Bottas puncture hands Hamilton Azerbaijan Grand Prix
Finnish driver cruelly denied victory in Baku as Mercedes team mate picks up the pieces
Lewis Hamilton celebrates winning the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Photograph: David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters
Lewis Hamilton won the Azerbaijan Grand Prix for Mercedes, after a dramatic finale cost his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, a likely win. A late safety car prompted by a clash between the two Red Bulls proved decisive and ultimately hugely to the British driver’s benefit. His championship rival Sebastian Vettel finished only fourth in a race he had largely controlled. His Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen was second, with force India’s Sergio Pérez in third.
The win for Hamilton, wholly unexpected as he did not have the pace of the Ferrari all weekend, has moved him in front of Vettel in the world championship for the first time this season, with a four point advantage. It was at the expense of Bottas however, who was leading with three laps to go when he suffered a puncture that took him out of the race.
Vettel had looked in control for a comfortable win having led from pole and with a clear edge on Hamilton who started from second. The British driver was struggling for grip however and pitted early and was matched seven laps later by Vettel. Bottas stayed out, inheriting the lead and able to run well on his rubber until lap 40 when the Red Bull’s of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen hit one another. Just as at the last round in China, stopping under the safety car proved key and Bottas was able to stay in front.
The restart on lap 48 proved crucial, Bottas held his position but Vettel in second was far too hot into turn one, went wide and flat-spotted his tyre. It allowed Hamilton through and Vettel then lost further places to Raikkonen and Pérez. The race looked to belong to Bottas but a lap later the Finn picked up some debris and took a major puncture that removed him from contention. Mercedes and Hamilton had their first win but far from how they were expecting it.
The win is Hamilton’s first of the season and more than he would have anticipated after struggling for grip in both practice and qualifying. His 63rd career victory is his first in Azerbaijan and completes the British driver’s achievement of having now taken a podium at every circuit on the 2018 calendar.
The victory will be hugely pleasing and of some relief to the British driver and his team. Mercedes now have their first victory of the season but highlighted in Baku, especially for Hamilton, was the issue that they are still not getting to grips with putting their tyres in the correct operating window that has seen them struggling for performance thus far. They did however call the strategy for Bottas superbly to put him in contention and then make the most of it when the safety car was deployed.
Hamilton won nine races on his way to his fourth world championship last season but having clinched it with ninth place in Mexico this is the first race he has won since then. He and Mercedes however know a stern test awaits. The opening four rounds suggest that Ferrari have a solid platform across tracks and conditions where Hamilton’s ride is proving more difficult to manage.
Wrestling a victory here given the strength of the opposition at the Baku circuit will feel like a major achievement and as the teams return to western Europe will have given much-needed impetus to his title challenge.
For Red Bull it was an afternoon that will require a stern debrief with their drivers. The two came together on the main straight in lap 40, with Ricciardo going into the back of Verstappen, causing the safety car to be deployed. They had been racing hard all race and had previously touched twice. Verstappen appeared to have moved twice in his attempt to defend and the incident was under investigation by the stewards. Verstappen has been under scrutiny for poor moves in recent races and the team will be furious with this result.
Carlos Sainz in the Renault finished in fifth, while rookie Charles Leclerc completed an exemplary afternoon and his best drive thus far in F1 to take sixth for Sauber. The two McLarens of Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were in seventh and ninth, with Lance Stroll in the Williams in eighth and the Toro Rosso of Brendon Hartley in tenth.