For 31 laps the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was not a classic.
Max Verstappen moved his way to the front of the pack from third on the grid in the opening 12 laps, while Lewis Hamilton moved in the opposite direction at the pit stops between laps 11 and 13. But just as the positions looked locked in for the final 20 laps, the left rear tyre on Lance Stroll’s car deflated at 200 mph and all hell broke loose.
What followed created one of the most remarkable finishes to a Formula One race in recent memory. Here’s how it went down.
Stroll experienced a tyre failure on the long pit straight that pitched his Aston Martin hard left into the barriers.
Thankfully, Stroll emerged unharmed from the wreckage, but was understandably shook up.
What Stroll said:
What Pirelli’s Mario Isola said:
The pit lane was closed during the resulting Safety Car period, meaning the advantage of diving into the pits was lost when it reopened one lap before racing resumed on lap 35.
The only real winner was Stroll’s Aston Martin teammate, Sebastian Vettel, who had briefly led the race and pitted later than his rivals, meaning he had fresher tyres to attack the cars in front.
Vettel was sixth at the restart but moved up to fourth in the following two laps, passing Charles Leclerc and Pierre Gasly. The moves were key to his second place finish, which was handed to him on a silver platter when events unfolded the way they did later in the race.
What Vettel said:
In the laps leading up to Verstappen’s tyre failure, he, Perez and Hamilton were trading fastest laps in the fight for second position.
Perez went first with a 1:44.794 on lap 43. Hamilton followed up with a 1:44.769 on the same lap. Verstappen blew them both away with a 1:44.481 on lap 44.
There is no indication these fast laps contributed to Verstappen’s failure, but they show how hard the drivers were pushing in that moment. Verstappen’s time was unbeaten on the final lap when all drivers had fresh tyres back on their cars after the restart.
Max Verstappen’s left-rear tyre failed at the end of the lap, leaving him helpless to stop his car spinning into the wall running opposite the pit lane.
Verstappen, who was cleared after a precautionary trip to the medical centre, confirmed the failure came out of nowhere.
What Verstappen said:
Red Bull’s sporting director Jonathan Wheatley quickly radioed FIA race director Michael Masi to say there had been no warning whatsoever that a failure was imminent, before suggesting he red flag the race to prevent similar failures on other cars.
The FIA agreed and red-flagged the race. It was later confirmed it would resume with a standing restart, effectively confirming a two-lap sprint to the finish.
Red flag delay
Under F1’s rules, teams were allowed to change tyres while they waited for Verstappen’s car to be cleared and for the race to resume.
This was further great news for Vettel, who had a completely fresh set of soft tyres to hand which would give him ideal grip off the line at the start.
As the cars lined up at the end of the pit-lane, Hamilton was tryin to think about the bigger picture of his championship fight with Verstappen, telling Mercedes the season is a “marathon, not a sprint” and that they should weigh up risk/reward accordingly.
One car further down the pit-lane, Red Bull feared its other car — now leading the race — would not make the finish.
After the race Christian Horner revealed the team fired up Perez’s engine at the last possible moment as the Mexican driver’s car had been losing hydraulic pressure in the second half of the race.
The race was restarted with the remaining drivers in the race forming up on the grid. As he waited for the lights to go out on the second grid slot, Hamilton’s brakes were noticeably smoking as they overheated.
Hamilton got a better jump off the line compared to Perez, but he quickly went straight on at Turn 1.
It was later revealed he had inadvertently hit a switch related to his car’s brakes.
The “magic” brake setting is used by Mercedes to regulate brake temperature during formation laps and while under the Safety Car, when the pace is much slower than normal. It is supposed to be switched off when returning to racing speed.
What Hamilton said:
Hamilton went straight on at Turn 1, meaning an extra podium position was up for grabs.
Vettel had used his improved grip off the line to hold second, while Pierre Gasly was desperately holding on to third position ahead of the charging Ferrari of Charles Leclerc.
With Vettel comfortable in second position, attention turned to the fight for the final spot on the podium.
Thanks to being inside DRS range at the end of the penultimate lap, Leclerc caught and briefly passed Gasly on the main straight.
However, Gasly defended brilliantly, positioning his car on the inside of the circuit to reclaim third position at Turn 1. Leclerc tried again at Turn 2 and Turn 4 but Gasly refused to yield.
What Gasly said:
Gasly’s superb defensive work put Leclerc on the back foot and he was soon defending fourth position from McLaren’s Lando Norris, but held on through the middle sector.
Although the final two laps looked fairly routine for Perez out in front, he said he had feared a late retirement due to the hydraulic issue.
What Perez said:
At the back of the field, there was nearly further drama, with Haas driver Nikita Mazepin nearly causing a massive accident with teammate Mick Schumacher.
Schumacher had reeled Mazepin in down the back straight but the Russian driver left it late to move to the right. Schumacher avoided contact and finished the race just fractionally ahead, but he was not happy.
On the radio afterwards, a furious Schumacher said: “What the f— was that? Honestly, does he want to kill us?”
The result means the gap in points between Verstappen and Hamilton remains unchanged in the drivers’ standings at four points after six races.
In the constructors’ standings, Red Bull has extended its gap to 26 points over Mercedes thanks to Perez’s win and Valtteri Bottas’ failure to feature in the points.
In both camps there was a sense of “what if?”, but undoubtedly Mercedes leaves Baku feeling more bruised by the result.
What Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said:
What Red Bull boss Christian Horner said: