There is only one golden rule in motorsport: don’t crash into your teammate. Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen broke that rule at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Pride was on the line, and frustration — that the frontrunners were again out of reach, that their engines were struggling on the long Baku straight — was the fuel. From the moment the pair started battling on lap 12 one had a sense that Sunday would be the day they took their intra-team battle a step too far.
Ricciardo was disappointed to have let Verstappen past at the safety car restart on lap six, but despite being the faster driver on the day he was unable to find a way past his teammate.
The Dutchman was defending robustly, perhaps even aggressively, to rebuff the Australian’s advances. At one point he bumped wheels with Ricciardo, sending the sister car perilously close to the barriers at turn one.
It made for tense times on the Red Bull Racing pit wall, from where team principal Christian Horner instructed his drivers to cool their heels. Commendably he resisted ordering they hold station.
His charges listened for a time, but by lap 39 they were tussling again. This time, however, they flirted well beyond the boundaries of disaster.
Ricciardo, speeding up behind Verstappen in the powerful slipstream, feinted to his teammate’s right, drawing him out wide ahead of turn one, and then dived back across in an attempt to scythe down the Dutchman’s left.
But Verstappen moved back to cover him, closing the door as the pair entered the braking zone. Ricciardo had nowhere to go and rammed the back of the sister car. Both retired from the race.
Horner, charging back from the garage to his office to meet the men who’d just crashed his cars, was shaking with rage.
“They’re both to blame for this, and it’s the team unfortunately that miss out,” he fumed. “The drivers at the end of the day drive for a team … and will be apologising to all members of the team, because it is a team sport. That seemed to get forgotten about.”
The moment of dysfunction at Red Bull Racing contrasted starkly with Mercedes, where Lewis Hamilton, the unlikely winner of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, went out of his way to congratulate and console teammate Valtteri Bottas, who was comfortably leading the race with three laps to go when a sudden puncture to his rear-right wheel forced his exit from the race.
The Briton delayed the podium ceremony to seek out the Finn, admitting he didn’t feel he was a deserved victor.
“Valtteri did such an exceptional job today and really deserved to have the win,” he said. “I think it was really, really fortunate today, so it feels a little bit odd to be up here.
“I struggled with the car, struggled with the tyres, and that’s something I don’t take lightly, so I’ve definitely got to go away from here and work even harder to make sure that there’s not a repeat performance-wise of today.”
Pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel could have claimed the race had he not botched a late overtaking attempt on Bottas, but he fell to fourth, behind teammate Kimi Raikkonen in second and a superb Sergio Perez in third, the Mexican scoring his first podium since the same race two years ago.
The sport is delicately poised for its return to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix on 13 May, with Hamilton assuming top sport in the drivers standings with a three-point lead over Sebastian Vettel but Ferrari commanding a four-point advantage over Mercedes on the constructors table.