Race Review: Azerbaijan 23rd-25th Of June, Round 8


This weekend, by its nature is one that is full of question marks for the teams and sport alike. The track is still something of an unknown quantity for Formula 1, as no amount of data gathering can actually ever come close to the value of on track testing. This track is also quite a tricky one for teams to find a balance for, with the interesting mix of incredibly long straights with 90 degree corners and the tight squeezes and pinches of the castle section. Red Bull expect to be somewhat more competitive as they have gone for a slippery straight line set up this weekend, as their chassis is good enough to deal with the down-force deficit created by that. Other teams might not be able to strike such a balance. Other areas of the car are also going to be under heavy duress and compromise as well; with McLaren’s Honda engines likely to leave them gasping for both fuel and speed through the flat-out final sector. Tyres and brakes will also take a bit of a battering in terms of temperature regulation as the long straights allow time for both components to cool below their proper working windows. Mercedes might feel the return of their problems with tyre warm-up, whilst Haas’ brake issues are likely to continue throughout the weekend. Then of course there are the ever-closing barriers, if the F2 grid is anything to go by then they will play a factor; claiming drivers into retirement and causing safety cars as the even wider F1 cars have to negotiate the tight spaces. An exciting race was in store!

Race winner: Daniel Ricciardo

We are also in a position where the championship fight is loaded with question marks. What would victory for Hamilton mean? Are Mercedes beginning to win the development race or is this track just more suited to their car? Are Ferrari slowly falling behind having made a lightning start? I will attempt to find some answers to these questions and also give some light to the developments off track in the sections below, trying to fit in as much as I can from what has been a disrupted weekend! Please bear with me, as this race was pure charming chaotic rollercoaster and will be very hard to sift through to deliver the review. I’ll try my best.

Mercedes (2nd & 5th)
Valterri Bottas, P2: A simply fantastic recovery drive from Bottas. That sentence cannot be underestimated. On the opening lap Bottas sustained a puncture and damage which dropped him to the back of the field following a pitstop. Not only that but by the end of the first safety car period he was still astonishingly a lap down. Now look at where he finished; resplendent in P2. Whilst of course it is certain that the number of safety cars greatly helped his cause, as he un-lapped himself in the first SC period, this achievement cannot be underestimated as he clawed his way through the field with tooth and claw: right from last to pip Lance Stroll to 2nd on the finish line itself. A small fly in the ointment was his vastly inferior pace to Hamilton on Saturday, but the points are handed out at the end of the race not for qualifying and that is all that really matters.

Lewis Hamilton, P5: Poor Lewis Hamilton, Baku really doesn’t seem to be his circuit does it? Despite being by far and away the fastest driver on Saturday he ends this weekend with an increased deficit to Vettel and the reason why? Sheer bad luck. Amongst the heaps of carbon fibre and stricken vehicles gathering on the track Lewis kept his head, only for his team to forget to properly secure his headrest after the red-flag. The subsequent pit-stop to alter the dangerous part of his car dropped him below Vettel, himself serving a 10 second stop and go penalty for dangerous driving on the track. Last year Hamilton also found some bad luck here as well and it remains the only circuit on the F1 calendar that he has failed to win at. That is quite a record though. However, he knows that the pace was there this weekend and what is more the pace over Vettel’s Ferrari was consistently stronger: as anyone could see Lewis clawed Vettel in towards the end of the race and finished just behind him. Hamilton will take happiness from that and look to build forwards for next time in Austria where he claimed victory last year.

Team Summary: Well Toto Wolff might have been pretty upset by Lewis being robbed in the race, but really he has a lot to be happy about: Raikkonen’s failure to finish again grants Mercedes an increased lead in the constructor championship. There is also mounting evidence that Ferrari might have dropped off the pace of the Silver Arrows as well; with both this last weekend and Canada proving Mercedes’ enduring dominance at power tracks. In my opinion, if current pace evidence continued to develop in the same vein then Mercedes will win both titles again this season with Hamilton claiming the WDC. However, today the Brit lost 15 possible points and one day we might look back at that unsecure headrest and see that it decided a championship, along with some other bad luck of course.

Ferrari (4th & DNF)
Sebastian Vettel, P4: Where do I start with Sebastian’s outing this time? Well let’s choose the obvious first. What in God’s name happened under the safety car? For those who have been living in a cave since the race and did not watch it I will briefly describe what happened. The second safety car was coming to an end and Hamilton was beginning to control the pace of the field, subsequently he appeared to come off the pace for a brief moment and Sebastian crashed into the back of him, causing some damage to the front wing. Many have viewed this as a malicious “brake check” by Hamilton. But what Vettel did next was pretty insane; he drove up alongside Hamilton waving his hands at him before appearing to turn his car in towards the Brit’s Mercedes and banging their wheels forcefully together. Now, I have no idea if this was intentional; if you look carefully at Vettel’s onboard at the moment of contact he is clearly gesticulating from the cockpit with his left hand; if he were doing the same with his right then this could have just been an anger fuelled mistake. It is very hard to tell from the onboard shot. But what is certain is that this was anger and it was punished by the stewards, causing Vettel to lose the lead of the race later. As I write this no further action has been warranted. Apart from that Vettel was as usual very strong in all of pace, consistency and strategical nous; but that is what we should expect from one of the major protagonists of this title fight.

Kimi Raikkonen, DNF: A race of two retirements for Raikkonen, bizarrely a fate he shared with Sergio Perez of Force India as well. It all really was downhill from the start for Kimi as Bottas clipped the inside kerb in turn 2 at the start and was catapulted across the track to hit his fellow Finn. The resulting damage to Raikkonen’s rear wing and floor only became worse as the race wore on and shortly before the red-flag he pulled into the pits to retire. However, during the red-flag period the Ferrari garage was hard at work as they went beyond the rules to attempt to fix Kimi’s car. As such he was back into the Grand Prix when the lights went out again. However, he was stuck right at the back of the field with Sergio Perez and as far as I can make out the same issues caused him to retire on lap 48 instead of seeing out to the end. Small consolation will be that he out-qualifed Vettel on Saturday, but that is probably more down to Vettel having to have the old engine specification from Ferrari.

Team Summary:
Ferrari is at a weird place now. All the signs seems to be pointing towards an increased pace for Mercedes that the Scuderia have yet to match. However, we have been at very power dependant tracks in the last 2 races so maybe that has been the primary reason for Italian’s lack of pace. We also have to remember that Vettel had the older specification engine in his Ferrari this race due to problems on his unit earlier in the weekend. That might also explain some slight pace problems. However, if there is a deeper-rooted issue then it might be highlighted next time out; the rumour is that Ferrari came into scrutiny for an oil burning technique they have been using for increased pace during FIA investigation. They have had to stop that procedure which limits their pace particularly in qualifying. Whatever the conditions, Ferrari need to start making some longer strides in terms of points for both their drivers and constructors standings to feel comfortable of stay ahead and catch up respectively.

Red Bull-Renault (1st & DNF)
Daniel Ricciardo, P1: Daniel Ricciardo is now winner of a race from the lowest position since Fernando Alonso in Valencia in 2011. However, he will know that luck played a large part. Despite obviously performing very well himself, it cannot be doubted that Lewis Hamilton should have won this race on pace and performance. But this section isn’t on him of course, so let’s focus on Daniel’s shining moment: an expertly executed double overtake on both the Williams cars into turn 1 following the red-flag restart. This was decisive and perfectly timed, allowing him to win the race when luck came his way. Had he not made the move we might be saying “race winner Bottas” or even “race winner Stroll” at the top of this post. Daniel’s victory sound-bite on the radio summed the entire race up as well: “Hahaha holy ****” no one could have put it better but the Aussie.

Max Verstappen, DNF:
This is the 4th time that Verstappen has retired in the last 6 race, all of them having something in common; he has more or less been very impressive with his general pace throughout the weekend up to that point. The fight between Verstappen and Perez for 3rd on lap 11 was one of the forgotten highlights of the early stages of the race. However, shortly after on lap 12 his engine went bang and he responded with “Yeah here we go again, ****” over the team-radio. A familiar tale. I can’t help thinking that Verstappen’s ambition is so large that this kind of behaviour from his Red Bull car will be pushing him to look elsewhere for his championship winning drive sooner than later. Still he has time on his side obviously and that may be me being far-fetched.

Team Summary:
Another weekend where Red Bull are staring at mixed fortunes. On one hand they certainly had much better pace than this circuit would expect of them and they of course won the race; which is what counts first and foremost. But on the other hand they have another star driver who is becoming increasingly irritated by the lack of reliability in his car. Verstappen is being predicted a “big performance” by team principal Christian Horner following these upsets but I don’t know if luck will fall Red Bull’s way again in the future to allow for that. They go to their home race very much buoyed but still with a lot of work to do to bring the fight properly to the front.

Force India-Mercedes (6th & DNF)
Esteban Ocon, P6: Ocon, for the second race in a row has come into much conflict with his team-mate. He is certainly rocking the apple cart at Force India with his good performances, such as pressuring Perez in Canada, but this time was somewhat more damaging to his status in the team. Whilst challenging Perez on the re-start from the second safety car he ran the Mexican out wide and shut the door on him, taking the front wing off his team-mates car. The resulting damage actually contributed to Sergio’s “first retirement” and a reduced points-haul for Force India on a strong weekend for Williams and Red Bull. 6th is a good placement and earns his team some decent points, even though at one point they were running in 3rd and 4th and could have done a lot better.

Sergio Perez, DNF: Sergio’s non-finish this weekend is his first in in 37 races, bringing him 4 shy of Nick Heidfield’s record of 41 straight finishes in a row. However, Sergio actually retired twice much like Raikkonen; but his damage was the result of friendly fire. The Force India’s hit each-other on restart after the second safety car on lap 18 and the damage was seemingly beyond the front wing that he lost. Again though the mechanics set to work in the red-flag period and sent him back out a lap down. In the end he retired to save the gearbox and power-unit from unnecessary wear and tear, as his pace had not taken him to any recovery. The most intriguing story is that Perez is starting to get a little het-up with Ocon this year; two races in a row they have had an inter-team scuffle and Sergio will surely want to assert himself again. He has called the incident “unacceptable from a team point of view” so is clearly banking on the team backing him up as the senior driver. Funnily enough, despite the criticism of his team-mate, he did a similar kind of thing to Jenson Button in Bahrain during their season together in 2013 at McLaren. Ocon is clearly ruffling his feathers considerably to prompt him to ask for this protection from the team in both Canada and Baku.

Team Summary:
As discussed above this could have been a simply excellent weekend for the ‘Pink Panthers’ but once again they face a poor result from allowing their drivers to race each-other: a reduced points haul and increasing tension between their drivers. They would do well to stop this rot of rowdiness between the two on track as soon as possible before any problems allow teams to sneak up behind them. Currently there is not too much chance of that; but watch this space.

Williams-Mercedes (3rd & DNF)
Lance Stroll, P3: Wow. Many people, including me, will have to seriously eat their words now. I am sorry Lance Stroll. This weekend you were superb. Whilst again many may say that he lucked into this podium, and there would be some truth to that, to say so would be to ignore the fact that the young Canadian kept his head through the craziness around him despite his sheer inexperience. He only just scored his first points last time in Canada! For all that has been said about Stroll not being good enough, there he was at the end of the race on the podium and what is more he did not look out of place: he had earned it the same as everyone else. I was genuinely tense as Bottas clawed away at Stroll’s lead during the last 10 laps and quite dis-heartened when the Finn over-took at the very last. Whilst he of course still has a lot of proving to do, I was willing Lance on towards the podium with all my might and it was delightful to see him there. A wonderful story as he was also voted “Driver Of The Day” by the fans. Even if we are to look at the pure numbers then it is also true that he had the pace over Massa this weekend in qualifying. The points in Canada have propelled his confidence as expected.

Plenty of reason for this huge smile this weekend.

Felipe Massa, DNF:
Poor Felipe, it had really looked at one point like he could be in the fight for the podium which his own team-mate actually claimed. However, he had issues following the race restart after the red-flag: Alonso, Hulkenberg and Magnussen all over-took him in quick succession prompting Williams to call him in to the pits. A cruel way to go, as had he held on he was looking at some seriously good points. On the other hand Massa will be concerned that Stroll out-qualified him albeit by a short margin.

Team Summary: Williams will be delighted with this podium, whether from a 2nd or from a 3rd and they should be as well. Whilst they were undoubtedly handed a lot of luck with their strategy with the safety cars, they still had to negotiate their way through the turmoil and into the champagne. They did just that, leap-frogging Toro Rosso in the constructors as they went. Austria might provide a slightly harder challenge for them though, as their Mercedes power unit might not be so over-powered on the straights than here in Baku.

Toro Rosso-Renault (8th & DNF)
Carlos Sainz, P8: Carlos is another who went on quite a strong recovery drive: during the first corner of the race he had spun under pressure from his team-mate and found himself right at the back of the pack. However, he did a good job to carve his way through the pack and eventually pass his fellow Spaniard Alonso for 8th position. Again, he somehow managed to have a vaguely quiet resurgence and will be happy to have moved on from his embarrassing shunt last weekend. That being said, he is looking a little more ruffled than last season in this team and has to keep his head if he wishes to impress other outfits.

Daniil Kvyat, DNF: There isn’t much to write about the Russian’s race this time around as it was all over by lap 10 as his Toro Rosso ground to a halt with complete electrical failure in sector 2. However, many might say that actually caused the excitement of this race; bringing out the first safety car and resulting in the crazy pushing of other drivers for places on the restart and also the colder tyre temperatures causing a few to skid around the track. He will be pleased to have over-shadowed Sainz in qualifying again and as such is doing a very good job of keeping his seat in F1 for the future.

Team Summary:
Toro Rosso will be very unhappy that Williams had such a fruitful time of things this time around; but apart from that they truly put up their best fight at a circuit that might have always proved difficult for them; Kvyat’s retirement almost undoubtedly stopped them from gaining a double-points finish as well. At least they didn’t have quite so much of a disastrous race as it first appeared early on for them. Onwards and hopefully upwards.

Haas-Ferrari (7th & DNF)
Kevin Magnussen, P7: Magnussen had a good solid outing this time around, not suffering from the many brakes issues that his team-mate seems to come into contact with. This allowed him to nearly match Haas’ highest ever finish. At one point the Dane was running as high as 3rd, but slowly slipped from those echelons as the faster cars behind began to gather pace. Most notably he was passed by both Mercedes during the space of two corners on lap 39.

Romain Grosjean, P13: This is what Grosjean said on lap 9: “I ask you one thing Gary; if the car becomes dangerous because of the brakes then just stop me” and that really tells the whole tale of this weekend. As I thought the braking issue was especially bad for Grosjean after the long straights of Baku. What is weird is that Kevin Magnussen seems to not suffer the same issues so regularly; might this be because of the way Grosjean uses the braking mechanism of his car? F1 drivers all brake slightly differently; some prefer gradual pressure of the pedal or trail-braking whilst other prefer a harder ‘stamp’ down and then a gradual release. I would expect that it is Romain’s usage that doesn’t sit well with the car as much as it is the brakes being at fault as well.

Team Summary: I had actually anticipated a disastrous race for Haas considering the issues they seem to be fighting week in and week out. This was far from that, as they made use of the cluster of caution periods to edge Magnussen up the field. There wasn’t much they could do for Grosjean whose lack of brakes led to an obvious decrease in ability. Renault’s poor weekend also allowed them to climb a place in the tables. It could have been better but it also could have been a lot, lot worse for the Americans.

Renault (DNF & DNF)
Nico Hulkenberg, DNF: Another shame for Hulkenberg as his recent record of positive points hauls came to an end. He had showed good progress, rising through the chaos from 14th on the grid into 7th before an ill-time turn in on a corner broke his right front suspension on a wall and that was that. Whether that was lack of concentration or some oversteer is hard to tell but it certainly looked clumsy. However, he once again had the pace on Palmer throughout the entire weekend so not much change there; just an unfortunate casualty of a crazy day.

Jolyon Palmer, DNF: A dismal weekend for Palmer was fraught with engine woe and electrical issue alike. This only compounded with an early retirement from the race. The Brit complained of strange vibrations on lap to the grid has to retire by lap 8. The only thing that is a respite in that situation for Palmer is that his true pace was not discovered at all, so he cannot have been said to be slow. That being said I can only see this season ending one way for Palmer; with him losing his seat at Renault and those rumours of Robert Kubica’s return didn’t go away this weekend either. But I was wrong about Lance Stroll it seems and I would happily be wrong about Jolyon, I want British drivers as a Brit myself but it just doesn’t seem at all likely at this juncture.

Team Summary: A torrid weekend for Renault who scored 0 points and were over-taken in the standings by Haas. The only small consolation is that the pace was there for them to score points and it wasn’t entirely down to reliability that they didn’t score. Had lack of pace and reliability issues been key to their failures then deeper questions might have to be asked ahead of Austria. They will have a chance to fight back yet.

Sauber-Ferrari (10th & 11th)
Pascal Wehrlein, P10: Another point for Wehrlein is going to be very welcome for Sauber and more importantly welcome to him. In a week where it has been claimed that the Swedish financial backers of the team want the team to favour Ericsson more than him, this will send out a message that he is at least the Swede’s equal. However, it must be remembered that Ericsson was ahead of the superior paced Wehrlein and the team only swapped them in view of being able to swap back later should Alonso be over-taken. However, Vandoorne was too close for comfort and this could not be attempted.

Marcus Ericsson, P11: It seems baffling to me that Sauber should want to favour Marcus instead of Pascal, it really does. Clearly Pascal is the faster driver as he graduated to Q2 yet again and Marcus languished behind in Q3. A stronger race pace was forthcoming but not to the extent that the team should gear themselves towards him as a number 1 driver. If this story is true I feel it will backfire on Sauber as Ericsson has hardly proved himself the greatest at the wheel in the blue and gold; in-fact I’d wager the opposite is the case instead.

Team Summary: In case you missed it, this race was the first race of the post-Monisha Kaltenborn era who left Sauber by mutual consent in the run-up to this weekend. It seems strange as under her tutelage Sauber have actually scored some decent points so far and are not last in the standings; which for them is a huge bonus. Frederic Vassuer, formerly of Renault, is apparently going to take over as team-owner as Sauber seek to revive themselves further back to the days of BMW partnership. It appears a long way off and if they do go with Ericsson as a number 1 then I don’t think they will even beat the stricken McLaren’s this season. They need to back Wehrlein. He is a better driver.

McLaren-Honda (9th & 12th)
Fernando Alonso, P9: YES! YES, YES AND YES AGAIN! Finally it is points for Fernando! As he is my driver I am genuinely over-joyed at this, but I shall try to be more focussed in my appraisal of his race of course. Alonso was another who benefitted massively from the caution confusion and red-flag periods; in fact it was he himself who came over the radio to say “Ideally there would be a red-flag: there is debris everywhere” before the red was indeed unfurled on lap 22. At this point Fernando was running as high as 6th and following Vettel and Hamilton’s pit-stops up even to 4th. But of course, given the Honda’s lack of power he was soon being over-taken by the much nippier cars behind him. Funnily enough this allowed a rare moment in current F1; Fernando fighting with the other leading drivers and at one point we had the best of the best on screen at once against each-other: Vettel, Hamilton and Alonso. But it was short-lived as Fernando dropped slowly down the field to 9th where he then lost some power from the electrical pack. Thankfully the Saubers were too far behind to threaten and he got McLaren’s first points of the season. It’s been a long time coming so I don’t think it will have changed his mind about leaving; I still can’t think he’d stay unless McLaren secure a Mercedes engine, to which there is no official news despite some claiming that the deal is done and dusted.

Stoffel Vandoorne, P12: The majority of this race for Stoffel was spent hunting the points down against the Saubers. Unfortunately he ended up behind them again after forcing a move on both of them into turn 1 on lap 4, allowing Fernando to squeeze through as well. This was no doubt a result of a slight error in strategy. However, points was close for him this time; and his Honda managed to finish the race even on the long pounding straights. I feel that points are coming for him; but it might require a less power-sensitive track and a lot of luck.

Team Summary: Finally, it is points for McLaren. But it could have been a whole lot better and they are still at the bottom of the table. As Fernando said after the race on team-radio “well, we could have won that one” and whilst that is a little hyperbolic there is some truth there; if the Honda was delivering as much power as even the Renault engined cars there is little reason to think why McLaren might not have been much higher up, having made good use of strategy and doing all else they could. But let’s focus on the positives: there are two points in the bag and there are a few tracks coming up which may suit their car better; particularly Hungary which has been a happy hunting ground for them even in these horrible Honda years. News from Honda is also that the 3rd spec engine they gave Fernando is a whole 15kph faster than the second generation engine too; so there is slight improvement in that regard. I still don’t believe they will finish bottom. I don’t see any reason for that just yet.

Race Review & Analysis

Oh my word. Wow. This race was a complete mess. An extremely exciting and fun mess, one that makes up for last year’s bore fest in absolute spades. By lap 20 alone we had 3 safety cars, culminating in a red flag as the track was messed up with debris! Incidentally we also had a mixed up running order for the eventual re-start. Both Perez and Raikkonen were judged to be retired but then rejoined the race in the red-flag situation! There was also a moment of madness between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, the angered German banging wheels with the Mercedes with his own Ferrari driver after the Brit had taken off his front wing under safety car conditions. The excitement didn’t stop there either: Vettel had a stop go penalty for his collision with Hamilton, we had drivers retiring then re-joining the race, we had Magnussen and Alonso all the way up in 3rd and 5th at one point and Lance Stroll and Daniel Ricciardo fighting the lead of the race in 1st and 2nd until the former dropped to 3rd at conclusion when Bottas lunged at the final line. Fundamentally, Hamilton amazingly somehow lost the race because his head-rest wasn’t secured properly! This was chaotic craziness with many winners and losers. Due to this most of the events are summarised in detail above in each section on team or driver. Instead I will use this section is to decipher today’s events in terms of what they mean for the championship standings.

At the top of the table we have Vettel somewhat controversially extending his lead over Lewis Hamilton. I say controversial, as Hamilton was insistent to Charlie Whiting over the radio that Vettel deserved a harsher penalty for his conduct under the safety car. Vettel meanwhile pleaded to his team about his 10 second stop and go penalty saying “Can you tell me where I did dangerous driving?” and even he can’t fully believe his words there surely? It was clear to everyone that he drove alongside Lewis and whether intentionally or not his anger caused contact. The war of words has already started; with Hamilton calling Vettel a “disgrace” for the move. Regardless, Mercedes extend their lead at the top of the constructor standings with Raikkonen’s race imploding from the start and resulting in a retirement. Elsewhere we finally have McLaren’s and Alonso’s first points and let me just say that for a fan it is a huge, huge relief even if it doesn’t lift them off the bottom of the championship table. Finally the biggest winners of this race were Williams, who jumped to 5th in the constructors with Lance Stroll’s first podium. He has had his doubters, myself included but I am pleased to say that I was absolutely elated with his podium and that he is proving everyone wrong.

Ultimately my biggest sympathies lie with Hamilton this weekend; he would certainly have won the race had it not been for the strange and bizarre mistake made by his team over the attachment of the headrest. It is moments like this where championships are won and lost when you look back. He had kept his cool despite everything happening behind him and beside him with Vettel and somehow has 15 points snatched from him. Whilst there may be question marks surrounding whether he brake-checked the German, I do think Lewis was completely supreme in terms of pace and in that regard he deserved this race win. However, congratulations have to go to Daniel Ricciardo, who also kept his head despite the ups and downs and stops and starts. His move into turn 1 on the restart of the race after the red-flag was retrospectively a race-winning move and deserves a standing ovation for it’s boldness.

Next Time Out: Austrian Grand Prix

Well for the sake of my note taking fingers and for the shattered nerves of many in the paddock, may next time out at Austria be a little more straightforward. However, if we were to have such a similar rollercoaster I don’t think anyone deep down would complain really! Austria is a very different track to Baku in many ways: it is one of the shortest on the calendar and supplies the cars with a track that is slightly less dependent on power and more challenging in the cornering department. The title fight is certainly hotting up as well, with tensions between Vettel and Hamilton clearly sharpening in intensity. When will we hear a decision between McLaren, Honda and Alonso? Will Ferrari reclaim some pace from Mercedes? Can Red Bull build from here? What twists and turns will this season take next? I have been cautious in calling this season a classic before, but now I can finally say that it is: this is a great year to be an F1 fan. Tune in next time for the race and for my review to follow along!



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