Formula 1 visited Azerbaijan for the second time in its history as the drivers did battle around the streets of Baku, but in contrast to last year, when everyone was well-behaved, this year’s edition of the race was a metaphorical bloodbath.
There were collisions, controversies, reliability gremlins and non-stop action as Daniel Ricciardo ultimately kept the coolest head to claim victory. The Australian’s victory was well-deserved, but the things that really caught the eye were actually going on behind him…
The claws are out in the title battle
Nobody was under any illusion that the title battle between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel would be anything other than tense and gritty, but until this point, the two drivers have battled with respect and courtesy. All of that evaporated in Baku. First Vettel ran into the back of Hamilton under one of the countless Safety Car periods, damaging his front wing. The German, feeling that his rival had caused the incident by braking too heavily, deliberately bumped wheels with the Mercedes man in frustration. Hamilton was unimpressed by the gesture, and the palpable menace with which he hounded the Ferrari at a later point in the race was testament to that. The race for the title is getting hotter, and with bad blood starting to bleed into the fight, we may not have seen the last of such controversial and hot-tempered moments.
Points won, points lost for Vettel
Vettel seemed consigned to finishing behind Hamilton in Baku, until the Briton was forced to pull into the pits in order to allow his Mercedes team to replace his headrest, which had become loose and was thus a safety concern. This blow to Hamilton should have allowed Vettel to pull away into the distance and cruise to victory, inflicting maximum damage to his rival. However, the German had his own problems to contend with after being handed a ten-second stop/go penalty for deliberately bumping wheels with the Mercedes man during an earlier Safety Car period. In the end, Vettel ended up P4 to Hamilton’s P5, which gains him an extra two points in his title bid against the Briton. It is unfortunate for the Ferrari man that he threw away his chances of winning the race by such an unnecessary and ham-fisted show of frustration. Of course, he could not have known the troubles that would later befall Hamilton, but damaging his own prospects of victory was immensely foolish.
Stroll takes the race by stealth
There is an old F1 cliché (which nevertheless remains entirely true) that to finish first, you must first finish. Or in the case of Lance Stroll, to finish third, you must allow your rivals to take each other out while keeping your cool and making no mistakes. And that was exactly what the Canadian rookie did. After starting a solid P8, Stroll avoided walls, opponents and penalties, and when the smoke cleared, he was keeping Daniel Ricciardo company at the front. The new man at Williams was already buzzing from a solid effort in front of his home crowd in Canada last time out, which saw him score his first points in F1. His first F1 podium, however, will take him to a totally new level. Stroll has faced a lot of criticism in the opening races of his F1 career, much of which, to be fair, has been deserved. However, his efforts in Azerbaijan (which also saw him out-qualify teammate Felipe Massa for the first time) were deserving of a good result, and a combination of solid pace and keeping his nose clean ultimately left him with his first mouthful of the bubbly stuff on the podium.
Force India’s water turns to ice
The new, pink-liveried Force India VJM010, sponsored by water company BWT, has proven to be a capable challenger, driven to its limits by Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon. The two drivers have both contributed their share to the team’s growing points tally, and seemed set to do so again after starting in P6 and P7 in Baku. Unfortunately, while battling for position, the pair came to blows and destroyed much of their good work, although Ocon was able to recover from P14 to P6 by the flag. There was already tension in the air after the events of Canada, which saw Perez ignore team orders to let Ocon past so that the latter could fight Daniel Ricciardo for P3. Now, however, things have surely escalated to another level. Perez is the senior figure at Force India, but Ocon is a talented rookie who is learning quickly and isn’t afraid to get stuck into the fray when called upon. The collision between the teammates cost Force India a whole hatful of points, and the relationship between them is likely to be cool in the foreseeable future, to put it mildly.
A challenging day in the office for the team. Top job by the guys and girls in the garage all weekend and 8 points added to our tally. pic.twitter.com/gA8jj1ZnAw
— Sahara Force India (@ForceIndiaF1) June 25, 2017
Fernando Alonso has spent all season flogging the living daylights out of a McLaren-Honda MCL32 that simply doesn’t seem to want to give him any help. Not even the Spaniard’s elite talents were enough to make the uncompetitive MCL32 look respectable on Saturday, as he qualified in a lowly P16, and started on the back row of the grid due to a myriad of engine penalties. However, much like Stroll, Alonso managed to stay out of trouble while others lost their heads, steadily advancing up the order. The two-time champion was also in the points last time out in Canada, before his Honda engine let go a few laps from the end. On this occasion, however, his machinery just about came to the party and Alonso crossed the line in P9, earning his and McLaren’s first points of the season. For a driver with two world titles and 32 victories, a P9 finish is hardly anything to write home about, but it represents a small measure of compensation for the sterling job the Spaniard has been doing all season.
Wehrlein proves a point with a point
The big news at Sauber heading into last weekend was that the team had parted ways with team principal Monisha Kaltenborn. Rumours later suggested that the reason behind the split was the desire of the team’s Swedish owners (Longbow Finance) to see one driver (Marcus Ericsson, also Swedish) favoured over the other (Pascal Wehrlein, German). For their part, Longbow Finance denied any such intention. Irrespective of the accuracy or falsehood of these rumours, it was clear in Baku which driver was doing the better job. Wehrlein managed to advance to Q2, while Ericsson was eliminated in Q1. Come race day, the pair fought each other hard, even making contact at one point, but in the end, it was Wehrlein who triumphed, finish in P10 and earning Sauber a valuable point, while Ericsson was P11. The German has now earned all five of Sauber’s points so far this season, making it clear, objectively, that he is the one pushing the team’s 2017 campaign forward at the moment.