Madness in Baku

“Did anyone predict this podium?” asks David Coulthard, as he is about to conduct the customary post-champaign spray interviews with our top three drivers from the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Given last years somewhat precessional race I was expecting a similar story this time, although as the weekend transpired it clearly daunted on everyone that Pirelli might have went a bit too conservative with their tyre choices. Pirelli themselves admitted that they were constrained by timings when choosing the compounds, which inevitably led to drivers complaining about the lack of grip on the street surface.

Practice on Friday was frantic, in qualifying drivers had to work the tyres more, and during the race Lewis Hamilton was pleading to Charlie Whiting asking if Bernd Maylander could speed up as he thought the slow speeds were too dangerous for a proper restart.

Of course the main bit of controversy occurred when at the second restart, when in an attempt to get a gap on the Safety Car for the restart, Hamilton slowed down in the final few corners to ready the field for the restart. This caught out Sebastian Vettel who ran into the back of Hamilton’s diffuser, and in a momentary lapse of judgement the Ferrari driver drove alongside the Mercedes and rammed it in order to show his disgust at Hamilton’s apparent brake test.

It took a while before the stewards came to the decision that Vettel should receive a 10-second stop and go penalty for the second incident, even longer for them to issue three penalty points on his super licence (now on nine points, just three away from a race ban), and now it has emerged that Vettel will be the subject of further inspection from the FIA next week.

Opinion on this matter was always going to divide, Vettel didn’t take Hamilton out in his on-track clash but he still caused an avoidable collision. What’s worse is that he did it on purpose and in the post-race interviews refused to acknowledge the second bit of contact. Was he in ‘la la land’ you make ask? More like he knew that he’d been found out, much like what Michael Schumacher used to do when he was at fault.

What will follow next is anyones guess, the FIA will have to look at three key things in their investigation; the incident itself, Vettel’s reaction, and how it makes them look. Jean Todt has championed the ‘FIA Action for Road Safety’ campaign throughout his presidency, so a world class driver with four world championships having an episode of ‘road rage’ with FIA stickers on his car looks pretty bad.

Equally it looks worse when junior drivers see that sort of behaviour and think that is the way to conduct themselves on track, which it obviously isn’t. As Hamilton said, Vettel disgraced himself in front of the motorsport audience which can be rather brutal in it’s response. Ferrari’s PR approach this year hasn’t done them any favours and in an incident like this it’s exposed their inability to drive the narrative away, effectively turning Vettel into the pantomime villain.

Something will come of his actions whether it’s a race ban, community service (i.e. helping out with road safety campaign) or docking of points. The FIA will have to be sensible in this decision since they will be overruling the stewards with whatever outcome they chose, and they’re not likely to interfere with the championship battle given that they didn’t do anything with Hamilton’s points amidst the cheating scandal back in 2007 involving McLaren and Ferrari.

Amidst the chaos at the front we can’t forget the stunning performance put in by rookie Lance Stroll, who earned his first podium in Formula 1 by finishing third – just demoted by Valtteri Bottas at the line from second – after a rather difficult start to his season. It’s clear to see Stroll has learned quickly from his mistakes at the start of the year, key to that was a private test at COTA which gave him more space to develop his craft behind the wheel – which was noticeably frantic in the opening races. Hopefully this podium will give him more confidence, as Max Verstappen’s race win last year did in Spain.

It was good to see a return to the podium for Daniel Ricciardo, the shoey phenomenon has become a signature podium celebration of his which has seen most of the drivers on the grid and even celebrities drink champagne from his sweaty race boot. I almost wanted Ricciardo to win just so he would do that bit of showmanship, hopefully for the sake of variety this isn’t the last of the honeybadger on the podium in 2017.

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