Valtteri Bottas clung on to finish first at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix after a close start and finish with Lewis Hamilton as Mercedes scored a record fourth consecutive one-two finish to start the season. The victory took Bottas back to the top of the championship, only one point ahead of his teammate, leaving the pair over thirty points ahead of the closest Ferrari.
The win in Baku was certainly satisfying for the man who lost here in direly unfortunate circumstances last year, after suffering a puncture from first place late in the race. There was no such bad luck this year however, as the seemingly rejuvenated Bottas confidently fended off five-time world champion Hamilton side-by-side at the start and outran his challenger in the final laps to secure his fifth career victory.
The story could have been a different one had Hamilton taken pole on the Saturday, who almost atoned for early lap errors on cold tires to lose out to Bottas by just 0.059 seconds. Even Hamilton acknowledged that Bottas’ win was deserved however, praising the Finn for having “really, clearly stepped up this year”.
Sebastian Vettel came home third, never too far down the road from Mercedes but never truly challenging. After the race, the German admitted Ferrari were struggling to “extract grip” from the tyres, despite bringing aerodynamic efficiency upgrades to Azerbaijan.
Ferrari’s woes were not over. Weeks after engine sickness robbed Leclerc of victory in Bahrain, again the Monegasque was held back through no fault of his own. Despite a qualifying crash reducing the 21-year old to starting eighth, on better tyres Leclerc lit up the timing screens until Ferrari strategists were caught napping, needlessly leaving him out after being passed by the leaders. The fastest lap bonus point will prove little consolation to losing 4th to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
In the midfield, street circuit specialist Sergio Perez delivered in qualifying and held his own in the race to finish best of the rest in 6th, even spending the early laps ahead of Verstappen. McLaren drivers Carlos Sainz Jnr and Lando Norris both drove well to come home 7th and 8th respectively ahead of Perez’s Racing Point teammate Lance Stroll in 9th. The final point was awarded to Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen, who cleared Kevin Magnussen and Daniil Kvyat to finish 10th.
Other than one bizarre incident, Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo reversing into Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat to retire both cars after overshooting Turn 3, the race around Baku’s beautiful tight streets and castle walls passed by without incident. Unfortunately, the race this year certainly failed to live up to the intense media hype, after the close racing and spectacular crashes of previous years.
The Spanish Grand Prix in two weeks’ time could prove decisive for the rest of the season – if Ferrari fail to get their act together and launch a real challenge against Mercedes here, the Silver Arrows might already have 2019 in the bag.