Nico Rosberg has dominated Baku’s straightforward debut as host city of the European Grand Prix.
Rosberg qualified his Mercedes on pole on Saturday by pressing home his Mercedes car’s significant advantage over the rest of the field, and a clean start on Sunday delivered him a winning margin of 16.696 seconds.
The German was never challenged, but the order of the field behind him took time to shake out in a surprisingly tidy race after predictions of carnage, based mostly on the weekend’s two GP2 support races.
“It’s been an amazing day — an amazing weekend, really,” he said. “For me the weekend went perfectly. Very, very happy.
“Qualifying, race — everything went to plan, it’s really awesome.”
Daniel Ricciardo started alongside Rosberg, and despite his car launching from the dirty side of the grid, he managed to hold second place at the end of the first lap.
It wasn’t to last, however, with Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari outgunning the Australian’s Renault engine-equipped Red Bull Racing RB12 on lap six, and the German was able to hold position there through to the end of the race.
“I didn’t really know what to expect, but it’s been a great track, a great pleasure,” said Vettel. “The circuit is incredible, you need to be well equipped — let’s put it that way! — to be quick around here.”
The four-time world champion said he was most pleased with his team’s turnaround after a difficult Friday.
“To see where we are now is a great recovery,” he said. “Second place in a row, two times in a row.
“The pace is there, the car is good, we are coming along — so all in all a great day, and thanks to the team.”
Ricciardo was stopped for new softs one lap later, but his car, uneasy on its new soft tyres, sunk down the order.
A second stop for medium tyres did little to cure the car’s malaise on the super-smooth circuit, but a late-race pass on Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India allowed Ricciardo to salvage seventh.
Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen was left to battle against Force India’s Sergio Perez for the final spot on the podium after the Finn was pitted early to cover against a possible resurgent Red Bull Racing team.
Perez, on the other hand, employed an aggressive strategy to recover his second-place qualification from his P7 grid slot, attained after he took a five-place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change on Saturday.
The Mexican made up two places on the first lap and spent his first stint picking off the rivals ahead of him, aided by Ricciardo and Räikkönen diving into the pits earlier than expected.
His stop on lap 16 confirmed his hard work, and only getting pace both Williams cars and the pit-stopping Nico Hülkenberg and Ricciardo stood in his way back to his battle with Räikkönen.
His challenge was eased by Räikkönen receiving a five-second time penalty, to be applied after the race, for cutting over the pit entry line on the front straight, but Perez launched a move on the Ferrari driver on the last lap nonetheless to claim a podium by right.
“Very nice first lap, and very nice overtaking into turn two, fighting with Kimi all the way to the end,” said Perez.
“I knew he had a five second penalty, but it was still nice to get him on the last lap.”
Perez’s weekend was almost undone before it had properly started when he crashed his car in Saturday’s pre-qualifying free practice three, necessitating the gearbox change that dropped him to seventh.
After qualifying he expressed his frustration with himself undermining his form, and he reiterated that his error had been played on his mind ever since.
“I knew yesterday when I put the car in the wall that this was a big chance for us to get a massive result,” he said.
“Going into qualifying my boys did an amazing job to fix the car. We had a great qualifying, but we started P7 today. We had to make our way through. “
With Räikkönen’s fourth place the last of the frontrunners, Lewis Hamilton was left to finish fifth and 23 seconds adrift.
The European Grand Prix was a frustrating affair for the Briton, who remains second in the drivers championship standings behind teammate Rosberg, after he crashed his car during Q3 in qualifying, relegating himself to tenth on the grid.
The Briton played a long game back towards the top, deliberately avoiding confrontation on the first lap with a view to make up places slowly in the opening stint.
He had made his way up to fourth by his first stop on lap 16, but a setting problem with his car hampered his progress.
Hamilton and his pit wall exchanged many frantic words, with the driver asking for information but his engineers unable to pass on any clues as to the problem due to regulations preventing a team from helping the drivers drive his car.
Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda revealed after the race that the same problem had plagued Rosberg’s car but the German was able to quickly rectify it using his steering wheel interface.
After watching his championship lead whittled down from 43 points to just nine in the previous two races, Rosberg earnt himself some breathing space over Hamilton, bolstering his advantage to 24 points.
Sebastian Vettel remains third in the title chase, 11 points further behind.
Mercedes was able to edge further ahead in the constructors championship and now holds an 81-point advantage over Ferrari, which sits 37 points ahead of Red Bull Racing.