Daniel Ricciardo’s first victory of the season was a result no one saw coming. Having crashed in Qualifying and then needing to pit in the race’s first few laps, Ricciardo summoned up all his Aussie grit to win from dead last while the entire F1 field was involved in unrestrained hand-to-hand combat.
Their “argy-bargy” was his salvation as he stayed out of trouble, made quick work of those in his path and laid down consistently fast laps throughout the slugfest. It was his fourth podium in the last four Grands Prix and the fifth victor’s trophy of his career.
Valtteri Bottas finished second for Mercedes, also coming back from last to grab the second podium position from Williams’ rookie Lance Stroll just one-tenth of a second before the checkered flag.
Early leader Lewis Hamilton had maintained his lead over Sebastian Vettel on the debris-ladened track that saw two safety car restarts and a red flag race stoppage to clean the entire track of crash debris and restart. During the moments just before the second restart on lap 20, Hamilton and Vettel made contact twice, leading to a ten-second penalty for Vettel administered after the restart of the Red Flagged race. Vettel ended fourth. Hamilton had to make an unscheduled stop on lap 31 to replace his Mercedes’ loose headrest. He came fifth.
The F1 circus arrived at the Baku City Circuit for the eighth round of the 2017 World Championship perhaps thinking that they had dodged a bullet during the circuit’s 2016 debut. At 3.7 miles long, the circuit is a combination of very tight and winding uphill sections through the Old City Centre, which then open up to wide boulevards and the seaside promenade’s immense straight (flat out blind turns 17-18-19 and 20) of over 1.3 miles long.
Last season, Valtteri Bottas hit a top speed of 234 mph at the end of the straight, the fastest ever recorded for F1 in its history. With tight corners linked by narrow serpentine sections prone to being blocked, the teams saw last year’s high-speed processional race as an anomaly. They whispered that this year, with the cars’ greater width, higher speeds, and prodigious grip, coupled with the track’s 133 mph average speed, would allow Baku ample opportunities to show its teeth over the race’s 51 laps.
Baku’s tyre wear and degradation profile resemble both Monaco and Canada, so the expectation was a one-stopper, with drivers spending a majority of laps (39 to 29) on the faster Supersoft compound. Low wear equates to more difficulty “switching on” the tyres, so a car’s leaderboard position during Safety Car deployments would be very critical to strategies, as would the length of any period as the cars’ tyres would cool.
Force India arrived with its two drivers, Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon still smarting over their Canadian Grand Prix tussle, as Ocon was the faster of the two as the race closed, yet Perez, ahead, would not give Ocon the chance to fight for third place with Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull. Force India lost a podium finish as a result. Qualifying their cars in sixth and seventh places on the grid, Force India again had a solid chance of scoring double world championship points. And again, run the risk of having their drivers fighting each other.
Sauber announced that Monisha Kaltenborn had been removed as team principal by new owners Longbow Finance. It seems Longbow was asking that Marcus Ericsson receive preferential treatment over teammate Pascal Wehrlein. Kaltenborn refused and departed immediately. Longbow was also rumoured to have signed with Honda for the 2018 season.
And speaking of Honda, Fernando Alonso and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne faced heavy grid penalties for exceeding the number of Honda engines installed in their McLarens to date. Two weeks ago, Alonso was on his way to scoring his and McLaren’s first point of the season when his Honda engine failed on the penultimate lap of the Canadian Grand Prix.
Practice saw the Red Bull’s surprisingly quick, with Max Verstappen leading FP1. He was also at the top of times in FP2 but stuffed his car backwards in the Turn 1 barrier at the very end of the session. Nevertheless, it was Lewis Hamilton who was fastest when it counted, taking his 66th career pole with a time 2.2-seconds faster than 2016.
There were ominous signs that Baku was ready to reveal its brutal side this time. First, there were two red flags and 113 yellow flag incidents across both FP1 and FP2 sessions alone. Second, tyres were difficult to “switch on”. With the number of crashes and “moments” in practice as a sure sign there would be Safety Car periods, drivers were also sure to be anxious trying to find the right method to keep their tyres at optimum temperatures at reduced SC speeds. One could see an equation forming: accident / safety car / cold tyres / contact / debris / safety car / repeat.
Hamilton took the lead from pole position as the lights went out. Bottas, in second place, shut the door on Vettel on the inside of Turn 1. His momentary drop in speed put Bottas under pressure from Raikkonen around the outside of Turn 2. Bottas took too much kerb causing his Mercedes to pitch out toward Raikkonen. The contact put Raikkonen into the barrier, but he continued with slight damage. Vettel surged into second. Bottas’ car, however, had a punctured right front tyre and he immediately was reduced to limp mode as he slithered back to the pits for new tyres and a new nose. He re-entered last.
Just behind this melee, Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz was forced to pitch his car into a spin to narrowly evade teammate Daniil Kvyat’s aggressive return to the track after having run wide at Turn 1. Now he was at the tail of the field as well. With so much debris spread at this point, Ricciardo was forced to pit on lap 7 to remove the shrapnel collected in his radiator ducts and emerged 17th. By lap 8, Hamilton led Vettel by just four seconds, followed by Perez and Verstappen looking for a spot to pass.
Suddenly, Verstappen’s engine coughed once and died for his fourth retirement in six races. Kvyat’s Toro Rosso stopped on track from 11th with engine issues, triggering the first extended Safety car period as the Baku marshals searched for a tow vehicle.
The SC prompted all the leading pack to pit, trading their Super-softs for Softs. Hamilton retained his lead over Vettel, followed by Perez, Massa, Ocon and Raikkonen in sixth. Then, moments later, another Safety Car was re-deployed to lead the cars away from more debris in Turn 1. Hamilton immediately complained that the SC pace was too slow to permit the tyres to keep their temperatures up. Radio calls were heard from frantic engineers telling their drivers that tyre temps were at the critical stage, front and rear.
A lap later Hamilton prepared for the second restart by bunching up the pack at Turn 15. Vettel, possibly expecting for Hamilton to rocket out of that corner, got into his throttle too early causing him to slam into Hamilton’s gearbox. The result sent Vettel’s front wing flaps flying. He immediately notified his engineers that Hamilton had “brake tested” him.
Vettel wasn’t finished. He accelerated so his front wheels were in line with Hamilton’s, vigorously waving his hands as if to say, “why did you slow?” and then clouted Hamilton’s wheel hard enough to lift the Ferrari of the tarmac momentarily.
But, Vettel wasn’t finished. He accelerated so his front wheels were in line with Hamilton’s, vigorously waving his hands as if to say, “why did you slow?” and then clouted Hamilton’s wheel hard enough to lift the Ferrari of the tarmac momentarily. Hamilton held his ground to lead the restart. A lap later, the Safety Car again rejoined as debris flew off Raikkonen’s Ferrari.
Behind the Hamilton-Vettel jousting match, Williams teammates Felipe Massa and rookie Lance Stroll were making up ground. They had played the restarts just right and were now into third and fourth, respectively. Predictably, Esteban Ocon passed teammate Perez but squeezed him against the barrier, resulting in another grinding crash.
While Ocon soldiered on, Perez struggled to return to the pits as crash-damaged pieces fell onto the tarmac. Many of those pieces punctured Raikkonen’s right rear tyre, forcing him to three-wheel his Ferrari into the pits as well.
At this point, a calmer head needed to prevail, and it belonged to Fernando Alonso. Perhaps it was his recent Indianapolis 500 experience, but he implored Race Director Charlie Whiting via his radio to call a red flag. He stated the cars were travelling too fast at Baku to experience tyre punctures. It was time to stop and clean the entire track. Whiting agreed.
Meanwhile, the stewards pondered penalties concerning the Hamilton/Vettel farce as the cars, now stationary in the pit lane, received fresh tyres and repairs. Raikkonen’s Ferrari had made it to the pits just before the red flag, and one could see his SF70H swarming with mechanics. They were determined to return him to the fray as it seemed he could salvage plenty of points if he were running at the finish. It should be made clear that the race was only past mid-way, and sunset was due in 45-minutes.
Miraculously, Raikkonen’s car made the restart.
Hamilton took no chances at the restart, decisively charging ahead of Vettel to hold the lead. Behind the two antagonists, Ricciardo had his head down and returned to the front. While Williams teammates Stroll and Massa were wrestling each other for third place, Ricciardo pulled up into their formidable draft, slashed down the inside passing Massa and then out-braking Stroll with a slide through the apex to take third.
Back at the front, Hamilton realised his headrest had loosened during the extended red flag period and was now rising due to his cockpit’s negative pressure. His Mercedes team noticed it too and reluctantly ordered him to pit to have a refit. Hamilton pitted on lap 31 and remained stationary for 9.3 seconds. He returned in ninth place.
That elevated Vettel into the lead.
Within seconds the stewards ordered Vettel to serve a 10-second penalty for “dangerous driving”. On lap 34, he pitted with Hamilton 27.8-seconds behind. He returned just ahead of Hamilton.
Ricciardo, who had crashed out in Qualifying and started 10th, remained firmly in the lead, followed by the teenage Stroll, crash survivor Ocon, Kevin Magnussen’s Haas, and the persevering Valtteri Bottas in seventh. Behind the Finn were the duo of Vettel and Hamilton.
Bottas, Vettel and Hamilton seemed to close on Esteban Ocon as one. Bottas took the Frenchman on lap 40 to move into third. Vettel chose his overtaking moment perfectly two laps later, using Ocon to blunt Hamilton’s charge.
Seeing Bottas’ relentless pace soon had Williams asking Stroll for “all green” (personal best) sectors in the closing laps. Amazingly, the 18-year-old stayed calm despite the pressure. Still, in the end, Bottas prevailed, overtaking a mere one-tenth of a second before the finish line. Stroll picked up his first podium just two weeks after his first F1 points finish. Just 6.188s covered the gap between Ricciardo and Hamilton.
Esteban Ocon finished sixth, with Kevin Magnussen taking seventh for Haas ahead of Carlos Sainz. McLaren’s Fernando Alonso scored McLaren’s first points of the year in ninth followed by Pascal Wehrlein.
Vettel’s fourth place managed to increase his lead in the driver’s championship to 14 points ahead of Hamilton.
Now it’s on to Austria, Red Bull’s high-speed home track. Could Ricciardo and Verstappen find even more speed? We now know they’ll never stop trying.
See you there.