Lewis Hamilton paid graceful tribute to a great drive by his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, after scoring the 63rd and luckiest victory of his career in a crashfest of a race in wind-swept Azerbaijan on Sunday.
The Finn had seemed set to score a deserved triumph after blending serious pace with canny tyre preservation, until suffering a puncture after he ran over debris on the 49th of the 51 laps.
“When we found ourselves running 1-2 in the closing stages I pushed as hard as I could to close the gap to Valtteri,” Hamilton admitted, “but there was no way I would have been able to overtake him.”
The race had begun with polesitter Sebastian Vettel leading comfortably as Hamilton set a series of fastest laps as he kept him as honest as he could. But where Hamilton needed to stop to change his supersoft Pirellis for more durable softs after only 22 laps, Bottas achieved an impressively long stint and seemed increasingly on target to challenge Vettel in the closing laps when a spectacular crash between the two Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo brought out the safety car on the 40th lap.
As everyone pitted for the least durable but faster ultrasoft tyres for the final sprint to the end, the Finn was able to retain his lead.
“How can he be ahead of us?” an incredulous Vettel asked his pit crew over the radio having switched tyres himself after 30 laps, but the hard fact was that what had worked so well in Vettel and Ferrari’s favour against Hamilton in the opening race in Australia, now appeared to have worked for Bottas and Mercedes.
After a lengthy intervention while debris on the main straight was cleared, the safety car was about to go back into the pits on the 42nd lap when Romain Grosjean crashed his Haas in a curious accident that may have owed something to falling tyre temperatures. The medical car was briefly deployed but the only harm was to the Frenchman’s temper.
That set up the dramatic denouement, however, as Bottas seemed to have made a break from Vettel, Hamilton and Raikkonen when racing finally resumed on the 48th lap, as they began a flat-out four-lap dash to the finish.
Vettel made an impetuous bid to outbrake the Finn going into Turn 1 at the start of the 49th lap, however, locked his Ferrari’s front brakes and ran wide as he lost momentum. Hamilton, meanwhile, had been fending off an attack by Raikkonen, and gratefully dived by the German to grab second place in his team-mate’s wake.
Hamilton profited from his teammate’s misfortune (Getty)
As the two Mercedes headed for home, Raikkonen also passed the troubled Vettel before he could recover. And Ferrari were unable to resort to their usual tactic of favouring Vettel as Sergio Perez spectacularly pushed his pink Force India ahead of his red car.
Up front, Bottas headed down the main straight to complete that 49th lap, but ran over debris, and his end was as swift as it was cruel. The Mercedes’ right rear tyre punctured instantly, and as it ripped itself to pieces Hamilton ducked by to take the victory.
“It’s just unfortunate and unlucky,” Bottas said. “I think this track is difficult, street circuits in general with a lot of crashes will always be an issue, this time it was so unlucky. I had no idea at any point that I ran over any debris, I didn’t see anything, I didn’t feel anything, so I was just very, very unlucky.
“It felt like a good race to then, and after the safety car restart everything was under control. I could pull a bit of a gap, then this happened – I just had no idea that I run over some debris. I can’t say much more.”
That left Raikkonen, who was lucky to have survived a crash with Perez’s team-mate Esteban Ocon on the opening lap, to finish 2.4s adrift of Hamilton, and Perez to hold on grimly to keep Vettel at bay. In a race of great performances, the underrated Mexican’s was one of the most outstanding. He too had been involved in a collision on the first lap and was the only front-runner on the slower supersoft tyres at the end, but he scored his first podium since Baku in 2016.
Hamilton now leads the world championship (Getty)
“It was a rollercoaster race and I got hit from behind on the first lap and damaged my front wing when I was pushed into Kimi,” he said.
“But I was quite happy after climbing back to fifth, then tried to look after my supersoft tyres in the final restart. But then I could see the Ferraris and Mercedes struggling even more on their ultrasofts. On the back straight I got really close to Sebastian, who had a poor exit from the preceding corner, and managed to overtake him. Those last two laps were the best of my life!”
Hamilton’s windfall was his first win since Texas last October and jumped him into the lead of the world championship for the first time this season with 70 points to Vettel’s 66.
He said he had mixed emotions, and that it was a humbling experience as his team-mate had really deserved the win.
The Red Bull pair’s clash was the story of the race (Getty)
“It was such a crazy and exciting race. The one thing I never did was give up. I was constantly battling and giving it all I had got but it was a real struggle today and to come out with win makes me feel incredibly grateful. You have to take the ups with the downs so I won’t complain that I won, but Valtteri was very, very unfortunate. It would have been a great 1-2 for the team, but I wouldn’t have got by him in those final laps.”
Meanwhile, Red Bull advisor Dr Helmut Marko, who has encountered problems with team-mates before when Vettel was partnered there with Mark Webber, pulled no punches as he assessed the catastrophic accident between Verstappen and Ricciardo, who had already had less dramatic contact earlier in the race while racing wheel-to-wheel. Ricciardo had been overtaken by Verstappen on the sixth lap, but later overtook the Dutchman just before his pit stop on the 37th.
Verstappen then got the undercut and re-passed the Australian when he made his own stop a lap later. Ricciardo was running only inches behind and moving to overtake, when they collided heavily and slid into retirement in the escape road in Turn 1.
Verstappen and Ricciardo took each other out of the race (Reuters)
“I don’t care who is to blame,” Marko growled. “Both drivers should have enough brain to avoid such an accident. We will take measures to guarantee it won’t happen again.”
Team principal Christian Horner said that both men would be summoned to apologise to the staff at the team’s facility in Milton Keynes prior to the upcoming Spanish GP “In Barcelona they will be fine, I have no doubt about that,” he said. “But they are both in the doghouse. You can see that in their body language.
“Things get discussed behind closed doors, but the drivers at the end of the day drive for a team and they both recognise that they have screwed up today.”
Both men were later issued with a reprimand by the race stewards.