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Superb Bottas Leads Hamilton Home In Baku
Graham Read, Formula 1 Correspondent
Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas (left) outpaced his team-mate Lewis Hamilton in both qualifying and the race
After Mercedes had resoundingly beaten its closest rivals, Ferrari and Red Bull, in China a fortnight ago this year’s Formula 1 world championship continued in Azerbaijan this weekend and we again witnessed an impressive display from the Brackley based team as they claimed their fourth 1-2 result in as many races, with Valtteri Bottas leading Lewis Hamilton to the chequered flag.

Azerbaijan is a classic example of a country significantly raising its international profile on the world stage by investing heavily in bringing F1 to the streets of its capital and commercial hub Baku, located on the Caspian Sea. First held back in 2016 when it was known as the Grand Prix of Europe (even though this challenged where Europe actually ends on its eastern flank!), every year since it has been entitled the Azerbaijan GP and has become a welcome addition to Formula 1’s worldwide travels.

Bottas powers past one of the more scenic parts of the Baku circuit
Baku is famous for its medieval walled city and the temporary circuit, the second longest on this year’s F1 calendar behind Belgium’s iconic Spa Francorchamps track, features a mix of challenging tight sections and a two kilometre long flat out blast down the start/finish straight.

Mercedes arrived full of confidence after its trio of 1-2 finishes in the opening three races of the year, but Ferrari was hoping to take the fight to them after adding its first set of in-season upgrades to its car and Sebastian Vettel said he hoped it would enable them to give the silver cars “a very hard time”. The German multiple champion also flatly denied that his team was having to limit the performance of its cars to date in the interests of reliability.

Friday’s opening free practice session had to be stopped 13 minutes into its one and a half hour duration, with only the two Ferraris having set times, following a bizarre incident involving the Williams car driven by George Russell. The young British driver hit a manhole cover which appeared to have been loosened by the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc and it caused significant damage, necessitating a subsequent change of chassis. Fortunately the highly likeable Russell was unhurt, but it could have been far worse.

Racing Azerbaijan style
To add to his beleaguered team’s woes, the flatbed recovery truck returning the stricken car to the pits collided with a bridge over the track, spilling hydraulic oil onto its precious cargo. Deputy Team Principal Claire Williams, daughter of Sir Frank, was understandably less than impressed.

The session was abandoned as it was essential to replace the errant manhole cover and check over three hundred others around the temporary street circuit to ensure they were all suitably welded in place before the start of the second practice period at five pm local time.

When the ontrack activity did resume the action was frenetic as the teams and drivers tried to make up for the time lost earlier. Ferrari’s hopes of challenging Mercedes seemed justified as Leclerc and Vettel topped the timesheets, with Hamilton the best of the rest, if a little adrift of the leading duo. The session was twice interrupted by red flags though as Racing Point’s Lance Stroll and then Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat pushed too hard and crashed.

Ferrari’s dominance continued in Saturday’s final practice session, as Leclerc again went fastest ahead of Vettel, followed by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and the Mercedes pairing of Bottas and Hamilton.

Come the subsequent qualifying hour to determine the starting grid for the following day’s race, both Ferraris were expected to comfortably claim a front row one-two. First though there was sadly more drama for the Williams team near the end of the opening period. Under pressure Polish F1 returnee Robert Kubica made an error of judgment entering the Turn 8 tight lefthander at the castle section of the circuit and crashed heavily into the barriers, with red flags curtailing the action.

Racing Point’s Sergio Perez en route to a creditable sixth place finish
That very same piece of track was then to claim another far higher profile scalp in the second part of qualifying as Leclerc carried too much speed into the corner and hit the very same barriers, ending his day’s running. Ferrari’s 21 year old rising star was understandably very annoyed about his mistake, proclaiming over the radio “I am stupid!” as further red flags flew.

As daylight started to recede the final part of qualifying followed further barrier repairs. The Mercedes duo left their pit garages first, but duped everyone by temporarily pulling over as others, including Vettel, swept by. This was to ensure one of them was not leading the pack without a tow from the slipstream of a car ahead, worth upto 0.3s a lap in Baku.

Bottas went on to claim pole position for Mercedes ahead of Hamilton as the cooling track temperatures played into their hands and Ferrari’s Vettel suffered from a lack of a tow. This left the sole remaining red car in third place behind the silver bullets and just ahead of Verstappen. So, a qualifying tactical double whammy for Mercedes over their arch rivals Ferrari, which their drivers enjoyed talking about at the subsequent press conference.

The Williams Deputy Team Principal, Claire Williams, had to endure a difficult weekend
At the start of the Grand Prix both Bottas and Hamilton made excellent starts and the leading Finn had to resist intense pressure from his team-mate, as Vettel watched on just to their rear. Soon though Bottas started to edge clear of the chasing Hamilton, Vettel, Racing Point’s Sergio Perez and Verstappen.

Much of the early focus though was on the progress being made by Leclerc, who started in eighth position and after initially dropping a couple of places gradually climbed upto fourth position by lap 10 on the harder medium tyre whilst his main rivals were all on the softer specification of rubber.

When Vettel, Bottas and Hamilton stopped to switch to medium tyres soon after, this left Leclerc leading the race and so it remained until the 32nd tour when Bottas regained the lead approaching Turn 1. Soon Hamilton and Vettel followed suit and the rising star found himself back in fourth place and still to make a pitstop, which he duly made three laps later.

Following a late Virtual Safety Car period after Pierre Gasly’s Red Bull had ground to a halt out on the circuit Bottas led from Hamilton, Vettel and Verstappen. With fifth placed Leclerc having a large enough gap over sixth placed Perez to make a second pitstop and still emerge ahead, he did just that with three tours remaining to bolt on a set of fresh soft tyres and on the final lap of the Grand Prix claimed the extra point for the fastest lap, setting a new record.

Also by Graham Read...
Mercedes' Domination Makes It 5 1-2 Finishes In A Row
Hamilton Dominates In China
Heartbreak For Ferrari’s Unlucky Leclerc
Northern Motor Racing Legend David Cox
Bottas Dominates The F1 Season Opener In Australia
So, following a Grand Prix in Baku unusually devoid of incidents and Safety Car periods (unlike in the pair of supporting F2 races) Bottas deservedly occupied the top step on the podium ahead of Hamilton and Vettel and it was a fitting result after he had been robbed of victory here last year after unluckily picking up a puncture.

The Formula 1 circus spends so much time flying to far flung destinations around the world (and suffering from the related jet lag!) that the next race in two weeks’ time at Spain’s Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya feels in comparison like a mere stone’s throw from where the ten teams are based in the UK, Italy and Switzerland. The track is well known to everyone too after pounding round it relentlessly during pre-season testing and it will be fascinating to see whether Mercedes can continue their domination or Ferrari can start to play catch-up.

2019 Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

1 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 1hr31m52.942s
2 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +1.524s
3 Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) +11.739s
4 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +17.493s
5 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +1m9.107s
6 Sergio Perez (Racing Point) +1m16.416s
7 Carlos Sainz (McLaren) +1m23.826s
8 Lando Norris (McLaren) +1m40.268s
9 Lance Stroll (Racing Point) +1m43.816s
10 Kimi Räikkönen (Alfa Romeo) Lapped
11 Alexander Albon (Toro Rosso) Lapped
12 Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) Lapped
13 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) Lapped
14 Nico Hülkenberg (Renault) Lapped
15 George Russell (Williams) Lapped
16 Robert Kubica (Williams) Lapped
17 Pierre Gasly (Red Bull) Retired
18 Romain Grosjean (Haas) Retired
19 Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) Retired
20 Daniel Ricciardo (Renault) Retired

2019 Formula 1 Drivers Championship (after 4 rounds of 21)

1 Valtteri Bottas 87
2 Lewis Hamilton 86
3 Sebastian Vettel 52

2019 Formula 1 Constructors Championship (after 4 rounds of 21)

1 Mercedes 173
2 Ferrari 99
3 Red Bull 64

Superb Bottas Leads Hamilton Home In Baku, 28th April 2019, 18:32 PM