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ANALYSIS: Championship Battle Boils Over in Azerbaijan

ANALYSIS: Championship Battle Boils Over in Azerbaijan

Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton finished second and fifth for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport in an Azerbaijan Grand Prix dominated by a controversial clash between leading championship combatants Lewis and Scuderia Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel.

This one made up for that. And some!

The inaugural race around the streets of Baku in 2016 was unexpectedly incident-free. This one made up for that. And some! But peering through the smoking fall-out of a dramatic eighth round of the 20-race championship, the team gave a strong performance that extended the team's advantage over Ferrari to 24 points in the Constructors' Championship.

The Pirelli tyre choice for Baku (SuperSoft, Soft and Medium) was made at a time when the company had relatively little data and was therefore conservative. That, allied to the slippery, low-grip surface, meant that only three of the 20 drivers failed to initiate a yellow flag on Friday!

Switching on the tyres over a qualifying lap was once again a challenge, as already witnessed in Sochi and Monaco in particular, and both Lewis and Valtteri admitted to being a little lost on Friday despite competitive race pace.

The team did a sterling overnight job of addressing that situation, to the extent of locking out the front row of the grid with more than a second in hand over Kimi Räikkönen's third-place Ferrari, earning the praise and thanks of both Lewis and Valtteri. The task was made even more difficult in Q3 when Daniel Ricciardo hit the Turn 6 barrier with just over three and a half minutes remaining. That meant that final run times had to be set on the first flying lap when, thus far, an additional lap had been the optimum way to prepare the tyres.

'If my Montreal lap was special, I think this one was even better!'

Valtteri had been quickest up to that stage but, with the chips down, Lewis produced one of his spellbinding qualifying laps to score a 66th career F1 pole and beat Valtteri by 0.43s. "If my Montreal lap was special, I think this one was even better!" Lewis beamed.

With a relatively short 200m run to the first corner Lewis duly converted his pole but Valtteri came under pressure from Räikkönen, who went around his outside into Turn 2.

"There was very little room for two cars and I had no choice but to go onto the kerb. The car always jumps there and I made some contact with Kimi again unfortunately, but just a racing incident," Valtteri explained.

The stewards served notice of an investigation but ultimately agreed with the Finn's assessment, Valtteri already paying a heavy price by going a lap down as he crawled back to the pits with a puncture. Lewis, by contrast, was in great shape, opening out a 3.2s lead over Vettel in the first five laps.

The race's first Safety Car intervention came after 12 laps when Daniil Kvyat's Toro Rosso stopped on-circuit.  With a 1.4-mile main straight, it's a challenge for the leader to defend his position upon the re-start as the following car has ample opportunity to pick up a strong slipstream. Lewis, though, managed the situation perfectly - careful not to accelerate too soon when Bernd Mayländer pulled the Mercedes-AMG GT S into the pits.

'In F1 we are setting examples to all the young drivers'

Soon, though, he had to do it all again as Force India drivers Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon made contact. It was just prior to this second re-start that the controversy between Lewis and championship rival Sebastian Vettel erupted. Coasting out of Turn 15, Lewis was hit from behind by Vettel, who then angrily drew alongside, gesticulated and appeared to turn sharply into Lewis's left front wheel.

Team boss Toto Wolff commented: "The emotions run high in a race car and, like we have seen in the past, you have your visor down and your own perception of events. That's the only explanation I have. I am not going to protect Sebastian. I guess the only explanation is that he thought Lewis was brake-testing him, which he wasn't. We have seen that in our data, so that was a wrong judgment."

Vettel received a 10s Stop-Go penalty for his indiscretion, which Lewis made quite plain that he thought was inadequate in a radio transmission to race director, Charlie Whiting.  

"If a driver does that on purpose, in anger, then you need to think about the size of the penalty," Toto added, "because he (Vettel) is a four-time World Champion and in F1 we are setting examples to all the young drivers out there..."

'We're World Champions - the best drivers in the world'

Lewis, meanwhile, had no doubt that Vettel's contact has been deliberate: "There's no reason to pull up alongside the leader at that point, it couldn't be clearer," he stated. "We're World Champions - the best drivers in the world. If you're going down the road in your road car and you make a gesture, you might swerve a bit to the right without meaning to. But we don't do that -- we've been racing for years and we just don't do it."

For the sake of clarity, Lewis then took the opportunity to explain in some detail the re-start procedures and its challenges.

"I was told at Turn 7 that the Safety Car was going to come in and I'm only allowed a 10 car-length gap while its lights are still on. Going into Turn 15 I was around that and, as the Safety Car went down the hill, I saw the lights go off. The leading driver sets the pace and at that point I don't need to accelerate or speed up. I kept a consistent pace, or probably a constant deceleration down to the apex, and just didn't speed up from there. I did that at the first restart and I did that again on the second time. But, on that second time, I got a nudge.

"I didn't think anything about it and I still got a really good re-start. It's a very hard circuit to maintain position into Turn 1 with such a long straight, so I made sure I was really on top of it. The first trick that you tried won't necessarily work again, so I had to come up with different ways to make sure I was into T1 in the lead. But that's after Turn 16, not Turn 15."

It was soon clear that he had a greater problem

If the multiple Safety Car interventions had robbed Lewis of his margin at the front, they had been good news for Valtteri - the first one allowing him to un-lap himself and the second one permitting him to close up to the back of the pack. Once back up to racing speed, though, it was not long before the Safety Car was out for a third time, with debris still littering the track.

The high-speed nature of Baku and sharp shards of carbon fibre littering the circuit did not make comfortable bed fellows, with Valtteri among the drivers reporting being hit on the visor by flying debris and Fernando Alonso calling for a red flag - a course of action adopted by the race director after 22 of the race's 51 laps.

As the cars lined up in the pit lane there was an opportunity to carry out some running repairs to Lewis's diffuser after the contact from Vettel. But repair limitations to one of the most sensitive areas of a car's aerodynamic performance meant that the race leader would now resume short of several points of downforce. The team had also elected to restart him on new SuperSoft tyres, whereas Vettel, directly behind, was on a used set. Ultimately, the new tyres would afford Lewis superior grip - but he would first need to protect his track position against a Ferrari whose rubber would reach its desired core temperature quicker. It was a task that Lewis skilfully managed.

It was soon clear that he had a greater problem, however, as his head rest padding began to rise alarmingly in the cockpit. Lewis was calmly holding it in position as he blasted down the main straight one-handed at 220mph in eighth gear! But it did not take long for race control to issue an instruction requiring him to pit for attention to the problem after 30 laps.

'We need to figure out why our head rest came loose'

"We need to figure out why our head rest came loose and either improve our design or discover whether or not it was properly locked. We haven't got an answer yet," Toto explained immediately post-race.

 Vettel was called in around the same time to serve his penalty and, frustratingly for Lewis, the championship leader re-joined seventh, just in front of him, the pair of them now behind a flying Valtteri.

Handed a second opportunity by the afternoon's multiple dramas, Valtteri was determined to maximise it. He took fourth place from Magnussen's Haas on lap 37, then put a fine pass on Ocon's Force India to move into a podium position. Only eventual race winner Daniel Ricciardo's Red Bull and Lance Stroll's Williams now remained ahead and the team informed Valtteri that if he kept pushing he was on course to catch the Canadian rookie halfway around the last lap!

Not for the first time this year, the team's predictive capability was spot-on and, in a hugely dramatic finale, Valtteri was able to jink out of Stroll's slipstream and blast past F1's new youngest podium finisher as they took the chequered flag - claiming 18 points instead of 15. Two seconds behind Stroll, Vettel marginally extended his Drivers' Championship lead to 14 points as he beat Lewis to fourth place by just 0.21s.

'What a crazy race!'

"What a crazy race!" Valtteri admitted, shaking his head. "When you're a lap down it's hard to set a goal but the car was great today, so thanks to the team. I pushed to get the maximum out of it and it somehow kind of worked out for me!"

After a healthy respect between Lewis and Vettel across the first seven rounds of the championship, temperatures between them appeared to have well and truly risen.

"Today was obviously a different Sebastian that we saw," Lewis observed. "I'd like to think that I will remain respectful and want to win this championship in the right way. We pulled away to a 24-point lead in the Constructors Championship, so there's positives to take. Generally, the car behind wants to get as close as possible but I think it was a misjudgement from him. To blame it on the car in front, you know, some people don't like to own up to their own mistakes...

"I need some time to reflect but I think ultimately what happened today was disrespectful. That's the kind of thing that you see in go-karts and learn not to do in cars.  It is what it is, it happened, I don't think it was right but the biggest part for me was that I lost the race through the headrest issue. All I'm thinking of is getting my head together. I want to kill it in the next 12 races. I want to win those races and that will say enough for me.

'The sport needs the rivalry'

"As a team we can also look at it as a positive. We've put a lot of pressure on Ferrari and it's not a bad thing if it shows that pressure can get to some of the best of us..."

After a little of that reflection time that Lewis mentioned, Toto had some observations of his own: "There is more controversy and it was always clear that this would happen the closer it gets. Fundamentally, the respect is there but they are two greats of their sport. Today's events didn't help the relationship but nobody wants to see them schmoozing anyway, so now the gloves are off! These two share seven championships between them. Once a couple of hours have passed, Sebastian will know that it didn't look great...

"They're warriors and you're at war at that moment - fighting for the race win and championship. We have great respect for Ferrari and their many passionate people but, for me, the analogy should be to rugby: during the race they are our enemies and they wouldn't take any prisoners but we must be capable of having a beer once the race is done, like the rugby players. The sport needs the rivalry and I think what we have seen today is an ingredient of a great championship. The best ones, those that compete for a World Championship, in that phase of their life or career, can't always be friends. Maybe we saw the limitations of that respect today..."

Battle resumes in Spielberg, Austria, on July 9.

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