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Opinion: Baku delivers another stunner

Credit: Mark Thompson/Getty Images/Red Bull Media House

In similar fashion to the Chinese Grand Prix, the final part of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was equally as dramatic but in a very different way. Lewis Hamilton took his first win since Austin last October with a pretty average drive and a bit of luck. He now leads the championship standings. But how did his rivals fall be the wayside?

Qualifying saw Kimi Raikkonen make a mistake at the final “proper” corner when he was 2 tenths up on Sebastian Vettel (who did go on to take pole) which ultimately cost him pole position. Instead he started 6th, a costly error. It was agonising to see because Raikkonen has started on the front row in the previous 3 races this year and hasn’t had a pole position for nearly 12 months. Surely he can rectify this. The Ferrari visibly rode the kerbs much better than the Mercedes and it had a better front end in the corners which helps when it comes to a quick change of direction. I believe that these are the key areas were the SF71H is stronger. Another important area is the wider operating window that the Ferrari car and its tyres can work in. It’s strong in cold and warm temperatures as well as street circuits and the modern-day Tilke tracks. Does it have any major weaknesses?

The big incident for me was the near aeroplane crash accident between the Toro Rosso drivers, Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly at turn 15. Hartley had a puncture but instead of driving to the very left of the track (way away from the racing line) he drove in the middle of the circuit. I know that it’s hard to turn when you have a puncture but he could have positioned his car much closer to the wall because his steering angle was still relatively straight. He didn’t do a good enough job in my opinion, hence the low driver rating I gave him. Then, he wasn’t checking his mirrors when Gasly was approaching him at 180MPH when you should always be checking your mirrors when you have a problem, especially if you’re in a tight part of the circuit and not off the track. Gasly did a good job to react quickly enough as the unclear actions of Hatley nearly caused him to smash into the back of him and go flying into the air into a corner which doesn’t have much run off at all. I can see why Gasly was so frustrated with his fellow teammate and I wouldn’t have liked to have been in Hartley’s shoes when Franz Tost saw him. Poor judgement and awareness from Hartley which nearly resulted in an incident which I don’t even want to think about.

Enough with qualifying and onto the race. Remember, you get nothing on Saturday and have everything to earn on Sunday.

It was a relatively clean start…until the field got to turn 2. Sergey Sirotkin ran into the back of Sergio Perez which sent debris flying everywhere but then he got sandwiched by Nico Hulkenberg and Fernando Alonso which resulted in him getting a puncture and more debris flying whilst Alonso got a double puncture, both on the right hand side of the car. It could have been an almighty collision if one of them spun around towards the angry pack on the straight. Alonso somehow dragged the car home despite nearly hitting Esteban Ocon who was in the wall at turn 3 and the car sliding to the right all the time. Sheer will got him to the pitlane and how he got 7th with the amount of floor damage he had is another impressive performance.

Ocon was in the wall after contact with Kimi Raikkonen. To me, it was Ocon’s fault as he didn’t give Raikkonen enough room and just turned in on him which meant he was turned around into the wall. A costly error considering his teammate, Sergio Perez, got onto the podium. It was a big opportunity missed by Ocon and after a slow start to the year for Force India, a high double points scoring finish would have recovered a lot of the points dropped in the first 3 rounds.

Credit: Steven Tee/McLaren

On the restart, the Renault’s battled the Red Bulls very hard and Max Verstappen’s opportunistic move on Ricciardo into turn 2 was the first of many battles and moves which I will do a whole article on, including the collision, later in the week. The early Renault race pace showed that getting the tyres up to optimum temperature would take a long time because they were on ultrasofts whilst the Red Bulls were on supersofts. The ultrasofts switched on much more quickly than the supersofts and the latter took a ridiculous amount of laps to get up to speed. Carlos Sainz battling with his old teammate Verstappen was great to see and some of the racecraft was very good. Hulkenberg got in the mix as well until he made a mistake at turn 4, lost the rear-end of his car and went into the wall. Very disappointing to see after an excellent start to the year.

The extremely strong cross-head wind which was very gusty meant that the top speeds would fluctuate a lot and the slipstream was massive. DRS probably wasn’t needed thanks to the 2.2KM blast at the end of the lap and the conditions.

A mistake from Hamilton as he was closing down on Vettel at lap 23 as he locked up into turn 1 meant that he had to pit earlier than he wanted to due to the major flatspot he had on the tyre. He went onto the softs. His pace was really picking up and I believe he was going to go onto the ultrasoft tyres for his final stint but the mistake he made meant that he couldn’t. It took him ages to pick up his pace again as the cold track conditions and the lack of high-speed corners meant that he fell back into the clutches of the Red Bulls and he lost a lot of time to Vettel and Bottas.

Ferrari and Vettel covered Hamilton by pitting for softs on lap 31 whilst Bottas got quicker and quicker after a slow start. The tyres were very strange as they seemed to have no degradation and took so long to get up to speed. At one point I was thinking it would be best to pit on the last lap!

The safety car came out after the Red Bull collision and this time it was Bottas who got the luck. He pitted from the lead onto the ultrasoft tyre and Vettel and Hamilton pitted as well because they wanted a quick tyre for the restart that would switch on quickly, compared to the supersoft and soft tyres. It’s very strange that the safety car and VSC has dictated the state of the races this year but it’s just a coincidence. Bottas didn’t benefit in China last time but this time he did, so it equalled out.

Romain Grosjean made a very silly error by spinning into the wall under the safety car when running in 6th position. He said this:

“I was warming my tyres and I bumped into a switch which I changed position and when I touched the brakes, the rear wheels locked and I span.”

After having some poor performances, doing something like he did on Sunday was the last thing the Frenchman needed and he cannot afford to carry on making mistakes and getting outperformed by Magnussen.

On the second and final restart, Vettel went for a move for the lead but messed it up and went wide at turn one and dropped to 4th position. Had he braked just 5M earlier he would have taken the lead. Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course but it just shows how hard is it to outbrake someone and overtake them. Not taking the lead turned out to be the right thing to do of course…

Credit: Wolfgang Wilhelm / Mercedes-Benz

As Bottas came down the main straight at the end of the lap he ran over some debris and immediately received a puncture. I was screaming saying “oh no!” as I saw it unfold and I really do feel so bad for him because he drove a stunning race and his pace towards the end of the first stint was supreme. Had there been no safety car, he would have beaten Hamilton and challenged Vettel with a much faster tyre compound. I don’t think he would have won but to take no points away from the weekend is just heartbreaking for him and he deserves a win for performing so well since that disastrous opening weekend in Melbourne. He’s bounced back so well and has matched and even beaten Hamilton on track. It was a massive shame.

Had he not had the puncture he would have been leading the championship by 1 point over Hamilton, who would have been 1 point ahead of Vettel. An incredible situation, but it’s not the case.

Where did that debris come from? I think it came from Kevin Magnussen and Pierre Gasly in the restart as Magnussen was stupidly aggressive on Gasly and nearly caused another almighty collision at over 200MPH. Their tyres interlocked and it was very fortunate that neither of them spun around and smashed into the wall. I do like “K-Mag’s” style but he has to be aware that he can cause a big collision one day if he pushes people around at high-speed. The onboard of Gasly’s restart shows why the Frenchman said “Kevin is the most dangerous guy I have ever raced with”. If you wanted to defend Magnussen, then he did have a lot damage which is why he wasn’t as quick as usual in the race.

It was Hamilton who got a bit lucky and led Kimi Raikkonen home with a remarkable podium from Sergio Perez. It’s the Mexican’s 8th podium and he did what Lance Stroll did last year by just staying out of all of the mayhem, driving cleanly and getting the awards for it.

Credit: Sahara Force India

Hamilton went to console Bottas after the race which is why he was late to the podium and it does reiterate the healthy relationship in the Mercedes team. I’m beginning to respect the 4-time world champion more and more as he does care about others and not just himself. The costly error from Vettel, yet again, may prove crucial as he dropped another 13 points through his own error. It’s going to be a tight championship and if Ferrari don’t develop their car as well as Mercedes did last year then not maximising results now while Ferrari do have the edge is going to be costly.

There are some rumours that Hanoi is going to replace Baku in the near future. I hope this is not the case because the last 10 months in Azerbaijan has given F1 fans a lot to talk about and a lot of drama as well. The unique street circuit layout has the potential to be seen as a classic in the future so I dearly hope that Baku stays.

Well Done Baku!

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