“The two-lap shoot out was a thriller. Who said sprint races were a bad idea?”
Mercedes may have started the weekend slowly, but once again the world champions utilised all their experience to find speed for Lewis Hamilton in qualifying and come race day you knew they’d be giving pole sitter Charles Leclerc a real run for his money over the opening laps of today’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Last weekend the streets of Monte Carlo resonated with F1 history, the thoroughfares through Baku may not, but what they do provide is plenty of wheel to wheel high-speed racing.
After a clean start, the gaps between the fastest men weren’t too significant in the early stages, Lewis Hamilton had overtaken polesitter Leclerc on lap seven had just over a second to spare over Max Verstappen in the leading Red Bull, whose teammate Sergio Perez had also passed Leclerc’s Ferrari by lap eleven.
Hamilton was held up slightly when he pitted on the twelfth lap. When the dust settled after the pacesetters pit stops Verstappen was second, Perez third and Hamilton’s Mercedes was now fourth.
Out front, for a time at least, was Sebastien Vettel who was running his first set of soft Pirrellis well into the race. A stop would inevitably come for the former world champion but it was good to see the German showing some form of old aboard his new steed.
His teammate Lance Stroll had also made significant progress and 18 laps in he was running in 5th place but with the hard tyres on board.
Vettel had to relinquish the lead at the end of lap 19, as he headed to the Aston Martin pit for fresh tyres. He emerged in 7th, a good points finish still well within his grasp.
At the halfway point, Verstappen was looking comfortable out front. That makes leading a Grand Prix sound easy. It’s anything but.
The level of concentration needed to reel off lap after lap, driving at the edge of adhesion, at huge speeds, needs skill and focus of the highest level.
On a street circuit where you’re within centimetres of the barriers for much of the lap the level of precision required is even greater than usual. We know at this stage Verstappen has all the attributes required. Was the race in the bag though or was Hamilton biding his time?
31 laps in Lance Stroll had extracted the maximum from his hard tyres the left rear gave up the fight, the blow out at high speed sending his Aston Martin spearing into the wall. Luckily he emerged unhurt from a very second hand looking AMR21.
The safety car was deployed for five laps while the debris was cleared. 16 laps to go and at the restart. Verstappen first, Perez second, Hamilton third, Pierre Gasly fourth. Just behind him, Sebastien Vettel released his inner world champion at the restart.
He whipped by Leclerc’s Ferrari and quickly began to hassle and harry Gasly’s Alphatauri, his old adversary Lewis Hamilton was now within sight.
Surely though the Aston Martin wouldn’t have the grunt to reel in the mighty Mercedes. 11 laps to go, the gap was just over two and a half seconds, the only one faster than Vettel on track was the race leader Max Verstappen.
Aware of Vettel’s pace, Hamilton responded with a couple of flat out laps and so the expected tussle between the two world champions didn’t materialise.
What was beginning to look inevitable though was a Verstappen victory. The Dutch driver had over 4 seconds to spare over his Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez and was looking comfortable.
But just as we prepared to laud a faultless drive by Verstappen, disaster struck. His left rear tyre punctured at speed along the main straight and from there Verstappen was a passenger, his Red Bull out of control veered into the wall and it was race over for the long time leader.
Verstappen emerged unscathed to survey the damage to his car. A swift kick applied to that rogue rear tyre demonstrated his annoyance and frustration. Whatever loads were being applied to the left rear of Strolls Aston Martin and Verstappen’s Red Bull were too much to bear and an inquest into the tyre construction would inevitable be required to provide answers.
The safety car was again called out on track and then the race was red-flagged while the debris from the latest Baku bang was cleared. There would be two laps to go when the race would restart.
With Verstappen out, Perez was ready to lead them off on the two-lap shootout. Hamilton poised in second and much to the delight of nostalgia lovers, Vettel was third. The chances of the order changing over what would essentially be two flying laps were remote, although Vettel’s tyres were the newest of the top three.
It was worth waiting for. Lights out, Perez and Hamilton hurtled down towards turn 1, the Mexican hit the brakes and his Red Bull slowed to take the racing line, Hamilton hit the brakes and his Mercedes slipped down the escape road and straight out of contention.
The world champion had inadvertently switched all the brake balance to the front.
Vettel was now second. Behind the four-time world champion, Pierre Gasly was desperately trying to fend off Leclerc’s Ferrari and he did a superb job defending his position right to the rapidly approaching chequered flag.
That’s the way it stayed. A popular podium. Checo first, for the second time in his F1 career, Vettel on the podium for the 122nd time and the first time since the Turkish Grand Prix last year and Gasly picking up his first podium of the season.
The two-lap shoot out was a thriller. Who said sprint races were a bad idea. How about a Super Sprint over two laps…on a Friday?