The aftermath of the Red Bull Racing mating episode has seen everyone offer their view on which driver was to blame. While I offer my analysis in this post, the best point about Baku from a Formula 1 point of view was that Max Verstappen hasn’t changed his ways. He’s aggressive, still one of the most difficult drivers to overtake and despite 5 errors in the first 4 races, he is still backing his talent and ability instead of going into a shell – something not many drivers have managed in the past. Is this because he knows that Red Bull Racing have his back come what may, or is it because he is too stubborn to make changes? Irrespective, Verstappen mustn’t change. But I’d still back my earlier view that Verstappen would do better with a sports psychologist.
Only four races into the 2018 Formula 1 Season and we have seen three different drivers from three different teams claim victories this season. Apart from the statistics, it is the nature of these victories that tell a compelling story. The races have been won on speed, driver talent and strategy – key ingredients that make Formula 1 a sport worth following.
The hybrid-turbo era of the sport may have taken four seasons to entertain and excite, but if the first four races are any indicator, the current season won’t be for the faint-hearted.
The 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix had stories aplenty to narrate. For the second race in succession, Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari were outfoxed by Mercedes’ race strategy and lost the race from the lead. Vettel’s attempt to do a Daniel Ricciardo-style overtake into Turn 1 at Baku saw the Ferrari driver overcook and flat-spot his tyre – a move that cost him possible victory or even a podium. But full marks to Vettel for trying a bold manoeuvre on the two Mercedes cars.
Valtteri Bottas, who has comfortably outperformed Lewis Hamilton this season, was dealt a cruel blow when debris on track caused a puncture, forcing him to retire only a handful of laps away from his first win of the season. Ricciardo and Max Verstappen played with fire on the streets of Baku only to succumb to their own aggression – but entertain us, they did.
Kimi Raikkonen, the pawn in Ferrari’s title race, found himself on the podium after an eventful race – the Iceman’s third podium of the season already. This was good redemption for Raikkonen after a drive error in qualifying robbed him of pole position.
Force India, the team that was the slowest of the mid-field teams in the opening three rounds, registered their season’s best qualifying performance in Baku (both cars in Q3) and the cheeky Sergio Perez kept his nose clean to snatch an unexpected podium – his second in Baku. With eight career podiums in Formula 1, Perez is now the most successful Mexican racer in the sport; he finally managed to overtake Pedro Rodriguez’s record.
Perez managed a podium despite receiving a five-second time penalty for overtaking before the Safety Car line during the restart and being pulled up by the stewards for illegal use of the DRS – an issue Lance Stroll, Kevin Magnussen and Pierre Gasly were also pulled up for. During the race, the DRS detection sensor malfunctioned, requiring drivers to work on it manually.
But the list still goes on – Ferrari junior and current Sauber driver, Charles Leclerc, finished sixth to score the first championship points of his Formula 1 career. Williams opened their championship points account after Stroll finished the race in eighth – just four races in, all the 10 competing teams have scored points.
Also scoring his first ever Formula 1 points (or point, in this case) was Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley – the reigning World Endurance Champion finished 10th, narrowly ahead of the other Sauber driver, Marcus Ericsson. Fernando Alonso finished seventh, a feat no one thought he could have managed after returning to pits at the end of lap 1 with only two functional tyres on his McLaren. Renault’s Carlos Sainz Jr drove an action-packed race to finish fifth, while Vandoorne claimed ninth.
Nico Hulkenberg’s early race success halted when he touched the wall, his second successive mistake in Baku while running as high as fifth. Haas, despite their early season pace, found it difficult yet again to string a weekend together; they scored nought. Romain Grosjean went from being a zero to hero to zero again – he started last, ran as high as sixth but crashed his Haas in the wall under the Safety Car period, a costly and embarrassing error for the Frenchman.
Esteban Ocon fell to a rookie error on the opening lap after he forgot to give Raikkonen enough room to navigate on Turn 2 and found himself in the wall on the exit. Sergey Sirotkin had a Vettel-Verstappen-Raikkonen moment from Singapore after being squeezed by two cars causing enough damage to force a retirement.
However, for the fourth successive race this season, Verstappen’s antics stole headlines from the winning team and driver, although in Baku, he must be applauded for his defensive driving too. The young Dutchman is brilliant in positioning his car on the race track making it extremely difficult for rivals to overtake him. But with regards to Ricciardo, one wonders if Verstappen took it a step too far knowing that his teammate wouldn’t risk contact and threaten the otherwise calm team dynamics and harmony.
After playing with fire for way too long, Ricciardo and Verstappen found themselves in the run-off area of Turn 1 after a debatable racing incident led to contact between the two fierce racers. Ricciardo, who executed a clinical move on Verstappen into Turn 1 only a few laps before their eventual retirement, found positions reversed after their first round of pit stops. Was this frustration weighing on Ricciardo’s mind as he lined up to overtake Verstappen the second time around? Ricciardo threw Verstappen a dummy, a move on the outside – just like the previous occasion, only to then dive onto the inside line. However, Verstappen, who realised his teammate had thrown a dummy, moved left and then right to block Ricciardo’s move.
Was Verstappen’s move against the ‘one move only’ rule in the braking zone? Did Verstappen slow down more than required in the braking zone, an act that caught Ricciardo by surprise? Irrespective, it was good to see that despite all the criticism and lack of results, Verstappen hasn’t changed his ways of racing, or crashing! While neither teammates took the blame, Red Bull Racing stayed away from blaming either of their drivers as well.
Niki Lauda, Mercedes’ non-executive chairman and three times former Formula 1 World Champion, was quick to apportion 70 percent of the blame towards Verstappen and also suggested that both drivers be made to pay for the cost of the damage. However, in typical Red Bull Racing ways, both drivers were told to report to their factory in Milton Keynes and personally apologise to their staff for their behaviour. One also wonders if Red Bull Racing’s management of this situation will influence Ricciardo’s decision making with regards to his future with the former World Champion team.
Hamilton claimed his first victory of the season and leads Vettel in the Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship by four points – 70 to 66. In a payback of sorts, Hamilton had lost the 2017 edition of this Grand Prix thanks to a loose headrest. Bottas slipped to fourth, behind compatriot Raikkonen, despite driving a perfect race where he was consistently faster than Hamilton and made Mercedes’ alternate tyre strategy work to snatch the lead away from Vettel. Grosjean and Sirotkin are the only two drivers to have scored no points this season yet.
In the Constructors’ Championship, Ferrari (114 points) are ahead of Mercedes (110 points) – this is despite both teams scoring points only seven times out of a possible eight this season. Red Bull Racing, who scored their second double DNF in four races, are third and 19 points ahead of McLaren. With 36 points, McLaren enjoy a one-point lead over Renault, who are on 35 points. Force India’s podium in Baku propelled the team to sixth place (16 points). Haas, who were expected to be in the fight for the ‘best of the rest’, find themselves in eighth place with 11 points, just one point more than Sauber.
Up next in a fortnight is the 2018 Spanish Grand Prix, a race that unofficially indicates the start of the ‘European leg’ of the season. Given the proximity of the European circuits to the teams’ factories, expect more definitive upgrades to car packages for most teams. This is also where the development race (Formula 1’s equivalent of an arms race) between teams will intensify; an area that gains even more prominence given the uncertain and unpredictable nature of races this season. Let the madness continue in Barcelona.
This post was first published on Firstpost