After an inauspicious start to the new Formula 1 season in Australia, the next three races have provided action, entertainment, drama and controversy. In Azerbaijan, those ingredients mixed to deliver a number of moments that are likely to stand among 2018’s iconic moments.
The sight of the two Red Bulls crashing; of Sebastian Vettel sailing down the inside of Valtteri Bottas without the ability to get his car stopped at Turn 1; of Bottas himself then slumped behind the barrier after retiring; or of Lewis Hamilton standing somewhat stunned on the podium as a surprise winner. All could be pivotal moments in what is shaping up to be a fascinating year.
Some are more likely to be drawn upon than others depending upon the context of the season, but perhaps the one that may be revisited the least is the one that needs to be highlighted most.
Bottas was faultless on Sunday. He has been in excellent form of late, but his capacity to be a number of steps ahead from such an early stage was extremely impressive. Starting from third, he told me on Saturday afternoon that he would need to be aggressive at the start of the race despite the incident he was involved in a year ago, yet in the end he was anything but.
Free of pressure from behind while the Red Bulls fought with the Renaults in a surprisingly uncompetitive opening part of the race, Bottas switched to conservation mode and took great care with his supersoft tires to ensure he could extend their life far beyond the original plan.
Hamilton was looking to put pressure on Vettel, so Bottas knew that being close behind was only going to result in his playing second fiddle. A different approach was needed, so he went in search of a sufficiently opening stint that would allow him to fit ultrasofts later in the race, compared to the softs that Hamilton and Vettel had changed to.
Trying the different approach was one thing, pulling it off in the way he did was quite another. Bottas was remarkably competitive given the care he was taking, and then delivered fastest laps on extremely old tires as he put himself in a position to leapfrog Hamilton and emerge close to Vettel on much faster rubber. Then came the Safety Car for the Red Bull collision, and the lead was his outright.
Even then, Bottas was impressive. A strong restart meant Vettel’s lunge down the inside was speculative at best and ended the German’s challenge, and Bottas then started to ease away from Hamilton to what should have been a comfortable victory that made up for the misfortune of China.
Then fate dealt him another cruel hand.
Bottas was gutted. He tends to show more emotion than a certain other Finn in Formula 1 by default, but he took time to himself behind the barrier before returning to the pits after the race and fronting up to the press.
“It hurts a lot, I can tell you,” he admitted.
Asked how he picks himself up from such a blow, Bottas added: “Maybe 10 pints and we will be fine!
“I will get through. Of course you always need to go through difficulties, that’s part of racing. But at the moment it’s really painful.”
It was a stance the team was sympathetic towards, excusing him of his later duties to head to the bar and drown his sorrows.
Nowhere was that sympathy more evident than from Hamilton himself. Immediately after the race – before even stepping onto the podium – the new championship leader ran back to the Mercedes hospitality to find Bottas. First he reached his teammate’s trainer, Antti Vierula – who used to work with Hamilton at McLaren – and reduced him to tears with a hug and consoling words. Then he found Bottas, and told him that the win was his.
Of course, they are only words. In the cold light of day, Hamilton has 25 more points and the championship lead. Bottas should be sitting atop an epically close title fight with one point more than Vettel and two more than Hamilton, but he’s now 30 adrift.
The emotion stems from that being a gap that will be extremely hard to close, but with 17 races left, Bottas has to pick himself up quickly and ensure that today’s literal hangover doesn’t become a metaphorical one in Barcelona. Yes, he should have won the last two races, and yes Daniel Ricciardo’s charge overshadowed his China performance, but nobody is left in any doubt as to how well Bottas is performing and that he deserved more from these opening four races.
The Mercedes driver can sleep soundly in the knowledge that he did all he could in Baku. The same can’t be said down at Red Bull…
Credit where it’s due, the team let its drivers race each other hard and didn’t call the fight off when an incident started to look inevitable. But the fact it wasn’t such a surprise when contact occurred needs examination.
I wrote recently that Verstappen could learn a lot from Vettel’s path to better consistency as a future world champion, and from Ricciardo as a master in the art of overtaking. I’d argue he can also look at his teammate’s approach last Sunday to understand where he misjudged what counts as fair.
Ricciardo’s first two failed attempts to overtake are the ones where I’d argue Verstappen didn’t give the sister Red Bull the respect it deserved. On each occasion, Ricciardo tried to overtake around the outside and left plenty of space at the apex of the corner – when he didn’t need to – in order to avoid risking contact.
While the Australian tried to minimize the risks, Verstappen took that as an opportunity to force his way back ahead, resulting in the pair rubbing wheels on the first occasion and Ricciardo having to almost bring his car to a stop at Turn 2 to avoid contact on the second.
Don’t get me wrong, Verstappen’s driving was not over the limit against another driver, but against his teammate he should have been less aggressive.
We’re talking tiny margins, but it clearly annoyed Ricciardo. In getting the move done at the third attempt, he hit the brakes even later but cut closer to the apex to afford Verstappen no room. It was riskier, and after the race he stated that the outside was not a place he liked being when fighting with the 20-year-old because he was so often forced close to the outside barrier.
That led to Ricciardo’s attempt to get down the inside when he needed to retake the position after the pit stops, and a slightly later move in the braking zone from Verstappen resulted in the race-ending collision. Ricciardo isn’t exempt of blame because it was a far riskier attempt than he had tried previously, and perhaps he should have been wary of the likelihood of contact given Verstappen’s approach to their fight until that point. But I’d disagree with Christian Horner’s assessment that the blame rests equally with both drivers.
If Ricciardo also disagrees, then the incident could be a catalyst for his departure from the team at the end of the year. The way Red Bull handles the collision behind closed doors will go a long way to telling the out-of-contract Chinese GP winner whether equal treatment will always be on the cards if he stays.
The collision is certain to be an iconic image in future years for both Red Bull drivers. Bottas just has to ensure his pain at the same spot does not become consigned to an end-of-season footnote.