoyed as he became the second youngest man in history to stand on a prestigious F1 podium. Bottas put in arguably the drive of the day, ahead of Stroll, with Vettel 4th, Hamilton 5th.
Ocon, who recovered well finished 6th, Magnussen was 7th, Sainz who also recovered from a spin on lap 1 was 8th, Alonso secured McLaren’s first points for the year in 9th, and Wehrlein in his Sauber was 10th.
But the real story moving forward is the hostility and very real animosity between the two world championship contenders. Hamilton believed Vettel’s penalty wasn’t severe enough, and post race he aggressively condemned the German’s behaviour.
“He was obviously sleeping and driving alongside and deliberately driving into a driver and coming away scot-free is a disgrace. He disgraced himself.
“If he wants to prove he’s a man, we should do it out of the car face-to-face. Driving dangerously in any way can put another driver at risk,” Hamilton said.
Vettel was just as strident in his feelings on the incident, stating that he believed that the Brit brake tested him and thus caused the incident.
When pressed on the issue Vettel said, “It was very clear. We are racing with men. I don’t have a radio to him. If we get a penalty, we should both get a penalty.
“I wasn’t happy with the brake-testing. I drove alongside him and raised my hand to say that is not the way to do it and we had a little contact.
“I don’t run into the back of him on purpose,” Vettel said.
Whatever people’s opinions, the die is now cast as we head into the European stage of the championship. Mercedes vs Ferrari, Hamilton vs Vettel, our first real inter-constructor duel for the world championship since 2010.