Australian Daniel Ricciardo was the unexpected winner in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on 25 June after title protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel turned their relationship nuclear in an ugly on-track collision.
The opening stages of the race were a crash-strewn affair, with the fast Baku City Circuit daring drivers to attempt bold overtaking moves, with mixed success.
Ricciardo was a minor victim in the early melees, requiring an unscheduled pit stop to clean debris from his brake ducts that dropped him to seventeenth on lap six.
By lap 16 he had picked his way up to ninth place, but it was the race’s second of three safety cars, triggered on the next lap, that set in motion the events that would allow the Red Bull Racing driver to seize the lead.
Lewis Hamilton had started from pole position, but he was having enormous trouble keeping his tyres up to temperature behind the safety car.
Complaining that his tyres were becoming dangerously cold, the Briton engaged in some severe tyre warming, braking hard and weaving, and bunching up the field in the process.
Caught unaware, Vettel’s Ferrari nudged the back of the Mercedes, and incensed by the belief Hamilton had acted improperly, the Ferrari driver pulled up alongside Hamilton’s car and steered into the side of it in a bizarre brain-snap that could have ended both drivers’ races on the spot.
The stewards soon concluded Vettel’s actions warranted a 10-second stop-go penalty, the most severe punishment possible before race disqualification.
In an ironic twist, however, Hamilton was also called unexpectedly into the pits to replace a faulty headrest, a fix that took so long Vettel was able to emerge ahead of the Briton for the first time of the afternoon, albeit in seventh and eighth.
The pair finished the race in fourth and fifth, and Hamilton was furious.
“Driving alongside and deliberately driving into another driver and getting away pretty much scot-free, as he still came fourth — I think that’s a disgrace,” he fumed. “I think he disgraced himself today.”
Vettel, on the other hand, was steadfast that he had been wronged first.
“I think that was just not the right way to do it,” he said evasively, referring to Hamilton’s driving. “The manoeuvre before was not necessary.
“I do not agree with the penalty that I got, because if you penalise me, then you should penalise both of us because it was not the way to do it.”
The clash promises to unravel the hitherto jovial title duel less than halfway through the season, with Vettel still leading Hamilton in the drivers championship by 14 points.
But the seriousness of the collision mattered little to the victorious Ricciardo, who passed three cars into turn one after the final safety car period to put himself into a position to win the race after Hamilton and Vettel made their final stops.
“It was a crazy race,” Ricciardo said on the podium. “Did I think then I could win today? Absolutely not.
“Honestly I’m speechless. After the race on the cool down lap I was just giggling like a little schoolboy.”
Ricciardo was joined on the podium by Valtteri Bottas, who dropped to last on the first lap before his own stellar recovery drive, and by an unlikely Lance Stroll, the 18-year-old Williams rookie.
“I’m just lost for words,” Stroll said on his first podium. “I don’t even know what to say.
“We just stayed out of trouble. I kept my head cool and took it to the end.
“I owe this to the whole team, it’s amazing.”