Formula one: Lewis Hamilton makes hay at absurd Azerbaijan Grand Prix
On track drama at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku played into Lewis Hamilton’s hands as he went on to win his first race of the Formula One season.Updated: May 01, 2018 09:22 IST
When it rains it un-bores. That was the logic offered by former Formula One despot Bernie Ecclestone, a canny British owl with an eye for spectacle, as he suggested organising artificial showers of rain to make things more unpredictable. “Why not let it rain in the middle of a race?” he had asked in 2011. “For 20 minutes or for the last ten laps? Suspense would be guaranteed.”
This is not untrue. Something strange that levels out the playing field — an on-track collision, for example, or a freak shower with little time for teams to adequately react — does indeed provide on-track fireworks and ensure great television, but we must remember that races that are too stuffed with highlights admittedly hurt drivers working hard at the front. Shuffling a deck in the middle of the game is unfair to those holding the aces.
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix this weekend was a breathlessly dramatic race, and this drama let down Sebastian Vettel, who led from pole position and built up a ten second cushion from rival Lewis Hamilton, only to finally limp home in fourth place. Look also to Valtteri Bottas, all set to take a worthy win before blowing out his tyre with a few miles to go.
Azerbaijan may not be geographically prejudiced toward rain, but the local air certainly encourages foolish driving and kamikaze bravado. Last year they hosted the messiest race of 2017 where the Force India cars collided so catastrophically the race had to be red-flagged and halted to clear things up, yet the real mess lay ahead: Vettel bumped into a slow-moving Hamilton behind the safety car, was convinced Hamilton’s low speed was intentional, and drove right into the side of the Brit’s car in protest. This cost the Ferrari driver loss of reputation as well as an on-track penalty, and he arrived this weekend determined to make amends.
This year, Sebastian Vettel pulled out a qualifying lap with the air of a conjuror with an overabundance of rabbits. He started the race excellently, stretching his legs at the front even as Hamilton struggled with soft tyres and Azerbaijani winds, sloppily running wide on Turn 16. Later, after a safety car bunched up the field, Vettel delivered a superb restart, gliding all over the front of Hamilton and flooring it at the perfect time. All was fine save an impulse to swashbuckle at the very end, when the German, despite cold tyres, made a lionhearted lunge past race-leader Valtteri Bottas, only to shoot past the curve and lose three places at once. Along with the World Championship lead.
The climax was a movie. The Red Bull drivers overzealously took each other out, leaving the whole field bunched together with three laps to go and fresh ultrasoft tyres. Anything could happen — and it did. Charles LeClerc, 20, finishing in sixth place, swore excitedly on the radio, and while he immediately said “sorry for the bad word,” there might be more swearing in the future. The next race is at Catalunya, and as My Fair Lady taught us, it does indeed rain in Spain.
(Raja Sen is a film critic who has been writing about Formula One since 2004. He shares his birthday with Michael Schumacher. Views expressed are personal)