F1 throwback: Azerbaijan 18

Reliving the magic from Azerbaijan in 2018

By: Samuel Moores

Sunday sees what’s always one of the most anticipated races of the Formula 1 season occur, as the championship takes to the streets of Baku in Azerbaijan. The circuit around the nation’s capital is one of the tracks that are loved by everyone, due to not only the utter chaos that’s usually unfolding each and every year but also because of the mix of setting from the usual race track. The cars proceed through historical buildings, such as the 12th-century castle, before the long straight past modern skyscrapers.

This weekend’s action got underway on Friday, and with the race this Sunday, how fitting would it be to go back and re-live one of the many iconic Baku races?

I’ve chosen to look back on the 2018 race this time as it’s a Grand Prix that certainly will go down in history, it’s already a modern classic. From the Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo battle to Romain Grosjean’s “I think Ericsson hit us” moment, Baku 2018 will forever be remembered for so many reasons.

2018’s race had a new slot in the calendar. The previous two races in the country had been in June, but the third edition was held in April, the fourth race of the season, and the opening race of the European portion of the calendar. This was due to 2018 being the 100th anniversary of Azerbaijan becoming a democratic republic, the centenary celebrations took place in June that year, hence why the GP was moved.

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was leading the drivers’ championship by 9 points heading into the weekend, ahead of his title rival, Lewis Hamilton. The German won the first two races of the season and was on pole for the third in China, the most recent race, which was won by Daniel Ricciardo from 6th on the grid. That meant that Mercedes hadn’t won a single race heading to Baku.

The Brackley-based team was leading the constructors’ championship by a single point over Vettel’s Ferrari though, with Valterri Bottas, who was third in the championship, fairing better than Kimi Raikonnen over the first three races.

We are of course going back to the days when there were more than three names for tyre compounds. Pirelli’s tyre range for the weekend was the second softest available. They ranged from the yellow-marked soft to the purple ultra-soft. The middle one in that range was the supersoft (red), the best-expected race tyre.

At this point in the season, Renault looked to be the fourth fastest team behind the big three, with Haas competing with them at some tracks. Pierre Gasly and Fernando Alonso were up there with those guys in inferior machinery, whilst Charles Leclerc was beginning to show that he could potentially be in that small group as he got used to Formula 1 in his Sauber.

From practice it was looking like Force India may well be up there competing with Renault in qualifying, it’s always been a strong track for the team in pink. We also saw Niko Hulkenberg take a 5-place grid penalty for the race, that was for an unscheduled gearbox change. Qualifying on Saturday evening was a great chance for Perez and Ocon to continue a promising Friday and be one step closer to a decent points finish for the team.

At the start of Q1, the drivers were struggling to warm up their ultra-soft tyres, so it was looking like some guys may take 2 laps to get them up to optimum temperature. Although the track was suited to Red Bull’s car, the lack of a qualifying engine mode, which Ferrari and Mercedes had, was expected to hamper them in Q3.

With Baku being a street circuit, it’s one of those Saturdays which sees the teams fuel the car for multiple runs, due to the increased chance of a yellow flag, meaning that a lap can be compromised with no wrongdoing from the driver.

It didn’t take long for one to be brought out in Q1, as Romain Grosjean looked to have gone deep at the heavy braking zone of turn 3, going straight on into the run-off area. He was stranded there for a while with a suspected gearbox issue that put him out of the session. He’d start the race from the back of the grid.

With 5 minutes left in the session, the top 5 in qualifying read, Raikonnen, Hamilton, Vettel, Ocon, and Verstappen. A bit of slipstream helped Esteban Ocon go faster than Ricciardo and Bottas. Fernando Alonso in the Mclaren and Toro Rosso’s Brendan Hartley were yet to set a lap.

The Spaniard got out of the elimination zone ahead of the final runs, the Kiwi was still yet to set a lap though, and there was a very good reason for that. Hartley brushed a wall on his push lap, but when recovering from that incident, driving slowly and taking up the middle of the track, he quickly encountered his teammate, Gasly. Pierre was lucky not to provide any more damage to the other Toro Rosso, swerving to the right at the last minute, and going into the run-off area at turn 15. Sadly for Hartley, his session was already over at that point.

By the time the grid had set their final Q1 lap, Gasly would join him in elimination, qualifying 17th. The other eliminated drivers were Marcus Ericsson in the Sauber, who would line up next to the Frenchman in 18th, and Stoffel Vandoorne who would start in front of the Swede.

Q2 got interesting right away when all of the top 3 teams came out of the pitlane at the start of the session with supersoft, the better race tyre, instead of the better over-one-lap ultras. A gamble to get through to the top 10 shootout, if something goes wrong on the first run or two you’re gonna have to go out on ultras to ensure a spot in Q3, but one that’ll be worth it come Sunday. 

5 of the 6 drivers looked set to cruise through on their supers, the odd one out being Raikkonen. The Finn made mistakes on his first two runs, locking up at turn 15 and turn 3 respectively, wasting a set of the red stripe tyre. With only enough time to set one lap remaining, Kimi was sat in 13th place, the slowest of all the cars that had set a lap.

Sauber’s Charles Leclerc and Lance Stroll of Williams were yet to set a lap, lacking enough new ultras. Carlos Sainz in the Renault would need to improve to make Q3, as expected in that car, he was down in P12 ahead of the final run. Kevin Magnussen in the Haas completed the provisional elimination zone. Sergey Sirotkin sat in P8 was a huge shock, could he get that Williams into Q3?

Sadly, no, the two cars from the team from Grove narrowly missed out on the final qualifying session, Stroll placing 11th, with the Russian just one position below in 12th. Alonso, Leclerc, and Magnussen made up the eliminated 5, a disappointing session for Haas. Kimi Raikkonen was able to get into Q3, as he should have done, but would start the race on the ultra-soft tyres. That meant that we’d see two Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, Renault, and Force India cars in qualifying 3, as expected on Friday.

After the first run in the final qualifying session, it was Sebastian Vettel on provisional pole, one lap away from his fourth in a row. He was 0.34s faster than his title rival Lewis Hamilton, who was sitting in 2nd. Bottas, Verstappen, Raikkonen and Ricciardo made up the top 6. The last two made mistakes on their laps. Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez were in 7th and 8th, whilst Niko Hulkenburg was the fastest Renault.

Both Mercedes drivers improved their laps the second time around, but neither could top the championship leader’s time. The German couldn’t improve on his own lap, but the Red Bulls weren’t a threat, meaning that only his teammate could stop him from pole position on Sunday.

Kimi was on a roll and looked like he could do just that after the first two sectors, being two-tenths up going into the downhill braking zone of turn 16. Unfortunately for the 2007 world champion, he messed it up on the exit of that corner, almost binning it. That ruined his lap, losing 1 second alone in the last sector. What could’ve been, he’d start 6th. Behind Raikkonen, the order remained the same, although Sainz would be elevated to 9th after his teammate’s 5-place grid penalty.

One of the most interesting stories heading into Sunday was what would Ferrari do with Kimi? They’re the fastest car. How early will they bring him in?

Hartley and Grosjean were hoping to go long from the back of the grid, opting to start on the softs. The top 5, and everyone but Gasly would start on the supersoft, with the Toro Rosso driver on the ultras with Raikkonen, the two Renaults, and the two Force Indias.

As the lights went out, everyone got away well into turn 1, Hamilton positioned his car towards Vettel on the grid, but the German got the better start, breezing forward ahead into turn 1. At turn 2, Sirotkin’s front wing went flying after the Williams driver made contact with Checo Perez, starting a whole mess going down the straight to the heavy braking zone of turn 3. 

Sirotkin got it all wrong, tapping the back of Perez, whose rear wing was damaged, the driver who was on the podium in 2016 then made contact with Kimi Raikkonen, causing him to lose a position to Ocon on the exit of turn 2. Heading down into turn 3, Ocon and Raikkonen were side by side, the former Mercedes junior looked to be ahead at the turning point, but failed to give Kimi enough space down the inside. Under braking, he sent Esteban into the wall, putting him out of the race. A racing incident that brought out the safety car. 

Alonso and Sirotkin picked up punctures on the opening lap antics, the former made it back to the pit lane with only 2 working wheels, both on the same side of the car, whilst the latter was forced to retire. The Sky coverage later showed us a replay of another incident on the opening lap that caused a couple of punctures. Kevin Magnussen suffered the second double puncture of the race after his Nordic counterpart Marcus Ericsson went into him at turn 2. The Sauber driver later received a 10-second penalty for causing the collision. 

Ferrari brought Kimi in on lap 2, hoping those softs would last until the end of the race, taking advantage of the opportunity for a cheap stop. He rejoined the race in P12. Hartley and Grosjean also came in, coming back out 13th and 14th. Perez and Ericsson were the last to stop under the safety car after the damage from their incidents.

The top 5 remained the same, but past them, the order was totally shaken up. Carlos Sainz and Lance Stroll were up to P6 and 7, both avoided the incidents and gained 3 places each. Behind them there were some huge gainers, Hulkenberg was up 6 places to 8th, Gasly 8 places to 9th, and Vandoorne up 5 to 11th.

Bernd Mayländer brought the safety car back to the pits at the end of lap 5, leaving Sebastian Vettel to restart the race. The four-time world champion held up the pack by weaving right up until, and a little bit after the safety car line, catching the others out and getting away perfectly. The two Red Bulls were fighting into turn 1, all the way round to 2, where Max Verstappen sent it down the inside of his teammate, who at that point had to back out, car number 33 moving up to P4. 

The Honey Badger’s restart then got worse as the Renault of Carlos Sainz was able to get past him on the straight. Lance Stroll had a poor restart, he lost position to both Gasly and Hulkenburg, both of those drivers were on the ultras though. The Canadian was down to P9.

Towards the end of lap 6, we start to see the Renault of Sainz chasing down Verstappen, whose supers aren’t as up to temperature as the Spaniard’s softs. By the end of lap 7, he’s on the back of him, putting Max under pressure, making a mistake at turn 15. He locked up and cut the corner on the way down to 16, where Sainz got a great exit, putting them wheel to wheel on the incredibly long straight.

DRS wasn’t enabled until lap 9, meaning the pass on his former teammate wasn’t guaranteed. Props to Max, he stayed with Carlos all the way down to turn 1, and was the latest braker down the inside, somehow remaining ahead after the corner. Car 55 remained within DRS range of 33 throughout the entirety of lap 8, ready to try the same thing on the man sitting in 4th place, but unfortunately, the same result occurred on the final trip into turn 1 without DRS.

Shortly after, Nico Hulkenberg passed Pierre Gasly on the pit straight for P7, he was soon within DRS range of his future teammate Daniel Ricciardo. The two Renaults on ultras challenging the two Red Bulls on supers. Hulk looked to have a move done on Danny Ric, heading down the pit straight to start their ninth lap, they were side by side with plenty to go before T1, but ahead of them, Sainz was overtaking the other Red Bull of Verstappen for P4. That looked to have helped the Aussie stay ahead by being late on the brakes moving 90 degrees left to turn 2. He went too heavy though, almost going into Max, having to regroup and losing the position to the Renault.

Verstappen used a load of his battery up defending Carlos’s yellow car, meaning that he was a sitting duck to be passed by the German by the time the long straight came around again. Hulkenburg wasn’t alone, Daniel Ricciardo was soon to be hot on the heels of his teammate.

Just as the prospect of that is starting to develop, we see the perennial podium bottler Hulkenberg lose the rears under braking into turn 4, hitting the wall and suffering a puncture. His race was over. What potentially could have been.

Lap 12 saw Ricciardo go for a move around the outside of T1, he looked to have the move done on the dutchman, but was pushed wide after he locked up, grazing the wall on the exit, the two literally wheel to wheel, with Verstappen rounding turn 2 still ahead. Max was holding the two of them up, they were dropping time to the Mercs and could be at risk to Kimi. At this point, you’re thinking that they have to let Daniel through. While this was all going on, Charles Leclerc was having a good race, getting past Lance Stroll for P7.

Number 3 had another look on lap 13, but no bueno, whilst a gap the size of a pitstop had been created to Sebastian Vettel in the lead. He, like his teammate on Sainz, was starting to run out of ERS to make a move, so he dropped back a bit to charge the battery back up. That made sense, because Kimi was coming, he was up to eighth after easily passing Stroll on lap 15 and had the Sauber of Leclerc in his sights. The move on the Monegasque driver was completed on lap 17 on the run-up to turn 1.

At that point we were also starting to see the first of the ultrasoft runners come in, they were starting to go off for most of them. Pierre Gasly was the first to take the plunge onto softs on lap 12, whilst Carlos Sainz’s tyres were dead on lap 15. Max Verstappen was on his tail by the end of the lap, which saw the Renault driver dive into the pits to go on to the softs.

Sergio Perez, like Raikkonen, was one of those drivers trying to go the distance on the hardest compound of tyre, and he was getting into a groove on those softs, passing Lance Stroll for P8 on lap 21. We knew he had the car to do well in qualifying, up next in the race was the Sauber.

Lewis Hamilton was in a race of his own behind Vettel at this moment in time, making a mistake at turn 1, locking up and ruining his supersoft tyres. Mercedes decided to bring him in at the end of the lap (22), as they saw a gap where they could bring him out ahead of Verstappen. That’s how much time the Red Bull drivers had lost by battling.

Carlos Sainz was another who had lost a bit of time, he came out behind Fernando Alonso, who was on the same strategy as Kimi and Checo, he eventually got past his compatriot on lap 23 for P11. One lap later it was announced that the second of those two names on Fernando’s strategy (Perez) would receive a 5-second penalty for overtaking before the safety car line on the restart.

The battling between the two Red Bull cars resumed on lap 26, where Daniel was back within DRS range of Max, who was told to keep it clean by his race engineer. Lap 27 saw an almost carbon copy of their previous duel, with Verstappen locking up, and Ricciardo this time only a tiny bit further away from the wall on the exit of turn 1. This time however, the Honey Badger was ahead going down to turn 2, but Max being Max, didn’t like that, going for that move down the inside of that corner again, and again forcing the Australian driver to back out.

Romain Grosjean was sneakily having a very good race, sitting in p6 after pitting for super softs, not the yellow-marked softs interestingly. He’d be in a very good position were there to be a safety car. The race leader came in for the yellow tyre on lap 30, clear of his title rival, and a few backmarkers. Valterri Bottas, who was yet to stop, would take the lead of the race. He too would love a safety car, but either way, he was going well on his supers and could overcut his teammate.

With two-thirds of the race gone (lap 34), we were starting to see a bit of tyre degradation from Verstappen. He was visibly struggling, and by the end of lap 35, he was down to 5th place. Ricciardo finally got the move done at turn 1 and rounded two in fourth place at the third time of asking. But as you know, the fight wasn’t over.

It was actually car number 3 who was the first of the two to come in two laps later, even though his teammate was asking to pit first, and needed new tyres more. Priority was Daniel’s way as he was the leading car, meaning if he wanted to pit, he was in. He would finish the race on the ultrasoft and crucially came out ahead of the second Ferrari. Had the battle gone on any longer earlier, that may not have been the case. 

Max was in on the very next lap, also on to the ultras, and came out ahead of his teammate! Ricciardo had a slow out lap, losing fourth position. Another twist to the race-long fight.

By the end of lap 38, he was back on the Dutch racer’s tail, within DRS range. He was so much faster going down the straight to the heavy braking zone of turn 1 and looked like he could get back ahead. The two of them were moving at the end of the straight, Daniel to have a look, and then in Max’s case, to cover him off. But Verstappen moved twice, once under braking, which caused the Aussie to drive right into the back of him. Both of their races were ruined, and the safety car was brought out.

Bottas and Grosjean’s prayers had been answered, they had free stops that would keep them in position. In fact, everyone stopped every single one of the 15 remaining cars. 14 of them going for new ultras, Sergio Perez, who was now sitting in P5, had to go on to supers, not having a new set of the purple tyre.

And then it happened, you know what I’m talking about. After a couple of laps following Mayländer for the second time that day, it was time for Romain Grosjean’s famous moment. He completely lost it swerving to warm up his tyres under the safety car, ending up in the wall ahead of turn 15. A costly error, one you never see. But perhaps the most random thing about it was the fact he thought that one of the lapped runners, Marcus Ericsson had hit him! Such disappointment, a disaster of a weekend for Haas. That kept the safety car out until the end of lap 47.

Valterri Bottas, the new race leader, took a leaf out of Vettel’s book, leaving it late, but not as late to restart the race. He caught the Ferrari driver out, drawing him towards Lewis Hamilton in P3 going down to turn 1. Sebastian was still in the Finn’s slipstream though and actually went for a move down his inside at the braking point of turn 1. But Seb got it all wrong, locking up and losing position to not only Lewis but also his teammate. Sergio Perez looked to fancy his chances right behind him too.

Elsewhere on the restart, we saw another collision involving Kevin Magnussen. This time though, it was his fault, squeezing Pierre Gasly into the wall when he was alongside him midway along the straight. That left a bit of debris on the track and ruined any chance of a points-scoring finish for both of them. Magnussen later received a 10-second penalty too.

That incident would also ruin somebody else’s race. And that somebody was the race leader! Going down into turn 1 on lap 49 we saw the tv coverage cut right to the race leader who suddenly had a puncture after running over a bit of debris. His race was over. So unfortunate for Valterri. He of course would get revenge, winning in Baku a year later, but at that moment he must’ve felt distraught.

All of that meant that Lewis Hamilton was three laps away from winning his first race of the season, taking the championship lead off of Vettel too. Completing the podium would be Kimi Raikkonen and Sergio Perez, a stunning drive from both, with a little bit of help from the safety car. The good news for Checo as well was that he didn’t have to worry about his penalty. He served it on his second pit stop, ensuring a podium for the Force India team. His second in Baku.

There was one more overtake before Lewis took the checkered flag to win for the first time in 6 races, then his longest streak in the turbo-hybrid era. That was from Carlos Sainz on his future teammate, Charles Leclerc, moving up to 5th place. On another day he could have been the one on the podium. As for Charles, these points would be his first in Formula 1, the first of many, and Sauber’s best result since Felipe Nasr at Sochi in 2015. Fernando Alonso, Lance Stroll, Stoffel Vandoorne, and Brendan Hartley completed the points positions. 

After Bottas’ retirement, Ferrari took the lead of the constructors’ championship by 4 points. Lewis Hamilton lead Sebastian Vettel by the same margin heading into the next race in Spain, whilst Kimi Raikkonen moved up two places to third in the drivers’ championship.

The 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, is one of my favourite races in recent memory, one that I thoroughly enjoyed watching again. And I hope you guys enjoyed reliving it with me.

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