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Stat Wrap: Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Bottas and Stroll cross the finish line barely a tenth apart in Baku

Sean Kelly, C4F1 Statistician 

It’s fair to say that not many people expected the race that Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix eventually proved to be.  Yet, a much-interrupted race saw Daniel Ricciardo emerge as an unlikely but popular winner, while title protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel saw victory slip through their fingers.

Red Bull had not led a single lap in 2017 prior to Sunday, and their afternoon was off to a bad start when Max Verstappen retired for the fourth time in the last six races, the worst run of failures for a Red Bull driver since David Coulthard suffered the same distinction early in 2007.

That came hot on the heels of Ricciardo crashing in Q3 for the second time this season, having also done so in Australia.  It left Ricciardo tenth on the grid, making him an extreme long-shot for victory – nobody had won from that low on the grid since Fernando Alonso triumphed from 11th in Valencia back in 2012 – and even more so when he was forced to pit as early as lap 6 because of debris in the brake ducts.

Similarly, Valtteri Bottas found himself last and over a full lap behind the leaders after an early collision with Kimi Raikkonen sent him to the pits for tyres and a new nose.  He perhaps never imagined that circumstances would result in him snatching second place by 0.105s in the final 100 metres of the race.

Even more so, Bottas could never have envisaged that the driver whom he would be passing for that position would be Lance Stroll.  The Canadian scored his first career points in his home city of Montreal two weeks ago, and Baku marked a true breakout weekend for the teenager, who outqualified Williams teammate Felipe Massa for the first time, started a career-best 8th, and then converted it into a podium finish.

At 18 years 239 days, he is only 12 days older than Max Verstappen was when he became the youngest podium finisher of all-time by winning the 2016 Spanish GP, but Stroll is still the youngest rookie to stand on the rostrum.

It was the first podium for the Williams team since Bottas in Montreal just over a year ago, and the first time Canadian has finished that high in a race since Jacques Villeneuve was third in the 2001 German GP.  Incidentally, Stroll is also the first Canadian not named Villeneuve to finish on the podium in F1, and also the first man outside of the “big three” teams (Mercedes / Ferrari / Red Bull) to be there since Sergio Perez on this same track last season.

Sebastian Vettel was fourth on Sunday, but his finishing position was overshadowed on a day in which he essentially threw away a win with his self-inflicted penalty for hitting Lewis Hamilton while behind the Safety Car.  It means Vettel has been off the podium in consecutive races, and those 13 lost points might prove critical by season’s end.

The damage would have been far worse for Vettel had Lewis Hamilton not been forced into a pitstop to fix a loose headrest, ultimately relegating him behind Vettel to fifth, the same position in which he finished in Baku last season.  It remains the only circuit on the calendar at which he has never stood on the podium.

However, when it comes to “what might have beens”, nobody tops Force India.  Esteban Ocon finished sixth, giving him a third top six finish of 2017, and meaning he has finished all 17 of his Formula 1 starts so far.

By typical Force India standards this sounds like a good weekend.  Yet they may regret the events of this race for literally years to come.  When Ocon and teammate Sergio Perez committed the sin of colliding on lap 20, they were running third and fourth with only Hamilton and Vettel ahead.

Given what transpired, Force India – a team yet to win after nine years in the sport – could have conceivably thrown away a 1-2 finish.  With his retirement 12 laps from the finish Sergio Perez saw his 37-race finishing streak come to an end within sight of Nick Heidfeld’s all-time record of 41.

Kevin Magnussen celebrated his best finish since last year’s Russian Grand Prix in seventh place, as Haas scored in a fourth consecutive race for the first time in their history.  The Dane ran as high as third on an extraordinary day in which TEN different drivers – exactly half the field – ran in a podium position at some stage in the race.

Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz nearly found himself out on the first lap for a second consecutive race in Baku, when he spun in avoidance of his own teammate Daniil Kvyat after the Russian took the scenic route at the first corner.  Despite being behind everyone except Bottas at the end of the first lap, the Spaniard recovered to finish eighth and net his sixth points finish of 2017 – as many as Kimi Raikkonen.

McLaren Honda’s troubles are well chronicled this year, and in Baku they incurred a total of 75 positions’ worth of grid penalties (we’re only EIGHT races into this season!).  Their lack of straight-line speed was reflected in Fernando Alonso crossing the line on his best qualifying speed at a speed of 203mph, a full 18mph slower than the best (Daniel Ricciardo).

After such problems, Alonso’s ninth place finish was a timely piece of good fortune that gave McLaren their first points of the year (yes, really).  As the 8-time champions try to get out of the basement of the Constructors’ Championship, their cause was not helped by Sauber’s Pascal Wehrlein finishing tenth, meaning the Swiss team – who will have those Honda engines next season – remain three points clear.

Nine different constructors scored points in this race, tying the all-time F1 record set at the 2010 European, 2012 Malaysia and 2015 Russian GPs.  The only constructor to miss out were Renault, who conversely saw their drivers Nico Hulkenberg and Jolyon Palmer suffer a double retirement.  This was particularly galling for Hulkenberg, who hit the wall on a day when he could have finally scored a podium finish at his 123rd attempt.

Perhaps we should have known that Sebastian Vettel was destined never to win this race when he qualified fourth on the grid, as he has never won a Formula 1 race when starting outside the top three.  By contrast, ALL of Daniel Ricciardo’s five career wins have come when starting fourth or lower!

The next stop on the calendar is the Red Bull Ring, a crucial weekend for Daniel Ricciardo’s team. The Australian has never been on the podium on the parent company’s home circuit, but he will now go into that weekend on a run of four consecutive podium finishes for the first time in his career.