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View from the Pit Lane: Azerbaijan

Daniel Ricciardo drives into the rear of Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen in Baku.

By Karun Chandhok, C4F1 technical analyst 

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix proved to be the third race in a row that delivered a dramatic couple of hours of Formula One action. The high speeds, high winds and the wall-lined street circuit always had the potential for plenty of chaos and excitement – and it didn’t fail to deliver.

The Ferrari versus Mercedes battle is well and truly on for the world championship, and it’s a real shame that Valtteri Bottas’ race ended with that puncture so close to the end because otherwise we would have left here with the top three drivers covered by three points.

On Friday Ferrari looked to be in better shape than Mercedes, and in fact even the Red Bulls looked like they were faster than the silver cars on the race runs. The track temperature was high though, up in the 30s, and a bit like in Bahrain I think Mercedes struggled to get that balance right between the front and the rear axles, where they can’t get the fronts to work for them or they overheat the rear tyres.

On a green track on Friday, the Mercedes drivers can’t lean on the front tyres and load them up how they would like, which exacerbates the problem I think, because as the weekend progresses and the track gets grippier, they get more competitive.

Baku's big talking point

There was so much action and so many stories from Sunday’s race, but unquestionably the one that everyone’s talking about is the incident between the two Red Bull drivers.

Up and down the paddock, everyone had an opinion: Niki Lauda thought it was 70% Max Verstappen's fault, Helmut Marko and Christian Horner predictably thought it was 50/50, and there were others who believed that it was more Daniel Ricciardo’s fault as ultimately he was the car behind who drove into the car in front – a bit like when blame is apportioned in accidents on public roads.

I think it was 50/50. Both drivers were racing harder than they really should have been doing all afternoon. They’re very lucky that Christian and Helmut allow them to race wheel to wheel without team orders, but whenever you’re racing against your team-mate, you’ve got to leave a bit more margin and show a bit more respect – even if it’s not for the other driver, then at least for the 1,000 people who have built these great cars that allow you to do battle.

I don’t believe Max treats his wheel-to-wheel racing with his team-mate any differently to racing anyone else on the track. His moving around in the braking zone and on the straights has been a discussion point in the past, and he’s got a bit of a reputation for that. This is a very tricky thing for drivers behind because it makes it unpredictable and hard to judge which side they need to go to get the move done.

Even prior to their accident, his lunge at Turn 2 and the wheel banging at Turn 1 were both moves that really were on the edge and I’m not sure they would have got away without crashing in either of those instances if Daniel wasn’t more careful. However, in fairness to him, he’s not doing anything illegal, just flirting with the edge of the regulations in a way that the great drivers like Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher did before him.

From Daniel’s side, I think he was willing to give Max the benefit of some extra racing room and respect earlier in the race. However after he finally did the hard work of getting past Max, he pitted a lap earlier and the subsequent challenge of getting the tyres up to temperature on the out-lap meant that he ended up behind the Dutchman again.

Even if it’s completely untrue and irrational, psychologically – as a driver in the heat of battle in the race – your first thought at that point is “the team have messed this up for me and favoured my team-mate". I’m sure he was a frustrated man from that point onwards.

Daniel is a smart guy and I’m sure looking back at the videos he’ll realise that he would have been better off waiting a few laps and picking a better moment to pass. The DRS was proving to be extremely powerful, and on the lap they crashed Daniel came across the start finish line 27 km/hr faster than Max, which is a massive speed difference. He was quite a long way back when they got onto the straight and really, knowing that Max doesn’t give up places easily, a bit of patience would have gone a long way.

The other thing that perhaps Daniel will regret when he sees the video replay was his decision to go down the inside. I looked at the on-board replay frame by frame with a couple of other racing drivers in the paddock afterwards and at the point where he’s chosen to go down the inside, all of us looked at it and thought, “Hmmm, not sure I would have really thought about that”.

Daniel’s a brilliant overtaker, arguably the best on the grid, but sometimes, when he “sends it in” (to use his words), he relies on the guy he’s overtaking to give him the space. With Bottas in China, he got that. With Max, he didn’t.

This of course set us up for a brilliant finale, and Vettel’s overambitious lunge on Bottas on the re-start gave Mercedes the advantage they needed.

Like the entire paddock, I felt very sorry for Bottas on Sunday as he was desperately unlucky to run over that tiny piece of debris which caused his puncture.

He wasn’t as strong in Baku as he was in China, qualifying a couple of tenths behind Lewis, but he was driving to a completely different strategy to Hamilton and I actually think that even without the late safety car, he would have ended up ahead of him.

Lewis was owed a win for Melbourne, and his body language and attitude after the race was clearly of someone who knew he had been lucky to win. Vettel should have won, Bottas could have won, but the reigning world champion was there to capitalise and take the lead in this year’s title race.

I’ve got to mention a couple of other big winners and disappointments from the weekend.

Sergio Perez and Force India are always strong in Baku and once again he proved how he’s one of the most opportunistic drivers out there – whenever there’s low-hanging fruit and the odd chance of a podium when the top three teams falter, Perez seems to be at the head of the queue to capitalise. His last two podiums have now been in Azerbaijan, also finishing third in 2016.

This is the exact opposite of Nico Hulkenberg, who has been driving superbly for the past 18 months at Renault but, yet again, when there was the chance of a strong result, he ended up missing out with a very uncharacteristic error.

Charles Leclerc and Sauber were the other big winners of the weekend. The young Monegasque rookie came into F1 with a big reputation and high expectation and, after a couple of mistakes early this season, he delivered a superb performance. This was genuine pace from Leclerc and the team – he got ahead of people like Lance Stroll and  Fernando Alonso and held his own.

I find it extraordinary that I still get comments from people saying “F1 is boring now, I’ve stopped watching”. That really winds me up. Of course you’ll still get the odd dull race, but if they take off their rose-tinted glasses and actually think about the 1980s, 1990s or 2000s, we had plenty of dull races then too!

We should always look at the season to see the stories build and intrigue that surrounds the world championship battle taking shape over a 10-month period. Think of those Schumacher vs Hakkinen battles or the Prost versus Senna years? There were some painfully dull races where the field was totally spread out, but I think the world has changed and in the past people had more patience to let the stories build than they have now, when we live in this age of wanting instant entertainment.

On to Barcelona next and I’m very interested to see what upgrades and updates the teams bring to the first European race of the season. I’ve said all along that the first four races need to be judged as a collective as the individual tracks are too dissimilar to draw conclusions.

It appears at the moment that Ferrari and Mercedes are very evenly matched, Ferrari have a car that’s got a wider working range for the tyres, and Red Bull are in the hunt on the Sundays.

The midfield battle between Renault, Haas and Force India is super tight, while McLaren have a lot of ground to make up with Renault, let alone Red Bull in qualifying, although Alonso’s brilliance on a Sunday gets them out of jail.

All in all, a brilliant start to the season – roll on Spain!

Read more: Virtual Statman on Mercedes' mixed fortunes

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