By Nicola Kenton
- Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton win their first Grand Prix of the year, after team-mate Valtteri Bottas’ late puncture
- Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen and Force India’s Sergio Perez complete podium, with Sebastian Vettel finishing fourth
- Both Red Bull drivers retired for the third time this season after home straight collision
BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – Lewis Hamilton won his first Grand Prix of the season in an action-packed race on the streets of Baku, which enabled the Brit take the lead in the Drivers’ Championship.
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Luck hands Hamilton first win of the season
Lewis Hamilton won the Azerbaijan Grand Prix having not led a lap until the 49th out of 51. The British driver had been lacking the standout pace required to dominate the weekend. However, Hamilton did qualify on the front row of the grid behind Sebastian Vettel but if Kimi Räikkönen had successfully completed his final qualifying effort, it could have been a different story.
On race day, Hamilton tried to make a dent on Vettel’s lead but the German matched the Brit and seemed to be controlling his pace. Safety cars were expected and they came aplenty as Räikkönen and Force India’s Esteban Ocon collided on the first lap. The race settled down again with Hamilton and Vettel making their pit-stops leaving Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas in the lead, before the safety car was brought out again – this time because of the Red Bull duo.
When the race restarted, Bottas was in pole position leading the field with everyone having made a pit-stop for fresh rubber. It was Vettel who made a bold move into turn one leading the pack before he locked up heavily and dropped down into fourth. Bottas was in the lead with Hamilton behind and Räikkönen third but on the next lap the race leader ran over some debris on the home straight that punctured his tyre. The Finn’s race was over while team-mate Hamilton was about to win his first race of the year.
Hamilton drove past the chequered flag first to secure his 63rd win in Formula One with Räikkönen in second and Force India’s Sergio Perez completing the podium. Sebastian Vettel finished in fourth, which meant that Hamilton gained a 13-point swing over his rival to take a four-point lead in the drivers’ championship.
Fierce Red Bull battle ends in furthe despair
Throughout the weekend, there was a fierce battle between the Red Bull duo of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen. At the beginning of the race, the pair came under pressure from the Renault duo of Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg where they ultimatelt lost their places. Hulkenberg later crashed into the wall and the Red Bull duo tried to catch Sainz. It was clear that Ricciardo had more speed than his Dutch team-mate but he couldn’t make a move stick. That was until lap 35 when the Australian launched an attack into turn one and managed to move ahead.
However, the battle came to a head a few laps later when Ricciardo had pitted first and Verstappen, unexpectedly, exited the pit-lane in front of his team-mate, who then wanted to gain back his position. As they raced down the home straight, it was clear that Ricciardo was gaining fast on the Dutchman and he feigned to the right before diving down the inside to complete the move. However, Verstappen defended to the right and drifted slightly back to the left closing the door for the Australian.
Consequently, Ricciardo had left it too late to change his mind, was too close to his team-mate, lost all down force and ran into the back of Verstappen’s car ending the race for both drivers. At the time of the incident, the duo were sat in fourth and fifth looking to earn a reasonable haul of points for their team. The stewards agreed that both drivers were at fault for the racing incident with each receiving a reprimand.
A day of mixed fortunes for Ferrari
At the beginning of the race, it seemed as though Sebastian Vettel would be in for a quiet afternoon making his way through backmarkers and staying in front when the safety car was called but all did not go to plan. Team-mate Kimi Räikkönen was involved in a first-lap collision and dropped down the field following his pit-stop but the Finn slowly made his way back until the final safety car worked well for his strategy.
Meanwhile, Vettel led the race until he pitted and, after the Red Bull incident, remained in second place behind Bottas. However, at the restart Vettel pushed too hard and attempted to take the lead once again, but instead locked up and dropped into fourth place. It got worse for the German, as he was overtaken by Sergio Perez and could not claim the final place on the podium – even after Bottas’ puncture.
Yet due to the misfortune of Bottas, Ferrari now lead Mercedes by four points in the constructors’ championship and that is despite Vettel falling behind in the drivers’ competition. Furthermore, Räikkönen secured his third podium this season and Vettel showed his pace, and more importantly, the ability to control it while at the front.
First of many F1 points for Leclerc?
Driver of the Day as voted for by F1 fans was Sauber’s Charles Leclerc who secured his first points finish in Formula One. The man from Monaco, who is in his rookie season, drove a calm and composed race to finish in sixth place and take eight points.
Leclerc has been touted as a future Ferrari driver, being part of the Ferrari driver academy and having won the GP3 championship in 2016 and Formula 2 championship in 2017. The Monegasque driver knew he could perform well on the track having won the Azerbaijan race in Formula 2 last year. Nevertheless, many commented on how Leclerc will be one of the stars of the future having kept Fernando Alonso at bay in the closing stages.
Speaking after the race, Leclerc said: “It was an amazing race today – I am very happy with my result. It was definitely eventful, with many incidents on track making it especially challenging and fun to drive. I felt comfortable in the car, and did my best to gradually advance to the front of the midfield through the race. It is an incredible feeling to score points for the first time in Formula 1. As a team, we can see our potential, and know what our strengths are. I am very pleased, and look forward to continuing on this positive path.”
Unpredictable wind added another element on streets of Baku
There have been two previous F1 races at the Baku circuit and both have taken place in the summer. When it was the European Grand Prix in 2016, the F1 race did not prove to be as exciting as the GP2 counterpart but in the inaugural edition of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix last year, there was plenty of action on track. The 2018 edition was the first time the race had been held in the spring and there were some clear differences in the weather conditions.
Temperatures were a lot cooler than they were during the summer races, which meant that managing the tyres became a harder task. Additionally, the wind was a huge factor during the weekend. The unpredictable nature of the wind meant that sometimes there would be a tailwind, whereas other times it would be head on. Many drivers commented during qualifying that the wind had played a part in where they qualified and the Formula 2 drivers also added to the discussion after they had completed their races. Furthermore, there were additional gusts throughout the weekend that on occasion caught out some drivers when simply following the racing line.
In the DRS zones and particularly the home straight, the tow seemed to be much stronger than usual and this was due to the wind. A tailwind along these parts of the track allowed the driver in the slipstream to be impacted and gain more speed as a result. This could have been one of the factors during the incident between the Red Bull drivers.
The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, where pre-season testing happened, is the host track for the Spanish Grand Prix which takes place between May 11th – 13th.
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