Lewis Hamilton claimed a fortunate first victory of the season at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, inheriting the race lead after Valtteri Bottas and Sebastian Vettel’s races imploded in the last 10 laps.
Hamilton had been shuffled down from victory contention to a distant third place by Lap 40, but a safety car period triggered when Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen crashed into each other at Turn 1 turned the race on its head.
Vettel in second challenged Bottas for the lead at the restart, but the German locked up and dropped himself to fourth, and one lap later Bottas picked up a race-ending puncture, leaving the way clear for Hamilton to seize the 25 points.
“Really quite an emotional race, to be honest,” Hamilton said. “Valtteri did such an exceptional job today and really deserved to have the win, and Sebastian did a really great job.
“It feels odd to be up here, but I’ve got to take it. Definitely an untidy race for me.”
The race had a chaotic vibe from the start, with a safety car required on just the first lap.
Nico Hulkenberg had squeezed the fast-starting Williams of Sergey Sirotkin into McLaren’s Fernando Alonso on the run to Turn 3, spreading carbon fiber across the track, while further up the road Kimi Raikkonen and Esteban Ocon came together when the Finn attempted to pass the Frenchman down the inside of Turn 4.
Ocon and Sirotkin were eliminated on the spot, but Alonso and Raikkonen limped back to the pits for repairs and new tires.
Far tamer racing ensued after the safety car came in on lap six. Polesitter Sebastian Vettel perfectly judged the restart and sprinted off into the distance from Hamilton and Bottas in second and third.
Renault and Red Bull Racing battled for fourth place, with Carlos Sainz leading Nico Hulkenberg past Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen by lap 10, but Hulkenberg undid his good work one lap later when he oversteered into the outside barrier at turn four, retiring from the race.
Now on their own, the Red Bull Racing drivers sparred. Ricciardo had fallen behind Verstappen at the restart and was desperate to reclaim the position.
The Australian appeared to be the faster driver, and on Lap 12 he tried to launch a move around the outside at Turn 1, but he banged wheels with the Dutchman on the exit and fell back behind, after which their battle cooled for a time.
The race continued apace until lap 22, when Hamilton stopped for a new set of soft tires, leaving Vettel and Bottas out in front. Sebastian eventually followed suit on Lap 30, but Valtteri stayed out – Mercedes figured his worst result would be third but that a well-timed safety car would allow him to make a free pit stop and keep his lead from the Ferrari.
The trigger for a safety car was taking shape behind him, where Ricciardo and Verstappen were renewing their grudge after stopping for new ultrasoft tires.
On Lap 40 Ricciardo slipstreamed behind his teammate down the long front straight into Turn 1, but as Verstappen moved into a defensive position in the braking zone, the Australian ran out of room to dive down the inside.
Ricciardo ran into the back of Verstappen’s car, sending both spearing into the run-off area and out of the race.
With the safety car deployed, Bottas came into the pits for a set of ultrasoft tires, as did the entire field, and emerged in the lead ahead of Vettel and Hamilton.
All he had to do was hold position at the restart and the win would be his, and when Vettel locked up into Turn 1 in a botched attempt to take the lead, it seemed the Finn had done enough.
But Azerbaijan held a final twist: a puncture one lap after the resumption sent him out of the race and handed victory to his teammate.
Kimi Raikkonen cruised up behind Hamilton to take an unlikely second place after his first-lap crash with Ocon, and perhaps because of the consolation of a podium finish, the Finn didn’t feel a need to blame the Force India driver for the collision.
“Obviously I was inside and I think he probably didn’t see me,” he said. “Its pretty difficult sometimes.
“A difficult race after that. I tried to come back, at certain moments I felt good, but I struggled a bit with the tires to keep them warm enough.
“I just tried to play the long game and stay there. It paid off, but it wasn’t very easy.”
But the surprise packet of the day was Sergio Perez, who scored his first podium since his third-place finish in Azerbaijan in 2016.
“I think today I did the best two laps of my whole career,” Perez said of his final laps after the safety car. “The last laps with Sebastian behind on cold tires, it was so difficult.
“I tried to keep close to Raikkonen to make sure Sebastian didn’t get close enough, and in the end we did it. I’m speechless.”
Vettel finished fourth ahead of Renault’s Carlos Sainz and an impressive Charles Leclerc for Sauber in sixth.
Fernando Alonso salvaged seventh despite his heavy first-lap crash damage, holding at bay Lance Stroll, who scored Williams’s first points of the season.
Stoffel Vandoorne finished ninth in the sister McLaren, and Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley scored his debut F1 points in tenth.