Sebastian Vettel had taken the lead from pole and looked in control until a lengthy late-race safety car period, and an ill-advised pass attempt evaporated his chances for a fourth Grand Prix victory in a row.
Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo set up this breathtaking turn of fortune after their race-long duel met its inevitable end. It had started on Lap 4 and seemed to have been resolved on Lap 35, but that was only a momentary pause to catch their breath.
On Lap 40, Riccardo tried his race-tested ‘down the inside’ move on Verstappen, but the Dutchman would have none of it. Verstappen moved to block-and then to re-block, but it was too late. Riccardo’s car lost its front downforce and grip in Verstappen’s wake and ploughed into the rear of the Dutchman’s car, lifting it off the pavement. Both cars were out on the spot. Their very public faux pas triggered a safety car and Valtteri Bottas, who Mercedes had yet to pit, took on fresh ultrasoft tyres with eleven laps remaining and came out with the lead.
Racing resumed with just four laps left, and after Bottas held off Sebastian Vettel’s tyre-shredding out-braking challenge in Turn 1 at the restart, he looked set to take the win. One lap later, Bottas’ Mercedes was out, a victim of a right rear tyre puncture after running over some remaining Red Bull debris. Vettel could only look on with disbelief as his tyre-crippled Ferrari faded from contention. Had he waited for an opportunity a few corners later, he would have taken his fourth win in four Grands Prix.
As it was, the lead then fell into Hamilton’s hands, and he held on to take the checkers, 2.460s ahead of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari in second. Raikkonen had collided with Esteban Ocon’s Force India on the first lap. He pitted for a new front wing and then fought back to salvage a podium. Sergio Perez passed Vettel’s limping Ferrari with ease three laps from the end to take third. It was his eighth career podium, his second at Baku – making him Mexico’s most successful Grand Prix driver. More importantly, his were the first points of the year for Force India’s season.
Behind them, a very competitive Carlos Sainz brought Renault fifth place, followed by Charles Leclerc’s Sauber Alfa Romeo, Fernando Alonso, Lance Stroll giving Williams a lift with eighth place, Stoffel Vandoorne bringing double points to McLaren and Brendon Hartley’s Toro Rosso, delivering his first Formula 1 career point in tenth place.
Despite winning his first Grand Prix of the season, Lewis Hamilton now leads the driver’s championship with 70 points, four more than Vettel and 22 clear of Raikkonen.
Their cars of undoubtedly quick; more even-tempered than the Mercedes and move manoeuvrable than the Ferrari, yet their driver’s remain on the ragged edge. Before this weekend’s Baku debacle, Daniel Riccardo’s victory in China followed Bahrain, Red Bull’s worst weekend in many years when both Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen’s races were over inside the first few laps. The Australian fell out with an electrical fault after just eight corners, while the Dutchman came together with Lewis Hamilton, suffered a puncture and then parked the car at the side of the track on lap three. While Ricciardo had Shanghai’s measure, Verstappen had collisions with Hamilton and Vettel, apparently taking him out of a podium finish (or victory) with wounds that were all self-inflicted.
The FIA has reported both driver’s for their race-altering crash, but assigning blame is not enough, Red Bull has a winning car that can only win by finishing (Max) and taking full team points (Daniel). Both drivers have been ordered to appear at the team’s factory this week to apologise to the whole company for their actions.
With May’s upcoming Spanish and Monaco GPs the perfect venues for Red Bull victories, we’ll see how Verstappen and Ricciardo respond to their public spankings.
Of those, six were consummate crashes, with Bottas’ Mercedes losing its entire tyre casing within seconds of hitting debris. Then there was Fernando Alonzo coming in missing both a front and rear tyre, and yet finishing a fighting seventh, while Kimi Raikkonen lost a nose on the first lap and fought back to take second place.
Leclerc had admitted he was pressing in the first three GPs, making mistakes by trying to be quick. But he found his rhythm in Baku, finishing in sixth place (he had held fifth until losing it the Carlos Sainz in the closing laps). With Leclerc’s close relationship with Ferrari (Junior Team member) and Kimi Raikkonen out of his one year Ferrari contract at the end of the season, look for both driver’s to pick up their pace when they return for F1’s European Swing starting with Spain in two weeks time.