Events

Bottas Holds Out Hamilton In Baku Thriller.

Twenty started, sixteen finished, in the 1001th Formula 1 race, held on the streets of Baku in Azerbaijan. The Socar Azerbaijan F1 Grand Prix had Valetteri Bottas and Lewis Hamiton start side by side in a familiar silver colored scene, with history for 2019 tapping on the shoulder of pole sitter Bottas. In the three races so far, the pole sitter has not won the race to come.

Bottas was under pressure on lap 1 in the tight street sections, with Hamilton broadening the shoulders. The tire of choice was the red banded softs, and in the first stanza of the race would deliver the goods. It certainly worked for Bottas as he was well over two seconds ahead of his team mate and nearest competitor, Hamilton.

Sergio Perez from Racing Point also had a great start, with fourth against his name and slotting in between Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen from Ferrari and Red Bull for the first five laps, but a gutsy and calculated move from Verstappen saw a safe yet tight, and clean, pass. Daniil Kvyat went hard and too hard as it eventuated, with a pit stop on lap 6 to change his rear rubber.

Bottas continued to extend his lead and was just under four seconds ahead of Hamilton. Kimi Raikonnen, who started from pit lane after an infraction from a wing deflection test, was complaining of instability and pitted for fresh rubber on lap 8. Lap 8 also had the Renault of Daniel Ricciardo under threat from Toro Rosso’s Alex Albon, with an indication that the power delivery for the yellow car was again not on song.

Verstappen radioed in on lap 10, telling the team that braking was failing in some of the the turns. Distracted by this, Verstappen didn’t see Charles Leclerc sneak up and pass him. Pierre Gasly in his Red Bull, one of the drivers that started from pit lane, alongside Robert Kubica and Raikkonen, passed the ailing Renault of Ricciardo on the same lap.

Laps 11 and 12 had tire swaps for a number of drivers, moving to the yellow mediums. Hamilton pitted on lap 13 for his tire change and it was here that the race settled down into an even flow. News came in that Robert Kubica was being investigated for being brought into pit lane too early for his start.

Leclerc was leading the race however his tires, the mediums, were on the verge of going off. Would Ferrari repeat their late call strategy and hurt the young Ferrari driver’s chance of a podium? Verstappen goes to the mediums on lap 16. Gasly is still on his starting tires too, and is also on mediums. Ricciardo shows his talent, muscling his Renault past Raikonnen on lap 20.

Beavering away in the background is Lance Stroll. The Canadian driver from Racing Point hasn’t set the season on fire so far but his Baku race is looking to pay dividends as he’s 14th on lap 21, and staying in clean air. Vettel and Verstappen are looking good too, with times coming down and gaps closing. Ricciardo lives up to his “Honey Badger” nickname, and pressures the Haas of Romain Grosjean into an error, locking the tires and having to go into a run off area. Ricciardo takes 11th.

That kind of luck doesn’t apply to Ricciardo’s team mate Nico Hulkenberg. On lap 29 “The Hulk” is passed by Alex Albon. Three laps later and Bottas finally gets past Leclerc, still on his start tires and they’re crying out in discomfort.

Ricciardo has run on after going too hard into a corner in an effort to overtake Kvyat. The Russian is behind him in the emergency lane. The Baku curse hits the Australian again, as he reverses and runs into the right side of the Toro Rosso. The Australian pits and retires shortly after. Vettel gets past Leclerc and there’s now a clear need for Leclerc to pit, and he does so for a change to softs.

Kvyat retires after Ricciardo reversed into him, Gasly and Leclerc are dicing after Leclerc’s pit stop, and Bottas is again in the lead and starting to skip away again. All of a sudden it’s retirement time, as Pierre Gasly in his Red Bull loses power after what was later diagnosed as a driveshaft failure, and finds a run off. This brings on a Virtual Safety Car, and this allows Verstappen to cool his tires. He’s in fourth and a sniff of a podium is his. And now Grosjean is out, with an issue in the front end of his car.

The VSC is called off on lap 41 and the cooler tires throughout the field need to come back up to race temperature. Verstappen goes hard into a right hander and was lucky to not tag the wall with his rears. Now thoughts turn towards the fastest lap and the extra point. Hamilton radios in and complains of a two second loss thanks to the VSC.

Bottas goes quickest and there are just six laps to go. He’s a second and a half ahead of Hamilton, and Vettel is four behind the Briton. Lap 48 and Leclerc has pitted for new rubber, whilst Hamilton grabs the quickest lap. Verstappen is still fourth and his chance for a podium is running out.

The final lap and Bottas retakes the fastest lap yet somehow, magically, Leclerc, left out to dry again by Ferrari, has the new rubber and with seconds of the race to go, retakes the fastest lap. the time is 1:43.009.

The win goes to Bottas ahead of Hamilton, Vettel is third, holding out Verstappen. Sergio Perez has run untroubled and Racing Point has points, with sixth and Lance Stroll, a delighted Lance Stroll, in ninth. Seventh and eighth has gone to McLaren, with Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris. The final part of the top ten is taken by the veteran Raikkonen, a lap down but just ahead of Albon.

Antonio Giovinazzi is another that’s slipped under the radar and takes 12th ahead of a barely heard of in this race Kevin Magnussen in his Haas. 14th is the Renault of Hulkenberg, with the Williams pairing of George Russell and Kubica not troubling the points scorecard further for the fourth time.

What is seen is how Mercedes have turned around a qualifying run into yet another 1-2 for The Silver Arrows, creating a new record in the process, being the fourth time they’ve done so. Ricciardo subsequently received a three grid spot penalty for his reverse run into the hapless Kvyat. The Russian dryly quipped after the race: “I’ll buy him a rear view mirror for the next race!” which is in Barcelona in two weeks.

Of the final result, Hamilton said: “I was too friendly in Turn 1, and basically gave it to him, but he drove a fantastic race, made no mistakes and so he deserved the win this weekend.” Bottas acknowledged his team and fellow driver, saying: “This victory feels really good. When you’re starting from pole, you hope for a straightforward race, the less drama, the better it is. I didn’t have the greatest start; after the wheelspin in China I was maybe just a little too cautious. Lewis had a better start so we went side-by-side into Turn 1 and 2; it was good, respectful racing between the two of us and I’m glad I could pull up in front of him.”

Join us in two weeks as F1 heads to Barcelona in Spain for the weekend of May 10 to 12.

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David Conole

Dave Conole is the former long-term circuit commentator for Sydney Motorsport Park, has worked trackside at the Australian F1 Grand Prix in Melbourne and is self-employed as an automotive content producer.

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