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F1

27 Apr 2018

F1: A look back at the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

F1: A look back at the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Last year's Azerbaijan GP doused the title fight in gasoline, fanned the flames of debate and made lifelong fans in an instant.

(Photo credit: Alan)

Writing the title above nearly brought a tear to my eye. Who could forget that race? It had me sitting on the edge of the couch hoping the rest of the family would stay asleep through all the yelling at the television screen. Trying to explain the immensity of what was going on to a half-asleep 4-year-old wasn't something I could hope to accomplish (unlike a processional march around Monaco) while also watching Sebastian Vettel bewilderingly throw away his position playing bumper cars, and Lewis Hamilton's bizarre headrest issue drop him down the order. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In the build-up to "Well Done" Baku, the driver's title had been an up-and-down dogfight. F1 fans watched a determined Vettel put a first corner racing incident behind him to charge back from last position to finish fourth in Canada while his title rival, Hamilton, enjoyed a dominant Mercedes weekend after a disappointing showing in Monaco. That race also solidified the glowing embers of dislike between the teammates at Force India, who would also have a role to play in Azerbaijan.

Qualifying saw Mercedes' hybrid era dominance at its most lethal, with Hamilton finishing the one-hour session over a second clear of the next closest team, Ferrari, and more than a half-second ahead of his teammate, Valtteri Bottas. The final ten-minute segment was briefly red-flagged because of the damaged Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo, who would start tenth on the grid.

Chaos in the race began only 16 seconds after the lights went out. At Turn Two, Valtteri Bottas got airborne off a kerb and hopped his way right into the Ferrari of an unsuspecting Kimi Raikkonen, sending the Ferrari into the wall. His Mercedes emerged limping from then on, while Raikkonen continued, albeit while complaining about the rear of the car feeling off. This left Hamilton out in front, but now his championship rival - who had only managed fourth in qualifying - was right behind him. There was the usual jostling for position on the opening lap, only it was accompanied by a wild sense of excitement as the expected Mercedes one-two finish was already out the window. Crucially, the first lap incident dropped Bottas to a lapped last position. Debris from the accident also cost Daniel Ricciardo, who lost a further seven positions into P17 when a piece of carbon fibre lodged in his brake duct. There was so much action during the first laps it took the commentators a while to figure it all out. And, right when they had, Daniil Kvyat lost all the electrics in his Toro Rosso on Lap 11.

While the yellow caution was limited to the sector with the stricken car, Max Verstappen dropped out of the fight for third place with an engine failure - the fourth time in the opening eight races of  2017 that he had suffered a retirement. With the Toro Rosso stopped in a way it was impossible to remove from the track without help, the safety car (after some initial delay) was deployed. Almost immediately, drivers complained it was moving too slowly to keep brake and tyre temperatures up. They all worked the steering wheel furiously, back and forth, trying to keep all the critical components of the complex cars in their operating windows. 

There was a brief re-start but pieces of Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari came off on the pit straight - which sent the safety car out for the second time. Sebastian Vettel, who had been caught napping on the first restart and almost lost a place, was desperately working to keep the temperature in his tyres up while also following Hamilton extremely closely. 

What happened next will depend on who you ask. The first version of events states that just before the safety car pulled off the track, Hamilton brake-tested Vettel - inviting the nose of the Ferrari right into the tail of the Mercedes. The other version proclaims that Hamilton slowed the pack of cars around Turn 15 and Vettel crashed right into the back of him. Either way, a "Red Mist" enveloped Vettel, who threw his hands into the air. He pulled alongside Hamilton and intentionally steered right into the race leader, banging wheels. Vettel fumed over the radio. Hamilton was as confused as the rest of us. What in the world had Vettel just done?

Regardless of what just happened, race control had already decided the field would be released so nobody caught their breath. Into Turn One, Felipe Massa passed Sergio Perez, which put the Force India cars fourth and fifth heading into Turn two. While fighting over track position in the same place Bottas had taken out Raikkonen earlier, Esteban Ocon's immaturity got the better of him and he forced his teammate into the wall. Sergio Perez was having none of that and the two drivers collided, damaging both and littering the track with debris. 

Raikkonen's Ferrari ran over something sharp and punctured a tyre. He then drove the long way back to the pit going way too fast, and the shredded tyre demolished the floor of his otherwise functioning car. He could have limped back to the pits because the safety car was yet again deployed. But, as it was, his car was too damaged to continue and was wheeled back into the garage, as was the damaged Force India of Perez. 

In the space of a couple laps, both teams went from having two cars in the top five to being repaired in the pits. On track, messages came in from the drivers to their engineers complaining about the dangerous level of debris. It was moments later that the race was red flagged. Everyone returned to the pits and lined up in order, with mechanics frantically trying to get a look at the damage Vettel had caused. Near the end of the red flag period, both Perez and Raikkonen emerged from the garage in their respective cars as the track was clear enough for them to un-lap themselves. Kimi provided one of the more hilarious sound clips of his career while he screamed at a mechanic over the radio to give him his steering wheel (if you have not yet heard this, it's worth the easy search to find it).

The red flag ended with close to half-distance completed in the race. When it got underway again, Bottas had already moved himself back into the points and Ricciardo had fought all the way back from 17th to sixth. It was Lance Stroll who benefited most from the previous stoppage and found himself in third place. It was only then becoming clear what scintillating drives the three of them were unfurling. Eight different constructors made up the top ten. This was easily the most unpredictable and entertaining race of the hybrid era. 

It was in those moments, after the restart, that Ricciardo unleashed perhaps his most famous pass. His legendary feel for the brakes of his car allowed him to outbrake Felipe Massa, Nico Hulkenberg and Stroll from 200+ mph into Turn One and seize third place. It was unbelievable - super human even. Once the commentary had calmed down and turned attention back to the race lead, something appeared awkward about Hamilton's Mercedes. His headrest was drifting up, showing off the high-impact pink foam lining it as he reached full speed. Within a couple laps it was nearly all the way up, making the Mercedes driver look like a helmet sunk into a car that was too big for him. He tried everything he could to pull it back down and into place but was ultimately forced to pit for a replacement because it was a safety device. Toto Wolff, team manager at Mercedes, did his signature fist-pound-on-the-desk.

While Hamilton was pitting, a call came over the radio to the new race leader, Vettel that he had been given a stop-go penalty for dangerous driving. This caught him off-guard and in denial. His radio responses were the stuff of classic self-absorption. Hamilton emerged from the pits in ninth, Vettel in eighth - both had lost the race. But, the man who qualified tenth and then dropped to 17th was now leading the race. Bottas was into the top three and chasing down Stroll, slowly chipping away at his advantage. The final 15 laps would see more cat and mouse chasing. Raikkonen and Perez were both retired.

With two laps to go, Stroll looked to have done enough to keep second place for his first podium and Williams' best team finish since 2014. Hamilton had been asking his team to get Bottas to slow down and back into Vettel, who was now in fourth, so that Hamilton could catch him. The team said no from the pit wall because it would compromise the Finn's chase of Stroll. This meant Hamilton would have to suffer the indignity of finishing behind the person who had driven into him, who was also his main championship rival. 

However, you could not fault the pit wall. As Ricciardo came into view after the final corner to take the chequered flag, Stroll appeared in the distance. Bottas, looking like a shark starving for a kill, slipstreamed behind him and pulled out to pass, beating the young Canadian to the line by one-tenth of a second. 

Ricciardo won the race  from 17th place. Bottas came home in second place after being a lap down and last. After qualifying on pole, Hamilton finished fifth, one position behind Vettel. McLaren and Sauber both picked up their first points of 2017, enjoying the misfortune of the front-runners and the retirement of seven out of 20 cars. Esteban Ocon may have finished in sixth place but his wrong step probably cost Force India a one-two finish and their first team win. They had the track position and speed to finish ahead of Stroll and Bottas and may have kept Ricciardo behind too.

The 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix was the best race of the year - wild and exciting in equal measure. There were multiple story lines unfolding constantly, incredible passes, raw emotions and fantastic determination. F1 fans can only hope 2018 delivers half of that. 

What was your favourite moment from Baku 2017? Let us know in the comments below.