Author: Fuad HUSEYNALIYEV
Apparently, no magician or shaman would be able to predict the results of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. For the second consecutive year, the Formula-1 race held in Baku has been full of unthinkable surprises delighting the audience with incredible heat of struggle and adrenaline. That is why Formula-1 remains the second most popular tournament in the world second only to the World Cup.
Only the first race, the Grand Prix of Europe, held in Baku in 2016 was soon forgotten as the least impressive event by the overtaking performance and intensity of emotions, for the pilots have chosen an overly cautious strategy due to their first performance on the new and rather complicated track.
But the second race, the Grand Prix of Azerbaijan, held in June 2017 was a spot-on: daredevil overtaking performance, collisions, repeated calls for the safety-car made it the best race of the 2017 season, according to Daily Mail, The Times, The Guardian , Sky Sports and so on.
Despite the obvious dominance of Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) and Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) last year, the winner of the Baku tournament was Daniel Riccardo (Red Bull), who was surprised by his own victory more than anyone else.
It was the last year's intensity of struggle and unpredictable result that fuelled interest in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix this time.
In general, three Grand Prixes of the championship held earlier in 2018 show that the times of the sole leader have already passed, as Ferrari had quite a competitive car capable of overtaking Mercedes, and the rivals from Red Bull were not sitting back and doing nothing.
Therefore, all the teams demonstrated alternating domination over each other during the free races on Friday and Saturday in Baku, although many predicted that the Baku track was more favourable to the Ferrari pilots, which are notable for their fairly high speeds this year. Thus, Sebastian Vettel won the two of three stages of the 2018 championship while his main rival, Lewis Hamilton, has not been on the tiles yet.
Saturday's qualifying showed that Ferrari was far superior to the teams of Mercedes and Red Bull: Sebastian Vettel showed the best time and although his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen was supposed to share with him the first line at the start, his small mistake at the last qualification lap threw Raikkonen to the sixth place, after the Mercedes and Red Bull pilots.
But this made the whole race more interesting, as Kimi should have tried to break up with his faster car.
However, the start upset the plans of the second Ferrari pilot, who crashed at one of the first turns with Esteban Ocon of Force India. Sergei Sirotkin (Williams), Fernando Alonso (McLaren), and Nico Hulkenberg (Renault) also crashed on first laps. As a result, Ocon and Sirotkin left the race, and the Safety Car was released to clear the track from debris. Kimi Raikkonen took this occasion to pit to change the damaged nose, hence returning to the track as the 12th.
Restart of the race did not make any changes among the leaders – Ferrari’s Vettel tried to catch up with Hamilton and Bottas of Mercedes. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Riccardo driving after them performed a real show for the audience. Riccardo repeatedly tried to outtake his partner but Verstappen was not an easy one to give up until a small contact. Renault’s Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg used this situation to overtake both pilots of Red Bull. But the situation did not last long: Hulkenberg pierced his wheel after hitting the wall, and had to leave the race while Sainz rolled back several positions due to a pit stop to change the tires. Thanks to overtaking and pit-stops of his rivals, Raikkonen retook the sixth position in the race. The main struggle took place between Verstappen and Riccardo, who managed to reach the fourth position but after a scheduled pit-stop, Verstappen was ahead of his partner again. Vettel also was the second after a pit-stop and temporarily lost the leadership to Bottas (Mercedes), who was changing the tires. Maybe in any other race of the season Vettel would have waited calmly for Bottas to head the race again but not in Baku. Just 12 laps to the finish, Red Bull pilots demonstrated an intense fight between themselves. Riccardo once again tried to overtake Verstappen who ruined his partner’s attempt to do so. Due to high speed, Riccardo could not slow down in time, and hit the wall. As a result, both Red Bull pilots left the race, although they were very close to take the 4th and 5th positions and show the best result because they had fresher and softer tires by the end of the race.
The Safety Car appeared on the track for the second time and Bottas used this situation to replace his tires and return to be the first. Romain Grosjean’s crash has further worsened the situation when he lost control behind the Safety Car and hit the wall. Hence, the Safety Car left the track just four laps before the finish. The spectators were waiting for the struggle between the Ferrari pilots (second and fourth positions) and their rivals from Mercedes (first and third positions). Vettel did not wait long and tried to overtake Bottas before the first turn following the start line. However, he made a mistake and braked sharply before the turn, hence letting Hamilton and Raikkonen get ahead. Moreover, this manoeuvre had a serious effect on Vettel’s tires letting Sergio Perez (Force India) to overtake him just two laps before the finish. It seemed that nothing could prevent Bottas from celebrating the first victory of Mercedes in this season. But the Red Bull pilots had indirectly influenced the situation when Bottas crashed on the wreckage of the Red Bull cars piercing his wheel, which made him to stop the fight just a lap before the finish. In this situation, Lewis Hamilton became the winner of the race, which was quite unexpected for him. Kimi Raikkonen and Sergio Perez became the second and the third, respectively. For the second time in his career Perez won the prize in the race. The first time he succeeded in Baku in 2016, when he also finished the third.
President Ilham Aliyev awarded the race winner, Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes), with a cup in the colours of the national flag of Azerbaijan. First Vice-President Mehriban Aliyeva, the head of the Automobile Sport Federation Anar Alakbarov, and the Minister of Youth and Sports Azad Rahimov also awarded the finalists.
"Today Valtteri demonstrated an outstanding performance and deserved victory. Sebastian also performed great. Today I was lucky indeed. It is a little strange to be the first but I agree to this result. I did not give up, continued attacks but it was a messy race for me. I am grateful to fate that for me everything turned out so ", said Hamilton.
For the first time in their career, Charles Leclerc and Brandon Hartley of Toro Rosso scored points at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. His Sauber crossed the finish line the sixth, while Hartley was the tenth. For his breakthrough from the initial 13th position to the 6th, Leclerc was elected the best pilot of the day on the Formula 1 website.
The results of the Grand Prix of Azerbaijan led to the change of leaders in the overall standings of the World Cup - Lewis Hamilton with 70 points ahead of Sebastian Vettel, who scored 66 points. The third place was taken by one more Ferrari pilot, Kimi Raikkonen, with 48 points ahead of both Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo, who could not cross the finish line in Baku.
In the team event, Ferrari was the first with 114 points, ahead of the Mercedes (110 points). Red Bull is significantly behind them, while McLaren and Renault struggle for the fourth and fifth positions.
For the second consecutive year, the Grand Prix of Azerbaijan delights the fans of Formula-1 with a magnificent race full of emotions and bright moments, uncompromising struggle, where until the last turn you cannot predict the winner. The fans have long been waiting for such races. The race in Baku will remain on the Formula-1 calendar for another two years, but it will be necessary to agree on an extension of the contract with Formula One Management (FOM) until 2025 until June 2018. At the same time, according to the Executive Director of the Baku City Circuit Azad Rahimov, the organisers want to achieve a twofold reduction in fees for the right to conduct the tournament.
"Money is only one of the aspects when we are negotiating a possible extension of the contract. There are several such aspects. On the one hand, we are interested to hold the race in the future, on the other hand, we understand that we pay more than we probably should pay. Therefore, we are trying to find a reasonable solution. I think, in general, Formula-1 has done a lot for us, I think that this project was interesting not only for us, but, as far as I know, for F1 as well," said A. Rahimov.
The honorary president of FOM and F1 Administration, Bernie Ecclestone, also assessed the Baku stage of the championship.
"Everything is fine, I'm very satisfied! It was not easy to organize this race and convince the local population, who had never heard about the Formula-1. I am happy. Baku is doing an excellent job. Pleasant people, very good place. I hope everything will remain so."
"Baku is part of Paris, Dubai, London, Istanbul, Rome, and Budapest. Baku has everything, and at the same time, it does not look like anywhere else. Often times places from which we least expect something, give us the most impressions, and Baku is just one of those places. At first, I had many prejudices against Baku but every year I come here with greater willingness. I really love this city," said famous motor sport observer Will Buxton in his video blog
With such an assessment of the Grand Prix of Azerbaijan, it is quite realistic to achieve economically justified payments for the holding of the Formula-1 Championship stage, which would not exceed the payments of other cities.
Either way, Formula-1 resulted in a significant inflow of tourists to Azerbaijan, as well as additional revenues for the economy. According to the report presented in February 2017, during the first two Grand Prixes held in Baku, Azerbaijan's income reached almost $280m, which is more than the expenses for holding the race.
The income will grow every year, while the expenses will decrease. Under optimal conditions, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix can attract the attention of the whole world for many years to come.