F1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix heroes and zeroes

A riotous Azerbaijan Grand Prix ended with unexpected victory for Daniel Ricciardo ahead of Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and rookie Lance Stroll. Controversy was around every corner in Baku as Lewis Hamilton and fellow title protagonist Sebastien Vettel got too close for comfort under the safety car. Contact between the two sparked a chain of events that unravelled both their races and set up a grandstand and unexpected finish.

A demolition derby in Azerbaijan

A nose to tail bump enraged Vettel as Hamilton controlled the field ahead of one of several safety car restarts. The German’s anger at a perceived ‘brake check’ was misdirected. FIA reviews showed Hamilton had not brake checked the Ferrari driver. By then things had boiled over as Vettel pulled alongside Hamilton and bumped wheels with the Briton in a move more reminiscent of NASCAR than F1. Hamilton labelled the Ferrari driver ‘a disgrace’ and justifiably so.

Vettel’s 10 second stop/go penalty and 3 penalty points on his licence should be considered a lucky escape. The championship leader is now just a further 3 points from an immediate race ban.

Despite Vettel’s penalty Hamilton could not convert his race leading pace in to victory. A loose headrest meant the FIA required Mercedes to pit Hamilton from the lead for repairs. Hamilton then followed Sebastien Vettel home in 5th place – an extremely disappointing result for the pole sitter.

2017 F1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix heroes

Hero – Lance Stroll

Stroll’s result in Canada looked like it had eased the pressure on the teenager. After his performance in Baku it clearly relaxed and invigorated the rookie.

Whilst veterans like Sebastien Vettel were losing their cool, Stroll was an oasis of calm amidst the unfolding demolition derby.  Despite multiple safety car periods and a long red flag stop, Stroll was harassing Ricciardo for the final podium place through the second half of the race.

Being pipped at the finish line by the charging Mercedes of Bottas could not take away from Stroll’s accompaniment. Becoming the first Canadian since Jacques Villeneuve in 2001 to score an F1 podium finish.

Hero – Daniel Ricciardo

Ricciardo was an innocent bystander as debris from other accidents lodged in his front wing and brake cooling ducts. Not letting his head go down the Aussie was the consummate professional and drove back through the field.

Down to 17th place by lap 6 Ricciardo looked down and out. Instead the 27 year old got the bit between his teeth and cut through the field, avoiding the carnage that was the hallmark of the race.

Ricciardo’s champions drive was capped off by a spectacular move on the lap 24 restart. Running 3 wide on the finish strait, Ricciardo overtook both Williams cars and a prowling Nico Hulkenberg. His 5th career victory was a surprising but hard-earned one.

Hero – Valtteri Bottas

Plum last and a lap down after a silly move on Kimi Raikkonen on the opening lap, Bottas was doing nothing to help win a contract extension at Mercedes. Fast forward 50 laps and the Finn was stealing a remarkable 2nd place from Lance Stroll at the line on the final lap.

Mercedes W08 Bottas F1

Bottas benefitted massively from the craziness that infected most of the field. But that is to take away from a calm and calculated drive to the front. With a sniff of a podium and a possible win Bottas used the superior performance of his Mercedes to cruise up to the back of the unlikely trio of Magnussen, Ocon and Stroll.

A beautifully timed pass on the final lap stole a remarkable 2nd place from Stroll and capped off a super recovery drive.

Heroes – Honda

In a twisted way both McLaren and Fernando Alonso would have perhaps preferred another DNF in Baku. It would have added further evidence (if any more is needed) of Honda’s abject failure and the pressing need to find an alternative engine supplier.

Instead – the result of moments of road rage and madness up and down the field – saw Alonso as high as 6th and Vandoorne just outside the top 10. Alonso scored McLaren Honda’s first (and much needed) points of 2017 with 9th place while Vandoorne faded to 12th.

McLaren Honda MCL32 Honda Alonso Barcelona test

The Honda PU was both reliable and reasonably competitive. Everyone was expecting both McLaren’s to get mugged on the never ending Baku start-finish strait. They were slow – in terms of the leading Mercedes and Ferraris – but they performed better than expected against the year-old engines and Renault PU’s in the midfield.

Of course as both Bottas, Hamilton and Vettel fought back through the field they breezed by Alonso. Demonstrating that this Baku performance was just another one off and McLaren Honda are still miles behind their performance targets.

2017 F1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix zeroes

Zeroes – Renault

F1 history is littered with split personality teams and Renault are the latest. Jolyon Palmer faced yet another weekend from hell. A lack of pace was compounded by an accident in practice and engine fire in FP3. Starting from the back of the grid it was inevitable that Palmer would either crash or break down.

By contrast his teammate, despite a disappointing qualifying performance, was in the top 10 within a few laps and running trouble-free. The ‘Hulk’ blotted his copybook with a silly mistake later in the race which caused him to retire for what seemed a certain points finish.

Palmer is not helping himself – the Briton is tighter than a wheel-nut – but he is not completely to blame. Renault owe Palmer a chance to finish his time with the team – and it has reached that stage – with a fighting chance of performing to his ability.

Zeroes – race marshals

If the marshals from the Automobile Club of Monaco are the gold standard, the crews in Baku were the bargain basement equivalent.

All weekend there were instances of marshals working at crossed purposes, swarms of them on track with no discernible leadership and debris all over the track at times. During the race itself it took an inordinate amount of time to remove Kvyatt’s stricken Toro Rosso. Not to mention the marshals hoisting the Toro Rosso on the back of a tractor before thumping it off the concrete barriers for good measure.

Street races by definition breed accidents and debris. At times the marshals looked unprepared and confused about how to deal with such scenarios. And that is dangerous for everyone, especially the marshals.

Zero – Sebastien Vettel

‘Red’ Vettel reared his head again in Azerbaijan as the German lost his composure completely. Surprised by a slowing Lewis Hamilton under the safety car Vettel nosed in to the back of the Mercedes. Front wing cascades were seriously damaged but before they had come to rest on the circuit the 4-time World champion had deliberately bumped wheels with Hamilton.

Ferrari’s pace in the second half of the race demonstrated the folly of Vettel’s move. A 10 second stop/go penalty dropped him down the field and wrecked his chances of an almost certain 2nd place and a genuine shot at victory. The bigger repercussions will come as the rest of the season unfolds.

Vettel will be under the microscope of the FIA and race stewards for the rest of the season and will face a far more aggressive approach from Lewis Hamilton. Baku could be one of the pivotal moments in the 2017 F1 championship despite Vettel leaving Baku with a bigger points lead. The Ferrari team leader will need to keep his nose exceptionally clean for the next few races.

Race rating – 4 out of 5

The first third was dull and in danger of making F1’s second trip to Azerbaijan turn out to be a complete shambles. F1’s drivers – supposedly the best of the best – struggled to not run in to each other, sparking safety car period after safety car period. A subsequent red flag period to clear up the track now littered with carbon fibre debris thankfully reset proceedings.

What followed was full of drama, spectacular overtakes, intrigue and healthy dose of controversy. Suddenly a track full of 90 degree turns never looked so appealing.

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