The Finn produced another dominating performance in the traditionally manic Azerbaijan Grand Prix for his second win of the season, avenging his heartbreaking defeat last year when his right rear tyre disintegrated while in the lead.
Valtteri Bottas led Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to a pressure-free victory in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. His Mercedes AMG F1 left the city streets of Baku with their fourth straight one-two win in the opening four races of 2019 – the most dominant start to a season in F1 history. With two wins each, Bottas now leads Hamilton by a single point, earned for taking the fastest lap at the season-opening Grand Prix in Australia.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc were heavily favoured for their prodigious speed at the beginning of the weekend, but Vettel couldn’t generate tyre temperatures during the race, leaving him a lonely third at the flag. Rookie Leclerc crashed while challenging for pole in qualifying, and managed to salvage fifth place in Baku after leading from Lap 15 to Lap 34 using a different tyre strategy.
Valtteri Bottas grabbed the Azerbaijan Grand Prix pole for Mercedes as he and Lewis Hamilton locked out the front row of the grid when Ferrari’s expected challenge came to nought.
All the evidence from the three practice sessions before qualifying suggested a Ferrari – and most likely rookie Charles Leclerc would take pole position. In those hot conditions, they were in a different league than everyone else.
However, after waiting many minutes in Q1 for damage from Kubica’s crash to be removed, Q2 started late. With the setting sun also dropping ambient temperatures, Charles Leclerc’s lost his bid for pole with a head-on crash in the same tight Turn 8 corner barrier as Kubica, due in part to his medium tyres not warmed enough for the corner. Additionally, Ferrari lost its last hope as Sebastian Vettel failed to find track position for an expected hot lap/slipstream tow when he needed it most in Q3.
Bottas repeated his newly founded hustle to grab his eighth career pole position from Hamilton just as he had two weeks ago in China, thanks to a slipstream draft on Baku’s 2km pit straight. He edged Hamilton by 0.059-seconds. Vettel had to settle with 0.302-seconds off the fastest qualifying lap for third.
Though finishing Q2 on the hook after his crash, Leclerc managed to salvage the eighth starting spot, but he would have to start on his Q2-session medium-compound, thereby reversing Baku’s standard race strategy soft-medium.
The top-ten line up for the race turned out to be Bottas, Hamilton, followed by Vettel, with Max Verstappen slotting into fourth for Red Bull. Fifth starting spot went to Sergio Perez (Racing Point – formerly known as Force India) in front of Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso).
Seventh fell to McLaren rookie Lance Norris. The Alfa’s of Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Räikkönen followed in eight / ninth, but with various penalties, both drivers were demoted to start from the pitman. Leclerc’s best Q2 time before his crash was good for Q3 graduation, but his car couldn’t participate, so he was nominally 10th, but due to the various penalties among the other drivers, Leclerc slotted into eighth place.
As the cars lined up for the start, the ambient temperature was 10-degrees C warmer than the previous day’s qualifying conditions, leading drivers except for Leclerc to start on the Pirelli soft tyre. As the starting lights went out, the Mercedes of Bottas and Hamilton left together and arrived at the 90-degree first turn side-by-side.
Both Bottas and Hamilton gave the other room while desperately trying to find a bit more grip to give them the lead, all while blocking Sebastian Vettel’s attack from third place. In Turn 2, Hamilton’s car slipped a bit under power at the exit, and that’s all that Bottas needed to take the lead. By the fifth lap, Bottas led Hamilton by 2.8sec, who was almost 6-seconds ahead of Vettel’s Ferrari.
Starting in eighth, Leclerc lost a place to Daniel Ricciardo’s Renault, but within 11 laps, Leclerc was behind teammate Vettel, who then pitted for soft tyres. Mercedes then reacted by calling in Bottas and Hamilton on consecutive laps. When Verstappen pitted the lap after Hamilton, Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari took the lead.
Yet, his medium tyres were a ticking time-bomb. With the softs of Vettel, Bottas, Hamilton and Verstappen showing excessive wear from the day’s heat, Ferrari knew that Leclerc’s car, even with a diminishing fuel load, couldn’t be brought in for at least another 20 laps. The hard tyre choice was just too slow to competitive, so Leclerc’s first stint had to be extended.
For a long time, Leclerc maintained a steady pace of around 12-seconds ahead of the fresh-tyred Mercedes pair. However, after 30-laps, Leclerc’s tyres began to struggle. By Lap 31, Bottas had rapidly closed on Leclerc and was past on Lap 32, with Hamilton going by a lap later. Easing over for Vettel to go by, Leclerc’s worn tyres’ lost vast chunks of time before he was able to pit on Lap 34. The rapid rookie rejoined the race in fifth place, 20-seconds behind fourth-placed Verstappen – however his chance of regrouping to run to the front was over.
Up front, Bottas was cruising with Hamilton in tow when Pierre Gasly’s Red Bull had a driveshaft fail as he was accelerating between Turns 2 and 3 on the Lap 38. He made it to the escape road, and the race was neutralised with a virtual safety car. The pace slowed just enough to cool the tyres, and when the race resumed, it was only the Mercedes’ duos’ tyres that returned to their previous grip levels.
Sensing an opening, Hamilton moved up to attack Bottas’ position, but the Finn was in control, and when the Brit ran just a bit wide through Turn 16 on the penultimate lap, the race was his.
Vettel finished third, in front of Verstappen and Leclerc. It was then Sergio Perez taking sixth place for Racing Point
and McLaren securing a solid finish in seventh and eighth with Carlos Sainz beating teammate Lando Norris.
Taking up the final places were Lance Stroll, in the second Racing Point, finishing ninth, ahead of Kimi Raikkonen in tenth, who started from the pit lane after being disqualified from qualifying for running an illegal front wing.
The F1 circus now heads back to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix. There, Ferrari knows it must immediately recover the pre-season testing secrets that made them so dominant on the same Barcelona track or face Mercedes leaving them behind.