51 laps, countable accidents, unreal collisions, fatal race retirements (from the standpoint of the championship)- in only its third run- the Azerbaijan Grand Prix made hearts shrink in suspense quite like the narrow barriers of Baku and expand eventually akin to the extended straight in a 2018 thriller.
No dearth of action on a stormy race weekend
No sooner than the opening lap in the short run into Turn One, did Esteban Ocon from Force India shut the door on Kimi Raikkonen in a sudden skirmish that marred a reasonably clear run for the rest of the pack. Ocon’s underwhelming move meant that he would race-retire, leaving teammate Sergio Peres to do all of the team’s scoring as Ferrari’s Raikkonen would limp into the pits with a broken front nose.
By this time all was clear at the front of the pack with Vettel holding off well against a resurgent Lewis Hamilton, chasing the Ferrari, with Mercedes teammate Bottas following in third. Raikkonen’s blip would mean that the backmarkers had some fighting off to do with the Finn receding to P16, as the likes of Williams, Force Indias and Renault’s surged through.
The hitherto smooth race was hampered with McLaren’s Alonso, now driving in a reasonably improved McLaren (powered by Renault) would taste damage resulting from the collision between the Williams of Sergey Sirotkin and the Renault of Carlos Sainz Jr. Only a pro would’ve been able to bring home a jaded McLaren into the pits and there’s little reason to doubt Alonso’s skills, who eventually finished seventh, continuing his impressive run.
At the head of the race, similar scenes continued with Vettel poised for a win (as predicted by many Ferrari fans running on Saturday’s pole) extended his lead over Hamilton by well over 2 seconds. Bottas meanwhile, kept gaining and gaining on his teammate. Meanwhile the Renault’s- Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz Jr.- mounted enough pressure on the two waning Red Bulls to pass both by lap 9.
The Renault charge that waned out
However, one of the finest moments came in Lap 9, as Max Verstappen and later, Ricciardo, were both bisected by the Renault, with first Carlos and later, Nico fighting away. None saw it coming and definitely not the Red Bulls. By the next lap, both Red Bulls had been passed and a battle for supremacy ensued between Ricciardo following Verstappen.
A few laps later, Nico Hulkenberg who had looked so promising to contest for a place among top five hit the wall and retired. He made contact at the outside wall in a narrow corner at the very same spot where he’d retired last season. Meanwhile, up at the front by lap 16, Vettel began extending his lead, now enjoying a four-second gap over Hamilton. On Lap 21, Mercedes pit crew mobilized and got readied as Hamilton dived into the pits and Ferrari came in on Lap 30.
Kimi makes a few places
At all this time, Kimi Raikkonen made up places, passing Leclerc and Peres easily in his fightback through the midfield from a position of relative obscurity. Ferrari’s better straight-line speed proving a bit too much for his seemingly underpowered opponents. Never a pleasing sight in seeing a Ferrari nosedive to 16 having begun P6, is it?
Red Bull’s crash out
Meanwhile, an exciting battle continued lap-after-lap between the Red Bull drivers from the onset of the halfway stage. And eventually, the contest was beginning to warm up to Daniel Ricciardo, when the Aussie dived into the inside of Verstappen on Lap 35 to gain a place in the battle for 5th. Then both cars pitted and Verstappen came out of the other Red Bull that had pitted a lap earlier on 39. Ricciardo, in having to do the job yet again, wanted to leave no stone unturned in attacking ‘Mad Max’ but ended up leaving no logic justified as on Lap 40, seemingly moved to desperation, ended up hammering into the tail of his teammate’s Red Bull. In a moment of single conception, a massive mishap meant that there would be no Red Bull in the race any further.
This changed the context of the race majorly. With a safety car deployed with only 10 laps to go, much of the action was consumed by movement allowing no overtaking.
Baku shocks and turns the race on its head
Finally, Sebastian Vettel who had seen so determined and likely to win, waiting for the car to safety car to pull out to make the move on Bottas, had to deal with greater, unanticipated suffering. In the closing staged with 5 laps to go, Romain Grosjean found a way to hit his Haas on an out wall in a challenging corner. This meant the safety car deployment period would extend, giving Vettel no more than 4 final laps in which to pass Bottas.
And suddenly, no sooner the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was cleared once again for racing did Sebastian succumb perceptibly to pressure from Hamilton, perhaps finding it tough to deal with the other Mercedes in front. He panicked as Hamilton got into the slipstream and passed the German as did Raikkonen, who made an incredible move in the final stages.
Effectively leading Vettel to compete with Peres for P4, the order of the race reversed meant that Bottas was in it for the win with Hamilton and Raikkonen competing for P2 and P3, respectively.
And right then, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix staged its final thriller
With little under 2 laps to go to the checkered flag, Bottas sustained a front left puncture in his tyre, perhaps running over a tiny piece of debris. His retirement meant that Hamilton was in the control of the race right when he needed it and Raikkonen rushed into second. Meanwhile, Peres passed the German to secure a third and this meant that Baku yet again produced a thriller that could have neither be predicted nor scripted by the most cerebral thinkers.