After taking his 5th Grand Prix victory, Daniel Ricciardo summarised the Azerbaijan Grand Prix perfectly in the cool-down room. This was the race we all expected last year.
It was a reference to the cities’ inagural event in 2016, where Nico Rosberg won comfortably in a race that produced little in the way of action, excitement and drama.
This years event was an entirely different story.
Unquestionably the major talking point is Sebastian Vettel ramming Lewis Hamilton moments before a safety car restart. A championship battle that had been friendly and respectful became hostile and angry in a matter of moments.
Vettel saw red after incorrectly accusing Hamilton of ‘brake-testing’ him in the penultimate corner. His reaction? To pull up alongside Hamilton and shunt him before the restart.
Even now my opinion continues to change regarding this event. At first? Unacceptable and surely black flagged. After seeing a 10-second-stop-go penalty, which amounts to about 30 seconds including the drive through the pits? I thought that was just about reasonable. Seeing it later on the news? What will non-motorsport fans think of such drama from barely a tap? After sleeping on it? It is right on the limit, but the in-race penalty is probably just about enough.
Regardless of the punishment, it was a moment of madness that could have quite easily cost him the World Championship. It still could.
Drivers Standings after eight races
Sebastian Vettel 153 pts Ferrari
Lewis Hamilton 139 pts Mercedes
Valtteri Bottas 111 pts Mercedes
Daniel Ricciardo 92 pts Red Bull Racing
Kimi Raikkonen 73 pts Ferrari
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix had promised much right from the get go. The fast-flowing nature of the circuit puts cars right up against the barriers, while the impressively long full-throttle end to the lap would surely promote overtaking into the first corner. Despite last years ‘no show’ there was still hope for a memorable Grand Prix this time around.
I actually tweeted during Free Practice 2 that I had never seen so many driver errors in one session. It was quite extraordinary as drivers looked to be right on the limit. It set the precedent for an exciting race, but expectations had also been high the year before.
The support races in Formula 2 did little to limit those expectations. Plenty of overtakes and incident packed, the track itself became blocked after a crash in the narrow castle section. Red flag, cars stalling, marshals in disarray and an unknown race result set the tone for the Formula 1 race to follow.
Fellow Finns Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen tangled on the second corner of the race, while Carlos Sainz spun his Toro Rosso while attempting to avoid his teammate Daniil Kyvat.
It is interesting to note that in the early stages of the race Valtteri Bottas – who ends up finishing 2nd – was a lap down due to the damage he received with Raikkonen, while Daniel Ricciardo – who eventually wins – was way down in 17th on lap 6 after an unscheduled pit stop to clear debris from his brake ducts. It just shows why you should never give up in F1. Anything can and will happen.
After an entertaining opening few laps things quickly became processional as the race settled. In fact it was almost a replica of last years race – a Mercedes leading out front, with a decent scrap for the podium places going on behind.
However, action, excitement and drama was indeed to follow. The unlikely catalyst for the resulting chaos? Daniil Kyvat pulling over his Toro Rosso, resulting in a safety car being deployed to remove his stricken car.
In the first of the safety car restarts, Lewis Hamilton had almost caught the safety car when he dropped the hammer. To understand the seriousness of this potential error, you need only to look at the GP2 event in 2016 at this very circuit. Honda development driver Nobuharu Matsushita got the safety car restart wrong on two occasions while leading the race, causing absolute chaos behind him and earning him a one race ban as a consequence. Serious implications.
After a warning from his team, Hamilton was careful to not go too early again and therefore increased the distance for the second of the restarts. Vettel on the other hand had so nearly been caught out by the Force India of Sergio Perez and was keen to stay as close to Hamilton as possible.
A recipe for disaster. This was the moment. The event that may define the drivers’ World Championship. A once friendly and respectful rivalry became full of anger and frustration. Intentional ramming of cars during a safety car is an absolute no in any form of Motorsport, so for it to happen in Formula 1 between two World Champions is monumental.
The debate will rage on as to whether Vettel did intentionally make contact or not. My personal opinion is that he wanted to intimidate Hamilton, but misjudged the swerve and actually made contact. Misjudged by error, or misjudged by pure anger and emotion, it is difficult to say. There is an ongoing hearing surrounding the collision and Vettel could yet face further disciplinary action before the next Grand Prix in Austria.
Interestingly, this very same restart is also the backdrop for another major controversy. Force India, for the second race in a row, had a huge chance at stepping on the podium and this time might even have had a chance at winning the race. However, Esteban Ocon collided with Sergio Perez during the frenetic restart and the race went down as another missed opportunity. Ocon dragged his car home in 6th, but Force India will still be wondering what might have been.
As would a vast proportion of the grid. Felipe Massa was in contention for a podium but was forced to retire, as was Max Verstappen in the early stages. Nico Hulkenberg was going well but made an uncharacteristic error, while Fernando Alonso said to his team on the radio that it was a shame that they weren’t competing for the race victory. Kimi Raikkonen will also feel unlucky as he was innocently on the receiving end of two accidents.
Of the front runners, Sebastian Vettel will realise that race victory was his had he not rammed Hamilton and got himself a penalty. But Hamilton will feel that his own race victory was robbed from him when his headrest came loose. It was absolutely right that he was forced to pit. I was wincing as he was trying to adjust it at over 200mph.
While all the events above unfolded, three men stayed out of trouble to finish in the podium places. 18 year old Lance Stroll was remarkably calm and seemed to make fewer mistakes than anybody over the weekend. He was deservedly rewarded with P3, even if it was a touch cruel that he was taken on the finish line for second place by Valtteri Bottas. After his first lap crash, Bottas unlapped himself during the safety car and did a good job at keeping a calm head and working himself all the way up into 2nd place.
As I mentioned, Daniel Ricciardo was P17 after six laps, and had actually crashed in qualifying too. So for him to pull victory out of the hat was a mega achievement. He passed no less than three cars on the straight in one go, diving up the inside of both Williams’ on his way to winning. Ricciardo always seems to be the one who grasps opportunities when those ahead of him get into difficulties. I’ve got to say his ‘shoey’ on the podium is endearing too. He’s thoroughly likeable.
Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit that was a race
— Daniel Ricciardo (@danielricciardo) June 25, 2017
Austria up next. Old-school, fast, tight and with heavy braking zones. Hamilton and Rosberg collided here last year as teammates, and eyes will be on Hamilton again as he goes toe-to-toe with Vettel, now as fully fledged Championship rivals.