F1 – Azerbaijan GP – Race
Salam, MiniFans! Up until Q3, it seemed like it would be another Monaco weekend for Mercedes, but they pulled off an incredible tow that left Hamilton in second and Bottas dead last in tenth, as he didn’t receive a favour back. However, the numerous red flags left Leclerc in pole position for the second consecutive race. It only remains to see whether the favourites during the whole weekend, Red Bull, will be able to take over.
Unlike what happened in F2, this race kicked off in an extremely clean way save for a small collision between Schumacher and Stroll, even with the overtakes in the midfield, which didn’t happen in the top 3 cars, who started to open up a gap. Just a couple of laps into the race, Hamilton weaved his way to first, counting on his speed and tucking in behind Leclerc in order to escape from the dirty air. The first DNF came courtesy of Ocon, seemingly due to engine issues, in a race where Alpine was hopeful to get a good result and thus leaving all responsibility on Alonso’s shoulders.
In a race where safety cars aren’t uncommon, strategy was set to be key, especially once both Red Bulls were ahead of Leclerc and in clear pursuit of Hamilton. The first pit stops came for midfielders for hard tyres in an effort to try and go to the end of the race with them. Leclerc followed suit a few laps later, as did his teammate, Sainz, who prompted an innocuous yellow flag. It was Mercedes going for a double stop and having a very slow one for Hamilton, at four and a half seconds, and an extremely quick one for Verstappen that got the Red Bull in front of him. His teammate, Pérez, followed suit, leaving the pits right in front of the current world champion and retaining him behind. Meanwhile, Ferrari was showing that their race pace had nothing to do with how fast their single qualifying laps were.
Almost twenty laps in, Vettel finally pulled into the pits to get rid of his softs and Verstappen inherited the lead of the race, having managed to open up a gap to his teammate, who was doing his job at retaining Hamilton flawlessly. The Mercedes driver’s choice of rear wing meant that, even with his faster speed in the straights, Pérez pulled away in the slow sections of the circuit, with the gap being big enough during many laps not to allow Hamilton to use the DRS and even managing fastest laps.
The first safety car came out at 31 ones, due to a collision by Stroll, who had been on his own for a long while. His spin in the main straight due to his rear tyre giving up and puncturing caused a big impact and the pit lane to be closed, as the incident had occurred close to the entry. It made strategists think about the duration of the hard tyre, that had been on his car since the start of the race. Keeping the tyres warm was obviously in everybody’s minds as they weaved from side to side behind the safety car. When the pitlane reopened, people out of the points went in to change out their tyres in a quest for greatness or safeguarding themselves, having seen what had happened to the only set of tyres that was older than theirs. Then, the race restarted.
Nothing changed at the front, but Vettel’s incredible overtake on Leclerc and Raikkonen placing himself in front of Bottas did spice things up. The German driver even went further, overtaking Gasly and kickstarting the Frenchman’s complaints on radio. While Hamilton was in third, trying to reduce the gap to Pérez, Bottas was going further back, seemingly settling in 14th, but with Russell not too far away and only Williams and Haas behind him.
The biggest surprise came with just four laps to go, with Verstappen crashing on the straight in the same manner that Stroll did. Once again, a rear left tyre giving up meant a retirement, but, in this case, the blow was bigger. It was to the race and championship leader. The race was red flagged, but it wasn’t clear whether it would restart, as more than 75% of laps had been completed but cars were told to line up in the pitlane. Only three laps remained, one of which to be taken by the safety car regardless, so the decision of how to start was key. Red Bull told the FIA nothing on data told them the puncture could happen and asked the race director to consider a red flag so that everyone could change tyres. It was finally decided that it would be a standing start and a two-lap race after the safety car took them to the grid. Once settled in the main straight, after spending the warm-up lap weaving to bring tyres up to temperature, the red lights turned off for the second time in the afternoon. The madness began as soon as Hamilton couldn’t break correctly in the first corner and trickled down to last place after getting himself out of the runoff area. The real fight was for third for a little bit, as Leclerc and Gasly exchanged places a couple times, but the Frenchman was the winner of the duel. The midfield got a little wilder, overtakins happening left and right but with no notable incidents. At the front, neither Pérez nor Vettel made mistakes, allowing them to keep their win and inherit second place respectively.
It almost looked as if Hamilton would do what he always does when he’s not in the prime position: Constantly complain on radio and steamroll on track. However, Red Bull have finally gotten everything together and made the gears work thanks to Pérez doing what he was signed to do: Protect Verstappen from Hamilton just as Bottas is Hamilton’s bodyguard. After the overtakes were done at the beginning of the race, it seemed pretty clear cut that Red Bull could score a 1-2 that they haven’t seen since 2016, when Verstappen and Ricciardo were their line-up. However, lap 47 brought hell on earth for the energy drink team. With Verstappen out, all responsibility rested on Pérez, who saw himself in first place with Hamilton breathing down his neck, while Vettel was back in a podium position. A two-lap race changed everything. It seemed as if it would be easy for Hamilton to take back the championship lead, but the one mistake he made in the race doomed him.