Following two days of track action that saw incidents and accidents galore, Mercedes’s Valtteri Bottas casually predicted that the Azerbaijan Grand Prix could potentially prove to be ‘more of a mess’ than last year’s relatively uneventful affair.
Such was the degree of accuracy of Bottas’s prediction, it would ultimately transpire that this very same driver’s recovery from the back of the field following a first lap collision all the way to taking second place in the final 100m of the race would only prove to be a minor talking point in post-race discussions.
Yes, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was one of those very special Formula One races where few made it to the chequered flag unscathed, few could’ve predicted the result and few are likely to ever forget.
Because not only was this race one of constant chaos and drama, it may have also provided us with some significant spice in the already very tasty rivalry between that has been steadily brewing between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.
The fallout of which, and the effect it could have over the remaining 12 races of the season, could yet come to define this championship.
Fighting Finns come to blows again
Having dropped the ‘European’ moniker for their second attempt at hosting a grand prix, the Azerbaijan organisers were hoping that the ‘land of fire’ would produce a race with considerably more heat than their first.
Fresh from matching his idol Ayrton Senna’s pole positions tally last time out in Montreal, Lewis Hamilton had followed up by breaking his fellow three-time champion’s mark around the Baku streets ahead of team mate Valtteri Bottas.
Red Bull had looked potentially threatening in practice, but Daniel Ricciardo’s Q3 crash had doomed him to a midfield start, while Max Verstappen was unable to beat the Ferraris of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, who had in turn found themselves over a second adrift of the Silver Arrows.
A second consecutive one-two for Mercedes looked, in all probability, to be on the cards, should this be a conventional race.
It was anything but.
As the lights went out, Hamilton swept away onto the racing line and firmly taking the lead. Behind, Bottas found himself having to check up to give his team mate space, coming under pressure from the Ferraris of Raikkonen and Vettel behind. Bottas struggled to get traction down on the street surface out of the first turn, leaving him vulnerable to his countryman Raikkonen on the run down to turn two.
Raikkonen, with the momentum, took to the right in an attempt to ride clean around the outside of the Mercedes into turn two. While the Ferrari left plenty of room, Bottas took too much kerb on the inside and understeered directly into Raikkonen, who made more than significant contact with the outside wall.
Remarkably, despite clouting the concrete, Raikkonen came away from the collision the healthiest of the two Finns, with Bottas suffering major front wing damage as well as a right-front puncture, forcing him into an over three minute crawl back to the pits.
It hadn’t been the first time this season that Bottas and Raikkonen had come to blows in the opening skirmishes of a grand prix. Raikkonen was quick to voice his frustrations over radio and it was hard not to sympathise with the Ferrari driver. But in keeping with the sport’s new, more lenient approach to racing incidents this year, the stewards determined that no action should be taken either way for the incident.
Through the melee, Hamilton emerged in a clear lead with championship leader Vettel in second, with Sergio Perez promoted up to third in the Force India, ahead of Max Verstappen’s Red Bull, with Raikkonen’s potentially wounded Ferrari in fifth.
In what was to become a major theme of the race, debris began to cause the first of what would be many, many headaches for drivers and engineers alike.
Max Verstappen called the pit wall to suggest that he may have picked up damage from the turn two, but while Red Bull were initially concerned about Verstappen’s radiators, it was the sister car of Ricciardo who had the more pressing issue. The Australian pitted at the end of Lap Four, switching to Soft tyres while the team cleared out his brake ducts.
It is hard to believe that, on Lap Six, the eventual top two finishers of this race sat in 17th and last, respectively.
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Verstappen forced out again
It would take a long memory to recall any driver suffering such a difficult and fruitless start to a season as Jolyon Palmer has in 2017.
Following regular car problems, disappointing results and very public speculation over his future with the Renault team, the former GP2 champion’s fortunes somehow continued to get spectacularly worse in Baku. Following a sizeable shunt on Friday and an engine fire on Saturday that forced him out of qualifying, Palmer’s Sunday ended equally hopelessly when he was told to switch off his engine and coast home on Lap Eight.
It would be the first of an early spate of mechanical problems – and not the only for a Renault powered driver.
Daniil Kvyat’s weekend ended just after the Baku castle at turn 12 when he was forced to pull off the line with a suspected electronics problem. With the lack of easy access areas for recovery around the Baku street circuit, there didn’t seem to be a simple way for the marshals to remove the stricken Toro Rosso without intervention from race control.
Then, Verstappen’s apparently unlucky RB13 curse struck again. For the second race in a row, Verstappen saw a promising start fall away into nothingness when his power unit stopped providing him full power entering the enormous main straight.
While reaching 300km/h would be an impressive achievement for most engines, it was clear that Red Bull were facing yet another race-ending problem as car after car swept past the helpless Verstappen down the straight.
“Ugh, here we go again!,” lamented the thoroughly hacked-off young Dutchman. It would be his fourth failure to finish in the last six grands prix. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Verstappen was nowhere to be found in the media pen or indeed the entire paddock in the aftermath of his latest retirement.
Meanwhile, with no obvious solution to remove Kvyat’s Toro Rosso that remained parked off line, the Safety Car was deployed to give the track workers ample window to take care of it.
With a one stop strategy having always seemed the no-brainer optimum strategy, now was as good a time as any to make the switch, with almost the entire field immediately boxing for new rubber.
After the stops cycled through, Hamilton still lead ahead of Vettel, Perez still in third, Massa in fourth, Esteban Ocon in fifth, with Raikkonen sixth in the second Ferrari. Having stopped for a third set of tyres, the eventual winner, Ricciardo, was now up to tenth, while Bottas was crucially handed his lap back, effectively negating the majority of the damage he’d caused himself in that opening lap mishap.
At the restart, Hamilton carefully, deliberately, backed the field up to give himself plenty of room to put the throttle down hard entering the longest flat out section on the calendar. He timed it perfectly, passing the Safety Car line mere seconds after the AMG-Mercedes road car had done so itself, leaving Vettel with little opportunity to challenge him for the lead, who instead had to fend off an ambitious Perez behind.
Further back, a small piece of debris flew off from Raikkonen’s Ferrari under braking for turn one. While it appeared harmful enough, race director Charlie Whiting refused to take any chances and opted to bring out the Safety Car for a second time, giving even more opportunity for the track to the sufficiently cleared.
Red mist, red flag
Then came the moment that could well have transformed the entire complexion of the championship duel between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.
It all started from Hamilton, bracing himself for another restart, again choosing the exit of turn 15 to begin to strategically bunch up the field ahead of lunching himself into another clear lead come the end of the lap.
Vettel expected Hamilton to accelerate after navigating the tricky left-hand kink. He didn’t. Vettel did.
The Ferrari braked hard to avoid the Mercedes, but with brake temperatures having fallen under the Safety Car, Vettel was unable to miss tagging the back of Hamilton’s car.
With little, if any, damage done, that should’ve been the end of it. But Vettel was blinded with anger at what he interpreted as a deliberate brake test on behalf of Hamilton. In one of those poor snap decisions that so many drivers in history, even champions, have been guilty of, Vettel chose to pull alongside his rival to gesticulate in rage and, in doing so, clashed wheels with the Mercedes.
Even after the race concluded an hour later, Vettel was still incensed by what he saw as a deliberate dangerous move by Hamilton.
“I think it was quite obvious,” claimed Vettel. “It’s just not the way to do it.”
Rather unsurprisingly, Hamilton saw things differently.
“I control the pace, so like all the other restarts I slowed down at the same spot,” said Hamilton. “He was obviously sleeping and drove into the back of me.”
Despite the collision, Hamilton took off once again into the lead as the race officially resumed. The stewards began to investigate immediately. It seemed like a moment of poor judgement could well cost Vettel valuable points in the tight title race between the two.
Vettel again had to worry about threats from behind, with Massa in the Williams taking advantage of a double slipsteam from the Force Indias at the fastest point on the circuit to drive down the inside of the Ferrari in a bold attempt to take second.
With Vettel rebuffing the attack, Perez looked to the outside of Massa, in much the same way Raikkonen had done earlier, but found that team mate Ocon had a much better run to the inside. Perez moved to defend and the two touched before the braking zone for turn two.
Ocon to his inside, Perez held his line around the outside but found himself running out of space on the exit. Ocon didn’t offer any more and the two collided, causing significant damage to both cars and all but ending their chances of an incredibly strong result in the process.
Having come off the worst of the two, Perez was livid, later branding the incident as ‘totally unacceptable’
With yet more debris now strewn on the track, Kimi Raikkonen collected some of Perez’s front wing, causing him a right-rear puncture and helping to make the Ferrari driver’s day even more challenging.
Having descended from eventful to almost farcical, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix saw its third Safety Car intervention of the afternoon. This time, however, the red flags were called. Whether this was to allow for a thorough clean up of the entire circuit or simply just to give the drivers a much needed time out to calm down was unsure.
Cars were brought back to the pits as teams got to work trying to fix whatever damage they were permitted to fix, with Perez, Ocon and Raikkonen among those receiving the most substantial treatment.
Hamilton keeps head despite losing his head rest
After a considerable period of respite, the drivers climbed back into their cars to resume the second half of this chaotic grand prix. It would only be a little less frantic than the first.
Hamilton still headed the field from Vettel, with Massa, Stroll, Ricciardo, Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen’s Haas following as the field lined up for the third time behind the Safety Car.
There was considerably less drama at the front when the race resumed this time, as Hamilton once again crossed the line comfortably ahead of Vettel. Behind, however, Daniel Ricciardo took a giant step forward with a major lunge up the inside of both Williams of Stroll and Massa to as well as the charging Hulkenberg to jump up to third.
Massa’s Williams was now visibly shaking down the long main straight, the team quick to inform him that a broken rear damper was effectively forcing him out of the race. Massa was passed by both Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault and Kevin Magnussen’s Haas, but the smiles quickly dissipated from the Renault team’s faces when Hulkenberg clipped the inside wall at turn seven, damaging his suspension to become yet another retirement.
Then, as if there hadn’t been enough drama, enough incident, enough talking points from this bizarre grand prix, the race was then turned entirely on its head once more, when Hamilton’s headrest began to come loose from his Mercedes.
Rising from the cockpit of the W08 under the aerodynamic turbulence of a 320km/h velocity, the headrest was becoming a key safety risk, let alone a significant distraction for the race leader, who was forced to do the world’s fastest dab along the main straight in an attempt to secure it back down one-handed.
With Hamilton’s best efforts unable to fix the problem, Mercedes faced the reality of having to call their man in to secure this disruptive device and almost certainly end his chances of taking a fourth victory of the season.
Hamilton duly surrendered the lead to Vettel on Lap 31, but then came the news that the Ferrari driver had been handed a ten-second stop-and-go penalty for ‘dangerous driving’ following the collision between the pair at the second restart.
Vettel was incredulous. “When did I do dangerous driving?,” he asked, although it was difficult to believe he could be at all genuine in that question.
Hamilton, far more believably, was less than impressed. “A ten second penalty for driving like that is not enough, you know that Charlie,” he mused.
Vettel served his penalty at the start of Lap 34, resuming just ahead of Hamilton in seventh. The pair caught Fernando Alonso’s McLaren, who had found himself up into sixth following the carnage of the race so far, and Hamilton looked to take advantage to pass the Ferrari out of turn one, but was forced to bide his time.
Ricciardo records fifth career victory
Throughout all of this, Daniel Ricciardo had now inherited the lead of the grand prix despite his early pit stop forcing him to have played catch up from the fourth lap of the race.
As amazing as that may have seemed, the fact that rookie Lance Stroll – much maligned by his critics for appearing out of his depth at times over the start of his Formula One career – was running second on merit having kept out of trouble was almost scarcely believable.
Under the radar too had been Valtteri Bottas’s recovery, who had taken advantage of gaining a lost lap back under the initial Safety Car period to navigate the debris and the carnage up to fourth place behind Ocon. Bottas used DRS to great effect to breeze past the Force India on Lap 40 and was now, incredibly, on the podium, with 12 laps remaining to chase down a 14 second gap to Stroll’s Williams in second.
The two Saubers of Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein made minor contact with each other on the run down to turn three, shedding yet more carbon fibre onto the circuit in an almost fitting visual metaphor for that team’s recent fortunes.
Vettel and Hamilton continued to advance back through the field, dispatching Magnussen’s Haas and then Ocon’s Force India to reach fourth and fifth, respectively. Ultimately, it would prove to be as high as either would reach.
Hamilton, aware that Vettel now had his team mate ahead, enquired as to whether Bottas could be used to try and make the Ferrari more vulnerable to him. But with Bottas catching second-placed Stroll at over a second a lap, he would receive no such assistance.
It had been one of the most incident filled and action packed grands prix in recent memory, but despite everything, Ricciardo had once again demonstrated how he thrives on chaos and came through to take his and Red Bull’s first victory of the season and his first win since Malaysia last year.
But there was still time for yet more drama as Lance Stroll, en route to an astonishing maiden podium, came under immense pressure from Bottas on the run to the line. With the full power of the Mercedes’s top engine mode and the bonus of DRS, Bottas approached the Williams as if at warp speed and snatched second place from the teenager less than 100 metres from the chequered flag in one of the most unlikely podium finishes you’ll ever see.
Losing second at the death in no way diminished how important and impressive a result this was for Stroll, who had finally answered his critics in the most powerful way by showing great speed, judgement and maturity in a race so many, even multiple world champions, had not.
Vettel and Hamilton crossed in fourth and fifth, the championship leader extending his lead to 14 points over his rival but at the cost of three penalty points on his superlicense. Hamilton’s branding of Vettel’s conduct as a ‘disgrace’ after the race was perhaps the first major indication that the nature of their respectful competition may have suffered a major change.
Sixth place would usually have seemed a solid result for Ocon and Force India, but in light of the unnecessary and costly contact between the two team mates earlier in the race, it was hard not to feel as though the team’s drivers could’ve cost themselves a truly special race result for the second weekend in succession.
Magnussen drove smartly to take seventh for Haas in a good effort, with Carlos Sainz having recovered from an opening lap spin to take eighth for Toro Rosso.
Such was the level of action and the number of talking points from this race, it was easy to overlook that McLaren took only their first points of the season with Fernando Alonso securing a ninth place finish – the longest wait for first points of the McLaren-Honda reunion era.
Despite their minor coming together, Pascal Wehrlein rounded out the points ahead of Sauber team mate Marcus Ericsson. With team principal Monisha Kaltenborn having departed from the team just days before the weekend began, the result will hopefully provide a boost to morale.
And so, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix succeeded in its ambition to produce dramatic, exciting racing with a race that will sit long in the memory for many of the sport’s fans.
While the sheer number of incidents and accidents will have left some feeling as though this was hardly a shining demonstration of Formula One racing at its highest level, the ramifications from this particular round of the 2017 championship could well be felt throughout the rest of the season.
Perhaps most importantly, we were all treated to an unexpected podium of three drivers who would never have expected to find themselves on it after the opening laps of the race with genuine jubilation on display on the rostrum. Which, many may well agree, is how it should be.
After all, as Lance Stroll put it best, “That’s why we do this, for these moments.You have hard days, good days, but these days feel so special.”
2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix
2017 F1 race reviews
- Rosberg denies Hamilton a winning end to his championship year
- Rosberg frustrates Hamilton as Vettel gives hope to Ferrari
- Rosberg gets his revenge as Hamilton holds back
- Hard-fighting Hamilton pounces on Rosberg error to seal third title
- Rosberg’s misfortune brings Hamilton within touching distance of title