Azerbaijan Grand Prix: Daniel Ricciardo's upset win, Lewis Hamilton-Sebastian Vettel spat grab attention
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix had all the makings of a potboiler – from (literal) clashes between the championship leaders, battles among teammates that got ugly, the triumph of the underdogs.
There are races, and then there was the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. It was one of those races where I was even afraid to blink and hence miss any of the action! The race had all the makings of a potboiler – from (literal) clashes between the championship leaders, battles among teammates that got ugly, the triumph of the underdogs, strategy and luck playing an equal hand, a generous dose of overtaking and high-speed chases, and more than one heroic drive to bounce back from dead last.
If you missed the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, shame on you. Now go tune into the replay immediately – this is one of those legendary races you do now want to miss. It’s also likely to be remembered as the blockbuster of the year. Here are the main talking points from the race and the implication they could have on the season stretching ahead:
1. Daniel Ricciardo wins, where did that come from?
When was the last time we saw a driver who started P10 go on to win the Grand Prix? Ricciardo, who has had three podium finishes in a row, couldn’t have been smiling wider as he jumped onto the top step of the podium. It was an unlikely culmination of a largely imperfect weekend for him. We have seen in the past that Ricciardo is able to capitalise well when trouble hits the frontrunners (Malaysia 2016 is fresh in my mind) and he drove a clean race, staying out of trouble to emerge triumphant. He is also the fourth different winner (and third different constructor) to win this season.
Implication: Ricciardo leapfrogs Kimi Raikkonen in the points. Surely this is great news in consolidating Ricciardo’s talent.
2. Things go wrong for Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton probably cannot still believe the turn of events that saw him finish P5 in a race that was his to win. Stopping to get his headrest fixed cost Hamilton tonnes of time – and the race. The headrest was removed during the red flag time and securing it back is part of a checklist, which seems to have been overlooked somehow.
Surely the highlight for Hamilton was surpassing Ayrton Senna’s record of 65 pole positions (Hamilton now has 66) as he eyes Michael Schumacher’s record.
Implication: Expect to see a raging Hamilton in action in Austria clawing back points
3. Hamilton versus Vettel incident
For many, the highlight of the race was the incident between Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, which spoke about how close this season is and the pressure both drivers were under. Vettel accused Hamilton of brake testing him into the corner (which data has shown was untrue), while Hamilton raged over Vettel’s disgraceful driving. Vettel’s actions (fuelled by anger and road rage) were completely uncalled for. To my mind, the penalty imposed by the FIA is too mild – they should have made an example out of Vettel with a far more stringent punishment.
It seemed that while Hamilton lost his headrest, Vettel lost his head! I will also be looking to see whether this signals an end to the mutual respect shared by both drivers and the World Championship rivalry takes an ugly turn. Ironically enough, Vettel (P4) still finished ahead of Hamilton (P5), allowing him to open up the championship gap a little further to 14 points. Watching Hamilton trying to chase down Vettel in the latter part of the race was also exciting, it’s always great to see these world champions battle on track.
Implication: Surely the Hamilton versus Vettel battle is going to be more severe than ever before now that the gloves have come off. Vettel needs to be careful during the next two races to not pick up any more penalty points on his licence and hence avoid getting a one race ban.
4. Lost opportunity for Force India
Force India had the quickest cars on the grid after Ferrari and Mercedes and were running right up there when the cars collided, taking each other out. The team will be disappointed to have missed out on their best-ever result – a race victory and perhaps two podium positions. I can’t help but wonder whether this is the result of resentment that has been brewing between the drivers since the last race (when Sergio Perez refused team orders, potentially costing Esteban Ocon a podium). After the last race, we discussed how Force India needs to urgently establish rules of racing between the drivers – something that is even more critical, seemingly, after this event. This incident also reminded one of the incident between the Mercedes drivers in Spain (2016) where funnily enough, we saw a Red Bull also unexpectedly emerge triumphant.
Implication: Expect Force India to read out the 'Riot Act' to their drivers and deal with the duo far more strictly. Also expect to see more fireworks between Ocon and Perez (more so if Ocon outperforms Perez) on and off the field.
5. Lance Stroll, zero to hero
I admit I have been fairly harsh on the young Canadian for his stormy start in F1 with countless ‘excursions’ into the barriers. The 18-year-old Stroll, who scored his maiden F1 points at his home race in Canada, shone again in Azerbaijan. He kept out of trouble, got his pitstop strategy right and drove a spirited race to P3 (and so nearly held on to P2) for his first-ever podium position. Interestingly enough, the team’s last podium was over a year ago in Canada (2016) when Bottas had taken P3.
Kudos to Stroll for driving an error free race even when Valtteri Bottas was hungrily hunting him down in the much, much quicker Mercedes and not being forced into a mistake even then.
Implication: It’s all about momentum and state of mind and one hopes to see Stroll coming up with several such superlative performances through the rest of the season. This is also good news for Williams in planning their 2018 driver line-up.
6. The constructor battles
Mercedes is comfortably pulling away from Ferrari at the top of the table. The main reason for this is the fact that both Bottas and Hamilton are performing, while in Ferrari’s case, Raikkonen has been losing out. In Baku, Mercedes were a full second ahead of Ferrari in qualifying, which is a massive gap that the team will be eyeing with concern.
Overall, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix brought good news for most midfield teams as well with nine out of the ten constructors scoring points (barring only Renault). There was cheer in the Mclaren garage as they scored their first points of the season thanks to Fernando Alonso (P8). Williams also reclaimed fifth position from Toro Rosso thanks to their podium finish.
Implication: After the updates in Monaco, Mercedes seem to clearly have the upper hand over Ferrari. The ball is now in Ferrari’s court to work some magic.
7. Max Verstappen has more bad luck
I cannot help but feel for Max Verstappen, the teenager who revolutionised F1 as we know it. He has failed to finish four out of the past six races thanks to a slew of engine and brake issues. To add insult to injury, this was while his teammate had four consecutive podium finishes (including a race win).
Implication: Red Bull Racing admits that Verstappen is losing patience, but to what end? His fans are also losing patience – how can they vote for him as 'Driver of the Day' when he isn’t even getting to race?
8. Bottas proves a point
Baku was a brilliant opportunity for Bottas to showcase his talent, and the Mercedes pitwall would have definitely paid attention. Despite a first lap incident that saw him drop down to the back of the grid, Bottas fought back to rise through the order. His last lap-last corner run on Stroll was impressive, especially in the context of the past races where we have seen that he gets settled (and complacent) when he is in a comfortable points scoring position.
I am also enjoying the rivalry between the two Finnish drivers (Bottas and Raikkonen) who clashed on the track again. Surely there is no love lost between the compatriots.
Implication: I wonder whether this result will give Bottas some leverage on his contract extension. This result comes at a crucial time because Toto Wolff has said that Bottas is on a shaky wicket when it comes to a 2018 contract.
9. Lessons for the FIA
The race was punctuated by several safety car sessions when they tried to retrieve cars and clear debris – even when drivers believed that the virtual safety car could have been deployed instead. That said, we have to remember that the FIA is making decisions in real time and would always prefer to err on the side of caution.
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