F1: Baku redemption for Bottas
Photo: Getty Images

Revenge is a dish best served ice cold and it was the cool Finnish veins of Valtteri Bottas who claimed redemption for his 2018 Baku heartbreak by securing victory in what was an unusually bland Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Bottas started in pole position and fended off a late assault from his team-mate Lewis Hamilton to reclaim his lead in the World Championship, consolidating his early season form and ensuring that Mercedes secured their fourth consecutive one-two in 2019.

Sebastian Vettel finished third for Ferrari as the German struggled to match the pace of the leading Mercedes duo, though Vettel was able to starve off the attack of Max Verstappen, who finished fourth for Red Bull.

After his disappointing incident in Qualifying on Saturday, Charles Leclerc redeemed a respectable fifth place and also claimed the bonus point as he punched in a scintillating fastest lap.

It was a case of what might have been for Leclerc as the Ferrari driver had looked set to challenge for a potential podium and even led the race for 15 laps, however the medium compound tyres that had served Leclerc so well for the opening half of the race soon tailed off and left him well adrift of the leaders after his first stop.

How the race unfolded

An electric start from Hamilton caught Bottas unaware and the Mercedes duo were side-by-side for the first two corners, but the Finn reclaimed his lead heading down into Turn 3 before building a healthy lead over his team-mate.

Verstappen and Leclerc were also first lap losers, with the Red Bull of Verstappen being jumped by Sergio Perez and Leclerc seeing a slow getaway being punished by the Renault of Daniel Ricciardo.

Out in front, both Mercedes drivers began to extend their gap over Vettel as the Ferrari driver dropped five seconds behind the charging Bottas after just five laps.

Further down the field, DRS was proving to be a useful asset for drivers launching themselves towards the heavy breaking-point of Turn 1, the Ferrari of Leclerc being a prime example of this as he looked to make amends for his slow start and pass the congregation of midfield runners that were ahead of him.

After tailing him for the opening laps, Verstappen patiently bided his team before slotting down the inside of Perez heading down into Turn 1 and taking back his grid position.

Leclerc on the charge

With a clear track ahead of him, Leclerc’s lap times soon began to tumble and the Monegasque set his sights on closing the gap to Verstappen at almost a second a lap. Leclerc tailed onto the end of Red Bull within the matter of a short number of kilometres and eased past the helpless Verstappen as the race progressed onto Lap 10.

Leclerc’s pace seen him consistently reduce the gap to his team-mate Vettel and with it initiated a strategic battle between Ferrari and Mercedes, with the Italian manufacturers pitting Vettel onto the medium compound tyres – the tyres that Leclerc had started the race on.

With Leclerc also charging ever closer to the leading Mercedes, the Silver Arrows were forced to respond and bring in both Bottas and Hamilton onto the medium compound tyre in order to starve off the threat of the Ferrari duo.

After a small procession in which the top four cars were all lapping at similar lap times and with thoughts looming towards the conservation of tyres, Bottas and Hamilton soon began to reign in the leading car of Leclerc, who after 24 laps had still yet to pit.

Hamilton’s charge soon came to a temporary halt, however, with the World Champion alerting his team about potential tyre management concerns and as a result, the Brit backed off the pace and into the realms of Vettel behind him.

But then Hamilton’s pace soon reignited just a few laps later and with Bottas closing in on Leclerc, a three-way train soon ensued and with the benefit of DRS, Bottas swooped around the outside of Leclerc heading down into Turn 1.

Bottas back in front

As Bottas reclaimed the lead, an incident occurred at Turn 3 as Ricciardo made a late lunge on his former team-mate Daniil Kvyat but missed the corner, with the Russian also following suit down the escape road. To add insult to injury, as Kvyat attempted to navigate his way back onto the track, Ricciardo reversed into the stricken Toro Rosso and as a result from the damage, both were forced to eventually retire.

Meanwhile back out in front, Hamilton had also passed Leclerc, with the Ferrari drivers pace dropping considerably in comparison to his rivals and with the Ferrari team remaining insistent on keeping him out on track, Leclerc fell into the clutches of his team-mate Vettel, who passed him to take third.

The electrifying pace of Verstappen in P5 raised alarms in the Ferrari garage and Leclerc finally pitted on lap 38, and in hindsight proving to be a few laps too late as the prancing horse emerged behind the Red Bull of Pierre Gasly, although Leclerc was pretty quick to pass the Frenchman.

The gaps between the front three of Bottas, Hamilton and Vettel stabilised just over the two-second mark and remained that way until an engine problem for the Red Bull of Gasly brought his afternoon to a premature halt and provoked race control to bring out the Virtual Safety Car.

The VSC ultimately did little to alter the complexion of the battle out front, with Verstappen’s charge on Vettel dwindling as he struggled to match the pace that he had initially set.

With less than seven laps remaining, Bottas’ race engineer Riccardo Musconi radioed into the Finn insisting to pick up the pace and “go for the fastest lap”. The leader’s pace soon improved and as a result he set the fastest lap of the race.

The message soon echoed to that of his team-mate Hamilton and he too picked up the pace, reducing the gap to Bottas from 2.2 seconds to 1.3 seconds, however, the Finn looked to be managing his lead over Hamilton excellently, keeping him out of DRS range.

But can you ever write off a five-time World Champion? Hamilton suddenly surged to within touching distance of the leading Mercedes with three laps to go, and more importantly to get within DRS range of Bottas.

However, the unpredictable nature of Baku served to cost Hamilton in his charge for the win as he ran slightly wide at Turn 16 and onto the kerb, losing him four tenths and allowing Bottas to ease himself out of Hamilton’s range before pumping in the fastest lap of the race himself.

After pitting with five laps remaining, Leclerc stole Bottas’ bonus point as he pumped in a new track record to claim fastest lap – a scintillating 1m43.009s - thanks to a little help from the slipstream of Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault.

Although it did little to upset a delighted Bottas, who crossed the line to claim redemption for his heartbreak last year and complete yet another 1-2 for the Mercedes team.

Race classification

1) Valtteri Bottas

2) Lewis Hamilton

3) Sebastian Vettel

4) Max Verstappen

5) Charles Leclerc

6) Sergio Perez

7) Carlos Sainz

8) Lando Norris

9) Lance Stroll

10) Kimi Raikkonen

11) Alexander Albon

12) Antonio Giovinazzi

13) Kevin Magnussen

14) Nico Hulkenberg

15) George Russell

16) Robert Kubica

DNF) Pierre Gasly, Romain Grosjean, Daniil Kvyat, Daniel Ricciardo