Azerbaijan GP 2018: Podium for the Iceman, but a costly mistake for Sebastian in a crazy race!

For round four the F1 circus arrived in Azerbaijan, "the land of fire". And the GP weekend was filled with fire indeed! The red-suited Ferrari drivers were utterly on fire in qualifying, showing top form right away. As has been the pattern this season, Kimi had the upper hand on his teammate in Q1. Q2 saw expected variation in terms of the tyre strategy, as Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull sent their drivers out on the red-marked super-soft compound. However, the windy conditions at the Baku Street Circuit threw many challenges. Kimi’s first attempt didn’t prove successful; the Iceman had a lock-up, which caused a flat spot on his only fresh set of super-soft Pirellis. This forced Kimi to switch to the ultra-soft compound at the end of the second session. Kimi put together a perfect lap and went fastest.

Ferrari shone in the decisive last segment as well. Sebastian put together an astonishing lap, taking provisional pole by three tenths to Hamilton. Unfortunately, Kimi made a mistake at the final turn by hitting the kerb and was only sixth fastest after his first run. However, the Iceman was determined to challenge his teammate for pole, whilst neither Silver Arrow seemed truly in the hunt for pole. Up until the last sector Kimi had looked set to steal pole position away from his teammate, but another crucial mistake in the final sector blew Ferrari’s hopes of a front row lock-out! The Iceman had no choice but to settle for a disappointing P6. Sebastian’s first lap was magical enough to secure pole position; this has been his first hat-trick of pole positions since 2013! Hamilton held onto the second place, with teammate Bottas third. This time Ricciardo had the upper hand on Red Bull teammate Verstappen, as the Australian qualified 4th and Verstappen 5th.

All top five drivers started to the race on the more durable rubber. Kimi’s hopes lied with the ultra-soft compound, which, hopefully, helped the Iceman to take a rocket start. As the walls were close, I was expecting to see a drama-filled race. And what a thriller of a race the Azerbaijan GP turned out! The order of the top six remained unchanged at the start, as Sebastian held on to his lead, with Hamilton second, Bottas third, Ricciardo fourth, Verstappen fifth and Kimi sixth. However, Force India’s Ocon was challenging the Iceman, going into Turn 3. The Frenchman ended up crashing into Kimi’s SF71-H, which caused significant damage to the Finn’s front wing. Ocon’s race was over, and Kimi had to drive into the pits for a new nose. He also switched to the yellow-marked soft Pirellis. The unscheduled pit stop was costly for the Finnish Ferrari ace, as Kimi dropped down to P14 when re-joining the track! Safety car had been deployed, as in addition to Ocon’s Force India, also Sirotkin’s Williams had stopped on the track. Kimi’s race definitely hadn’t started the way I had hoped for!

Sebastian took a confident re-start and held on to his lead. Kimi was making his way through the field; in only a couple of laps the Iceman had already made his way up to P11. Meanwhile, the Red Bulls were in trouble with the yellow Renault cars, which seemed to be flying around the track. However, Hulkenberg in P5 lost control of his car and hit the wall, which was a rarely-seen mistake from the German. Things were getting heated between the Red Bull teammates, which fought for P5. They even banged their wheels at one point, but this was only the beginning of an adrenaline-filled battle, which was about to have severe consequences...

Hamilton tried extremely hard to close the gap to the race-leading Sebastian. Obviously, the Briton tried a bit too hard, as he locked up his front tyres, which caused a major flat spot on his tyres. He had no choice but to pit for a fresh set of soft Pirellis. Sebastian pitted some laps later for a similar tyre choice. However, Bottas stayed out for a longer first stint and was now leading the race.

Lap 39 saw a dramatic turn in the race; something, that had been "floating in the air" for the entire race. Ricciardo, who had already managed to overtake his teammate once but had dropped behind him due to the pit stop strategy, was determined to make the move again. The Australian attacked his teammate on the finish straight; however, Verstappen changed his line at the braking twice. The inevitable happened, and Ricciardo crashed into the rear of Verstappen’s RB14, wiping both Red Bulls out of the race! It definitely was the worst-case scenario for the Austrian team! Safety car was deployed for the second time, and all top drivers pitted for a fresh set of purple-marked ultra-soft Pirellis. Mercedes had made a genius strategic call, and against all odds Bottas had now taken the lead in the race! Sebastian was second, Hamilton third and Kimi fourth.

The safety car came in with only five laps to go. Sebastian was hungry to get back in the lead. Too hungry! On the cold tyres, he was way too optimistic about the braking, going into Turn 1. He ended up going wide, and lost positions both to Hamilton and teammate Kimi! In a blink of an eye Sebastian had dropped from P2 down to P4! My heart was bleeding due to Sebastian’s dramatic loss of two positions!

Had Sebastian had a little more patience, he would have won the race! Three laps before the chequered flag something unexpected happened. Bottas, who was only 18 kilometres away from the victory, hit debris on the finish straight, which immediately caused the Finn a rear-right puncture! A much-desired victory turned into a bitter DNF for the Finnish Mercedes ace, who hadn’t put a foot wrong in the race. Sebastian faced another setback, as Force India’s Perez had managed to get past the German in the dying moments of the race, which worsened the consequences of Sebastian’s greedy move. Due to Bottas’ puncture, Hamilton drove to the chequered flag as the race winner. After a difficult start to the race, Kimi managed to make it a stunning P2, with Perez completing the podium. Due to the mistake of his own, Sebastian had to settle for P4.

Sebastian’s venturesome move came with a high price, as Hamilton’s first win of the season made the Briton move at the top of the drivers’ championship standings. Hamilton has now 70 points to Sebastian’s 66. Kimi is third (48 points) and his compatriot Bottas fourth (40 points). Ferrari is now the leading team in the constructors’ championship standings, with 114 points to Mercedes’ 110. In hindsight it’s easy to say that Sebastian should have had more patience, and that he should have waited for a better chance to make the move. No way he could have known that Bottas was to have a puncture a lap later! I admire Sebastian’s passionate attitude towards racing, even though it sometimes leads into making mistakes. And so, I had rather mixed feelings about the action-packed race; very happy for Kimi but so gutted for Sebastian!

It really seems that Ferrari is the team to beat this season. Forza Ferrari! Roll on Barcelona!

With passion for racing red, 
Iina Huhmarniemi

May 08, 2018