Mark Hughes reports from Baku, as the championship protagonists collide in a thriller
Everything that went wrong for Daniel Ricciardo – hitting the wall in Q3, getting his Red Bull’s brake ducts blocked with debris in the early laps – were merely blessings in disguise. What they did, in combination with typically brave and incisive moves upon each of the restarts, was win him the race. A random, crazy race with three safety cars, a bit of road rage from the championship leader Sebastian Vettel against his chief rival Lewis Hamilton that lost him the win (as Hamilton later had an unscheduled stop to rectify a loose headrest) and a collision between the two Force India drivers that may in hindsight have lost them a 1-2. Pipped for second place on the line by a recovering Valtteri Bottas (who had been a solid last and a whole lap down at one point), was a remarkable result for the Williams rookie Lance Stroll, another teenage podium finisher just a year after the first.
This wasn’t a race of strategy or performance but a random one of chance where it was all about playing well the cards you’d been dealt. Ricciardo and Stroll played theirs perfectly on a day when many did not. Bottas used the crash-bang circumstances to rescue his day from his own lap one misjudgement. He was, in fact, one of several who might have won, but didn’t either because of misfortune (Hamilton, Räikkönen, Sergio Pérez, Max Verstappen, Felipe Massa) or misjudgement (Vettel, Bottas, Esteban Ocon).
It was a great spectacle but other than underlining once again how Ricciardo can pounce upon the slightest sniff of a chance to root out unlikely victories, the race probably meant little. But for the loose head restraint, Hamilton would likely have won regardless of the fortunes of the others. Of more significance to the season than the actual result was how the intensified heat and niggle between Hamilton and Vettel, Mercedes and Ferrari, has injected an edge of rancour to the 2017 contest.
Hamilton’s 66th pole, backed up by the other Mercedes of Bottas, with Ferrari more than 1sec adrift on the second row – by far its biggest qualifying deficit of the season to date – formed a striking picture, but was just the final playing out of a volatile set of circumstances around the highly unusual Caspian street track. The main variables were as follows:
Getting the super-sensitive 2017 tyres – here in super-soft and soft compounds – to work around such a smooth, low-grip track was proving exceptionally difficult. The circuit, which through the cobbled old town section that comprises much of the middle sector features blocks of tarmac bolted down to the usual cobblestones and which therefore doesn’t retain much of a core temperature, gains and loses heat extremely responsively according to the ambient. So Saturday morning’s practice was held on a track of 57deg C, but by the 5.48pm start of Q3, it was down to 42deg C. That completely altered the behaviour of the tyres, making setting up the cars extremely difficult – in a variety of ways differing from car to car. Even without that complication, the combination of soft and super-soft requires the biggest set-up change of all the compound transitions in Pirelli’s range. Ultra-to-super does not give much of a balance change, nor does soft-to-medium. But super-to-soft is problematic, even without volatile track temperatures.
On Friday Ferrari and Red Bull were on top of this challenge and Mercedes was struggling, Hamilton in particular – just as was the case for him on the low-grip surfaces of Sochi and Monaco in the ‘diva’ Mercedes W08. But the Mercedes engineers played a blinder between Friday and Saturday in devising a set-up that got around the worst of these traits. On a track that was generally even hotter than the day before, suddenly the Merc was switching on its tyres. For the first time this season, the Ferrari was not, for reasons not immediately apparent but more clear in hindsight (more of which later). The Red Bull was still well-balanced but had other problems that prevented it being the class of the field it had looked on Friday.
So, with its tyre problems fixed, Mercedes could enjoy the full benefits of its still superior power harvesting and deployment. This track, at 3.7 miles, is way too long for the engines to be able to deploy full electrical power on demand for the whole lap and they will ‘de-rate’ at some points on the track. The most efficient way of spreading the available deployment is a complex equation around here, but the Mercedes seemingly retains an advantage over the other engines in its harvesting efficiency and therefore the available extra power over the lap, something that most conventional length tracks – where everyone can use the full deployment on demand – does not reveal. So along the super-long (1.4 mile) ‘straight’ that follows the coastline, the Mercedes would de-rate later than the others. Just like last year, the advantage of the Mercedes engine was exaggerated by the traits of this track, particularly when run in the highest power mode.
With its Monaco-like sequence of tight turns in the first and middle sector but a super-long straight, Baku offers an either/or downforce choice. Either you run Monza-like wings (like Ferrari and Red Bull) for the straight and struggle through the tight twists or you do as Mercedes did and choose higher wing levels to help you in the first two sectors and live with the penalty in the straight. It’s easier to make the Mercedes choice, of course, when you have superior power (see above). Critically, on a low-grip track, the higher downforce settings helped with turning on the sensitive tyres – perhaps partly explaining why Ferrari was suddenly struggling to get the tyres turned on. The day before they had been trialling new parts but for Saturday reverted to the Montreal spoon-profile low-downforce rear wing (and balancing front wing settings) – and that’s when it suddenly began to struggle generating tyre temperatures. Also, a shorter wheelbase car like the Ferrari invariably creates more drag for a given downforce than a longer one like the Mercedes, so further pushing Ferrari into a choice that in hindsight took it out of the one-lap tyre window.
Oil burning clarification
During pre-season testing at Barcelona the FIA responded to a query from Red Bull asking if it was permitted to use oil in the combustion process. Teams use this process when they wish to have banned what they suspect another team is doing. The FIA responded at that time with Technical Directive 004-17 that quite specifically said oil burning would not be allowed. But the issue has refused to go away. Post-Canada, some cars (all with the same make of engine) were found to have anomalies and so a new directive (TD22) went out to the teams on the Tuesday preceding Baku.
The advantage of oil burning is twofold. Having the piston rings tight enough that oil stays out of the combustion chamber under power but loose enough that oil is sucked up into there by the vacuum created off-throttle allows the oil to lubricate and cool the combustion chamber off-throttle. This in turn would allow a more aggressively lean fuel mixture to be used without detonation when under power for a short burst in qualifying mode. Secondly, burning oil off-throttle would allow an improvement in fuel consumption, which could be used either to light-fuel or to have more power over the race distance.
The FIA’s Technical Directive TD22 stated. “We wish to remind you that, as previously stated in various meetings and re-emphasised in TD/004-17, we consider the use of oil as fuel to be prohibited by the Technical Regulations. For the avoidance of doubt, the only fuel that may be used for combustion is petrol, and the only permitted characteristics of that petrol are clearly set out in Article 19 of the Technical Regulations. Even though the Technical Regulations do not directly specify the permitted characteristics of engine oil used in F1, we would consider any attempt to use additional components or substances in oil for the purpose of enhancing combustion as a breach of the Technical Regulations.”
The Mercedes, Renault and Honda powered cars showed no particular downturn in competitiveness…
Ricciardo crashed his Red Bull into the Turn 6 barriers late in Q3, bringing out the red flags. Up to this point Bottas had been fastest, with Hamilton having set a couple of purple sector times but sliding wide at Turn 16. With a little more than three minutes remaining they all lined up at the end of the pitlane ready for a late ‘do-or-die’ dash. Much like what happened here last year. Without the time for the usual extra tyre prep lap, Hamilton nailed it perfectly, more aggressive in getting the tyres up to temperature than Bottas (whose fronts didn’t come in fully until mid-lap). “My last lap in Montreal was pretty special,” said the elated pole-winner afterwards, “but I think this one topped it… I thought maybe once I’d matched [Senna] the hunger would fade but I was hungrier than ever today.” Bottas, almost half-a-second slower, was visibly disappointed with the way the red flag had seemingly turned the tables between him and his team-mate.
Kimi Räikkönen, third fastest but 1.1sec adrift of Hamilton summarised it as: “The biggest issue is the tyres. It’s a bit on edge, they kind of work a little bit… if you get them working well it makes a massive difference. Today was a bit more tricky than yesterday.” They were sentiments echoed by Vettel, fourth-fastest a tenth or so behind, the difference accounted for by his having to run an old engine with 3,400 kilometres on it after his intended unit had broken and sprung a water leak in practice that morning.
Red Bull under-delivered, given how quick the RB13 actually was here. Its excellent mechanical grip was paying off in the first two sectors, allowing it to retain decent grip there despite a super-skinny rear wing that helped it on the straight. Max Verstappen – quickest in both Friday practices as Mercedes struggled, but crashing at the end of the day – reckoned third on the grid was feasible, but had to be content with fifth after losing gear synchronisation part-way through the lap and having already turned the engine down after Q2 because of a rev limiter problem. Ricciardo’s crash left him down in 10th, allowing the Force Indias and Williams teams to get between his team-mate and him.
Sergio Pérez – another to crash on Friday – took sixth for Force India, a scant few hundredths faster than team-mate Esteban Ocon. They were 0.6sec clear of Williams, but had Lance Stroll repeated his impressive Q2 time, that would have been just 0.2sec. Following a test at Austin in the 2014 car, Stroll had arrived at a better, more Massa-like, set-up and was plenty confident around here. He was one of the few not to suffer some sort of incident and made Q3 with ease, comfortably out-pacing Massa in Q2. Once there, he was compromised by where he was when the red flags came out. Massa had to resort to used tyres for the last-moment dash and placed ninth.
Toro Rosso (Kvyat ahead of Sainz) took 11th and 12th ahead of Magnussen’s Haas, Hülkenberg’s electrics-compromised Renault and Wehrlein’s Sauber of those making it as far as Q2. Out in Q1 were Alonso’s McLaren, Grosjean’s Haas (horrendous braking problems again), Ericsson’s Sauber and Vandoorne’s McLaren. Jolyon Palmer took no part in qualifying, his Renault having caught fire from a fuel leak in morning practice, melting the wiring loom. The engine penalties for the McLarens (40 for Alonso, 35 for Vandoorne) put them at the back.
The choreography that triggered the multiple safety cars can be traced back to Vettel locking up slightly into Turn 1 as he sliced aggressively down Räikkönen’s inside. He was almost into the back of Hamilton as he did this. Keen to avoid contact with his team-mate, Räikkönen’s compromised momentum on the run up to Turn 2 played its part in Bottas trying for a gap there that tempted him to take too much inner kerb and thereby throwing the Mercedes into the Ferrari. Bottas punctured and headed slowly for the pits where he would fall a lap down. Räikkönen continued with front wing damage and was zapped by Pérez and Verstappen. Behind the damaged Ferrari ran Massa, Ocon and Stroll.
A piece of Ferrari debris lodged itself into one of Ricciardo’s front brake ducts as he passed the scene, unsighted in ninth place. Over the next few laps the team watched his front brake temperatures rise worryingly high. They kept him out as long as they dared, to give the pack a chance to spread and therefore not lose him so many places, but knew it was inevitable he’d be coming in soon.
Hamilton had the legs of Vettel in these early stages, already almost two seconds clear at the end of the opening lap, the pair pulling ever-further clear of the dicing Pérez and Verstappen. By the time Ricciardo was brought in on lap five, Hamilton led Vettel by 3.3sec. Ricciardo rejoined on the more durable soft compound, in 17th place, the intention being now to run to the end. Only Vandoorne, Grosjean and Bottas were behind him.
On the ninth lap Kvyat – who had run wide at Turn 1 in the opening seconds and caused team-mate Sainz to spin in avoidance as he rejoined – pulled the Toro Rosso off from 12th with a sudden electrical shutdown of the Renault motor. Three laps later and Verstappen – who had been pushing Pérez hard for third – suffered another Renault failure, this time a sudden loss of oil pressure. He took it hard, coming on the back of his Canada disappointment.
Safety car 1: Kvyat’s car was at an awkward place for retrieval, on the exit of Turn 12, and after some delay the safety car was deployed. This came at the perfect time for almost all the field to pit, swapping their super-softs for softs on which to get to the end. Ricciardo went the other way, exchanging the softs he’d briefly been on for the faster super-softs. They exited and circulated in a tight bunch behind the rumbling Mercedes coupe in the order of Hamilton, Vettel, Pérez, Räikkönen, Massa, Ocon, Stroll, Hülkenberg, Magnussen and Ricciardo, the latter having jumped past Alonso. A couple of laps earlier he’d passed both Sainz and Ericsson in one slipstreaming move into Turn 1.
Restarts are tricky for the car in front here because the super-long straight makes them vulnerable to being slipstreamed. Hamilton played it very cannily in defence, catching Vettel by surprise after backing up the pack. Seb was forced to defend hard from Pérez into turn one. Both Massa and Ocon speared past Räikkönen while further back, Ricciardo played it perfectly in attack to jump past Magnussen, with Hülkenberg and Stroll next in his sights.
Safety car 2: But before Ricciardo could attack them, the safety car was out again – this time for debris littered in several parts of the track. The cars were brought through the pits to avoid the carbon shards in Turn 1, after which the safety car prepared to come in at the end of lap 19.
Once its lights had gone out – indicating that the leader no longer needs to stay within 10 car lengths and can back off so as not to get trapped behind it before the safety car line – Hamilton stopped accelerating through Turn 15, as Vettel was tight behind him trying to avoid Hamilton getting the jump on him again. Vettel was accelerating just as Hamilton had backed off and the classic rear-end traffic accident ensued, carbon slivers of Ferrari front wing plucked off against the Mercedes diffuser. Vettel was furious, believing Hamilton had brake-tested him (data seen by the stewards confirmed he had not touched the brakes). Vettel then pulled alongside and swerved hard into Hamilton’s side in a clearly deliberate manner, daylight briefly visible beneath the Ferrari’s right-front wheel. It was an extraordinary outburst in the competitive heat of the moment, Vettel’s fierce temper revealed again, just as in Mexico last year or Istanbul 2010.
Hamilton was only briefly distracted and proceeded to get the jump on his rival through Turn 16 and was unopposed down to the first turn, with Pérez again attacking the Ferrari, and Massa taking a look too. Ricciardo beautifully judged another Turn 1 move, this time past Hülkenberg, as Magnussen tried also to pass the Renault. The Force Indias rubbed wheels through Turn 1 and Ocon took a look down the inside of Pérez up to Turn 2 and – just as with Bottas on Räikkönen earlier – the inner kerb threw him across the track and into the side of the other car. As the Force Indias limped out of there, Räikkönen ran over their debris, instantly puncturing his left-rear tyre. As he too headed pitwards, much of the Ferrari’s floor was destroyed, leaving a further debris trail. It looked like both Force Indias and Räikkönen would be retiring as the safety car was scrambled once more. It was at this point that Alonso suggested over the radio to race director Charlie Whiting that a red flag would probably be safer, given the amount of debris. Fernando might have been influenced in his thinking by how his down-on-power car was defenceless down the straight each time the safety car bunched up the field. Whatever, the red flag was shown and the cars queued up in the pitlane in race order. The safety cars had been particularly good news for Bottas, enabling him to unlap himself. Ferrari and Force India used the delay to rebuild their damaged cars, though inadvertently infringed the rules with Räikkönen and Pérez in where they were working on them with three minutes to go, leading to later penalties, which took them out of the running. Ocon’s damaged front suspension had been replaced and he’d be good to continue. As Räikkönen was pushed to the bottom of the pitlane in order to rejoin, he pointed out to the team that he would be needing a steering wheel! Someone was dispatched to get one and it was quickly fitted…
The stoppage had allowed Vettel’s front wing to be replaced but the stewards were meanwhile looking at his barging incident with Hamilton. With everyone now changed onto super-softs, the race got underway again behind the safety car, which pulled off at the end of the lap. With the Force Indias now at the back, Massa was in third but complaining of severe vibrations – a rear damper on the Williams had broken. This just made Ricciardo’s task even simpler as they all rushed up to Turn 1. Stroll moved down his team-mate’s inside, but the Red Bull streaked inside them both. It was effectively the race-winning move, albeit only for third place in this moment. Impressively, Ricciardo had told Helmut Marko during the delay that he’d be able to do this upon the restart.
Hamilton – with some slight diffuser damage from the Vettel hit – again pulled away from the Ferrari, but his upper cockpit surround and headrest panel could be seen not to be properly fixed. He tried in vain to re-attach it himself, but the team was eventually advised by race control that he must stop to have it attended to. Just as that was playing out it was announced that Vettel would be taking a 10sec stop-go penalty for his earlier road rage incident. In other words, Ricciardo would soon be leading the race from Stroll – and they weren’t words anyone had expected to be saying coming into the weekend. Massa pulled in to retire on lap 25, convinced he could have won. Hülkenberg, up to fourth, plucked off the Renault’s right-front wheel on the tricky Turn 8 wall and was out, promoting Magnussen.
Hamilton came in on lap 31, Vettel two laps later. The delay in fixing the Merc’s headrest meant Vettel emerged just in front after his penalty, the pair back in seventh and eighth, just more than 20sec behind the leader with 18 laps to go. As Ricciardo edged away from Stroll, Magnussen’s briefly third-placed Haas was soon passed by the recovering Ocon and Bottas (into Turn 1, with Bottas doing a double pass on the Haas and Force India), as Vettel and Hamilton closed down on them all. The Ferrari’s pace was seriously good by this stage of the race as Vettel tried everything to stay out of Hamilton’s DRS range. Alonso had been easy meat on the straight for the likes of Ocon, Bottas, Vettel and Hamilton and was soon under pressure from Sainz.
Vettel got by Magnussen into Turn 1 on the 39th lap, Hamilton following through into the next corner. Three laps later Vettel went by Ocon into Turn 1, getting some breathing space as it took Hamilton another lap before going around the Force India’s outside there a lap later in a brave move. They were catching Bottas, but not quite quickly enough to be with him before the end. Valtteri though was on course to be up with Stroll by the last lap. The rookie had stayed impressively calm and consistent, a very different driver to just a few races ago, but it was a Williams versus a Mercedes. It was going to be very close.
Ricciardo went just as fast as was needed to keep temperature in his old tyres and took a remarkable victory, Red Bull’s first of the season, while Stroll was only just slipstreamed on the line for second by Bottas. Vettel set the race’s fastest lap and remained out of Hamilton’s reach to the end ahead of Magnussen, Sainz, Alonso and Wehrlein (the latter having earlier made light contact with Sauber team-mate Ericsson).
Daniel Ricciardo made his in-lap giggling, “like a schoolboy.” It had been that sort of race.