History will show that Mercedes-Benz F1 driver Lewis Hamilton won the third round of the 2018 F1 season at Baku, Azerbaijan, but the race will be remembered for the crash between two cars fighting for position and potentially a win.
With barely ten laps of the six kilometer city street circuit to go, and with Valteri Bottas in the lead, the two Red Bull cars of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo came together with the result being both cars, in podium challenging positions, out.
Valteri Bottas had been in sparkling form for the Azerbaijan rave, until his concentration was broken by the safety car intervention after the Red Bull collision. Unfortunately for Bottas, a piece of debris missed by recovery crews wasn’t picked up, Bottas ran over it, and delaminated his right rear tire. Bottas had managed to stay ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel after a pit stop and later commented: ““Maybe 10 pints of beer and we’ll be fine.”
On a day where the weather was warmer than expected, the race got off to a relatively non-descript start from the line, with the tight street circuit expected to cause some drama during the 51 laps. However within a half lap cars came together, with the Force India car of Esteban Ocon being tagged by Kimi Raikkonen and hitting the wall on his right. Williams driver Sergey Sirotkin hit the other Force India car and eliminated himself, and suddenly Fernando Alonso had a pair of flat right tires from Sirotkin’s debris and needed an immediate pitstop.
An extensive safety car period followed thanks to the amount of debris on track. This had Vettel in the lead followed by Hamilton, Bottas, Ricciardo, and Verstappen.
The restart saw Verstappen almost collide with Ricciardo and Carlos Sainz before miraculously finding space and getting through. Nico Hulkenberg found room on lap 9 to get past Ricciardo, moving the Western Australian to seventh. Verstappen complained of a low battery for the DRS at the same time and saw Hulkenberg take his place. The Red Bulls were on the super soft, Hulkenberg’s Renault was on the ultra soft and using them better at one fifth race distance until a tap on the wall had Nico’s right rear tire explode.
It became a street brawl between the two Red Bull cars with Verstappen challenging Ricciardo in corners. Front tires touched but no damage occurred. Behind them Charles Leclerc was charging through and was in seventh just behind the dueling Red Bulls.
Vettel still had the lead and a healthy one of over four seconds from Hamilton, Raikkonen passed Leclerc into sixth on lap 17 and Sebastian Grosjean had climbed to tenth. Marcus Ericcson flatspotted his fronts on lap 19 as Hamilton laid down the fastest lap of the race.
Hamilton pitted on lap 23 which allowed Bottas through for second. This still had the Mercedes driver ahead of Verstappen and Ricciardo as the race pace settled. Vettel stayed out on the super soft which was now 25 laps old. A pitstop for Leclerc had him fall to eleventh on lap 25.
Lap 31 saw Vettel pit and Bottas take the lead whilst simultaneously putting down the race’s quickest lap. Although the two Red Bulls continued to dice, they were also getting away from the rest of the field, with Ricciardo a massive twenty seconds ahead of Ferrari’s Raikkonen on lap 35. Their race pace was obvious too, with Ricciardo passing Verstappen on a ninety degree left hander.
Somehow though Bottas was still on his race start super soft tyres at the 36 lap mark and was over eleven seconds ahead of Vettel in second. Lap 38 had Ricciardo in for his first pit stop, changing to the ultra soft but still in fifth. Verstappen pitted a lap later yet still came out ahead of Ricciardo.
Lap 40 and it was looking good for Ricciardo to pass Verstappen again. A move to the right then left by Ricciardo had Verstappen cover him. The rules state a defensive move can be performed once and the Verstappen car appeared to have covered twice. The subsequent result was Ricciardo ploughing into the rear of Verstappen and Red Bull’s day was done.
Bottas lead Vettel at Hamilton with ten laps to go. Perez has meanwhile moved to fifth, Grosjean to sixth and Leclerc back up to eighth behind Sainz. Bottas pitted under safety car as did Vettel with nine laps to go.
Haas driver Romain Grosjean, in an attempt to keep tires warm on a rapidly cooling Baku track, lost traction and nosed into the wall on lap 44, demolishing the front of his car and extending the safety car period.
The safety car came in at the end of lap 48, with Bottas feeling Vettel breathing down his neck, whilst Hamilton took advantage of a Vettel overtake and brake lock up to pull his car into second. This was crucial for Bottas as it took out the man more likely to challenge him for the win.
Alonso passed Lance Stroll at the restart to move to eighth but it was with three laps left that the Bottas car suffered its race ending right rear tire puncture. Suddenly Hamilton was in the lead, Raikkonen had come from the clouds to move into second and a delighted Sergio Perez for Force India into third at the drop of the checkered flag.
This race had it all including the first F1 points for young Kiwi driver Brendon Hartley, Perez becoming the highest podium finishing driver from Mexico, and Ferrari leading the constructor’s championship. But it will be the collision between Ricciardo and Verstappen, and the heart stopping cruelty of motorsport for Bottas that will be talking points for years to come.