Baku eventually did its worst. A Lewis Hamilton victory really shouldn’t seem incongruous – even with Mercedes incongruously going three rounds without a win – but that it did says a lot about this latest Azerbaijan Grand Prix. “Lady luck was on our side,” as Lewis’s engineer said in summing up. But this race takes a lot of summing up.
A lot like the Chinese Grand Prix last time out this one swung. As in China Sebastian Vettel appeared initially to have the race well under control out front with a drive redolent of his Red Bull pomp, including clearing the chasing Lewis by three seconds in the first lap of green flag racing.
From then it was nip and tuck for a while, and it appeared Lewis was the one to blink. On lap 22 he locked up egregiously and went down the turn 1 escape road then pitted immediately due to his flat-spots. It was another one-stopper as a default, and the new tyre effect on the soft compound wasn’t up to much. Seb pitted himself nine laps later to stay ahead of Lewis comfortably, but in that seemingly inoffensive move, he lost the race.
As Valtteri Bottas in the other Merc had been following both at a reasonable distance and now in the lead pressed on with the super-softs that he started with, often looking quicker than those more freshly-booted behind. He was about 12 seconds clear of the Ferrari, not enough to pit and still lead under normal circumstances but a late dash on ultra-softs looked his ace card.
But also like in China a safety car tilted things. And how it came about was no small matter. The Red Bulls had been at it hammer and tongs all day, to the point that they seemed rather to impede each other’s progress. After a few near misses, they with 11 laps left finally got together when Daniel Ricciardo ran into the back of Max Verstappen – a few reckoned Max had weaved. Whatever both got rather the dressing down from boss Christian Horner afterwards.
Bottas pitted smartly and kept his lead; Seb and the rest had little choice but to pit too for the late sprint.
Which left that late sprint, four laps’ long (Romain Grosjean had extended the caution period by binning it behind the safety car when sitting in sixth – amusingly blaming Marcus Ericsson who was nowhere near).
When green flag racing resumed Bottas looked initially to have got the jump on Seb in the extended run to turn 1 but Seb got the whiff of a tow and decided to lick a stamp and send it as his former team-mate had it in China. Too late – he ran wide in a plume of rubber smoke and lost three places. Sergio Perez not long after got by the flat-spotted Seb too.
“I’m happy that I tried, I’m not happy that it didn’t work,” Vettel said later, “I didn’t think it was over-optimistic…
“I was a bit trapped because I couldn’t see where I was relative to turn 1. We have our references, and they are on the right – a kerb, the signs on the wall, and on the left, there is hardly any reference.
“Other than that I think it was a strong race and that’s how it goes sometimes.”
Yet – amazingly – Baku still had a final sting. Bottas looked to be marching to the win and with it the championship lead, but next time around he ran over a piece of debris on the main straight (plenty wondered why it was there) and punctured his right rear. With that, he went from a win to nothing. Lewis after another slightly underwhelming run had victory handed to him. He got the table lead with it.
“I’ll get through it, it’s part of racing but at the moment it’s very painful. Street circuits are difficult when there are a lot of crashes.
“I had no idea I had run over anything, I didn’t see or hear anything.”
Lewis in fairness resisted exaltation. “I have very mixed emotions for today. It’s really quite a humbling experience,” he said.
“Ultimately Valtteri deserved to win. He did an exceptional job, a faultless drive. Less so on my side.
“I never give up and it’s been a while since I’ve been reminded on that lesson. I kept pushing and things turned out the way they did.
“Feeling like I didn’t drive the way I normally drive – so that hurts a little bit. I’m coming out the last corner and I’m just in disbelief.
“This happens to be a track where luck, you kind of need it.”
It was one of those days that no one among the front-runners came away feeling very happy. “Good and bad,” said Niki Lauda encapsulating the Merc view.
“It doesn’t change our reality that we are still a little bit behind, but I guess Lewis got his Melbourne win back,” added Toto Wolff.
Vettel and Ferrari meanwhile will ponder how they’ve lost two races in a row that they seemed to have utterly at their command. Indeed had Bottas been a bit braver in Bahrain – and/or had Merc twigged sooner on Ferrari’s strategy switch – it could be three from three.
Kimi Raikkonen salvaged second for the Scuderia, after dropping down from getting together with Esteban Ocon on lap 1 (it looked to me that Ocon could have given racing room). Seb got fourth. It means Ferrari at least reclaims the constructors’ table lead.
Something about Perez and Force India and this circuit just go together and they made a recovery of their own after getting their own damage in the first lap frolics – Sergey Sirotkin ran into the Mexican – and having to pit. A Bottas-esque long strategy got them into the mix; Perez bagged yet another podium in third. Force India more generally looked back to its usual pace this weekend after a tricky season start.
It continues also a trend that in the last 38 Grands Prix the only non ‘big six’ podium finishes have all been in Baku – Checo two years ago and today; Lance Stroll last year.
Carlos Sainz looked racy and indeed passed both Red Bulls in the early running. It looked like he was on the wrong strategy having started on ultra-softs and he pitted early-ish. The late frolics got him up to fifth at the end. Team-mate Nico Hulkenberg meanwhile mirrored his race at Baku last year by putting his Renault into the wall when running fifth and on for a good result…
Another to at last show promised form was F2 protegee Charles Leclerc who was bang on the money all weekend and got sixth. Not for nothing, he said it was like a win.
He was followed home by Fernando Alonso who had his own adventures, including a Gilles Villeneuve-type lap on two wheels on lap 1 after being another Sirotkin had clattered into. Despite the damage, he hauled his car to another healthy bag of points.
His McLaren team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne also got points in ninth, aided by pitting for the second time under the late safety car so he could attack on nicely warmed tyres. It was some consolation after a weekend wherein McLaren slipped down the order as well as announced a dreaded ‘technical reshuffle’.
Williams was another to look a bit better this weekend and Stroll stayed in the mix to get eighth, having briefly got a place higher in the late laps. Williams thus is the last team this season to break its points duck. Brendon Hartley stayed out of trouble to complete the scorers, thus becoming the first Kiwi to score in F1 since Chris Amon.
It was that sort of day. F1 in 2018 continues to confound. The next race is at Barcelona – long associated with standard fare and strict adherence to the pecking order. Then again the race there last year was a thriller as well. On current form, you wouldn’t be advised to bet on which way that one will go.