The inaugural Formula 1 race around the Baku City Circuit promised much but ultimately delivered little. The supporting GP2 Series races had been littered with incidents and Safety Car periods but the Formula 1 boys behaved themselves and a clean first lap led to a large field spread, which naturally grew across the course of the afternoon.
Any hopes of a Mercedes tete-a-tete dissipated following a messy qualifying session for Lewis Hamilton. The Briton had been on form throughout practice but lost his way on Saturday afternoon, suffering from several off-track excursions before clipping the inside barrier at Turn 10. Hamilton had been quicker than Nico Rosberg on that final Q3 effort but it became redundant; Rosberg also flirted with the wall, this time exiting Turn 15, but he pressed onwards and duly cruised to pole position. Hamilton, surveying his buckled right front, would have to start from 10th position.
It meant Rosberg simply had make a clean getaway from pole position, break free of DRS range and hope that rivals behind would stay out of trouble, thus reducing the risk of a spanner being thrown into the works. The calm nature of the race meant it stayed green for all 51-laps, ensuring Rosberg could run his intended Super Soft/Soft strategy without interruption. There was a brief scare when he encountered a minor glitch, but having switched to the setting which caused the issue, he was aware of how to switch back. Hamilton was not so fortunate. It was a comparatively subdued performance from the Briton, staying out of trouble on the first lap before picking off rivals, ending up chasing Sergio Pérez for fourth (which was effectively third). However, he encountered a ‘de-rating’ problem, meaning he was harvesting insufficient electrical power. His pleads to the pit wall to provide assistance were in vain due to the nature of the regulations and he had to fiddle around with switches, at one point willing to gamble 10 points by suggesting playing around with the settings. Mercedes was at least able to offer advice in this instance, naturally pointing out such a move would be unwise.
“I just had no power,” said Hamilton. “I was in an engine mode which made it feel like I was driving without ERS for a long time. We have hundreds of different combinations of switch position on the wheel and, no matter how much you study, there's no way to remember them all. I was driving around looking at my screen trying to work out what was wrong - but I couldn't see anything I'd done differently.”
It left Hamilton slipping back from Pérez in fifth place and once the problem was corrected, the Mercedes driver opted to preserve his engine and cruise to the finish.
In between the Silver Arrows were the Ferraris and a Force India, perhaps not in the expected order. Ferrari struggled during practice but made progress and Sebastian Vettel qualified in fourth place, behind Force India’s Sergio Pérez and Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo. Pérez was brilliant throughout the weekend aside from a moment in the final practice session – unfortunately for the Mexican it was a lapse which proved costly. Sliding wide at Turn 15 caused damage to his VJM09 and meant he required a new gearbox, which would demote him to seventh position.
Vettel trailed Ricciardo early on but the RB12 was munching through its rear tyres, leaving both the Australian and team-mate Max Verstappen scrambling to the pits for Softs. Bizarrely, they encountered further woe on that compound and required an extra stop for Mediums, which better suited the car, but they dropped out of podium contention.
Vettel had passed Ricciardo but the move was academic due to Red Bull’s tyre issues and dismissed a suggestion from Ferrari to pit early. He stayed out, while Kimi Räikkönen dived in, cutting the white line in the process and earning a five-second time penalty. Vettel made his stop later on and emerged behind Räikkönen, but Ferrari implemented the switch to restore the natural order. Räikkönen was not able to build a five-second buffer over Pérez to negate the impact of his penalty and the Force India driver made sure the sanction had no impact as he passed the Ferrari on the final lap. Räikkönen no doubt would have offered greater resistance had the pass been for a genuine position, but it pleased Pérez to earn the podium on the road.
“I knew he had a penalty, but on the final lap I got very close to him and saw the opportunity to overtake him, so I took it,” he said.
“To be on the podium for a second time this year feels fantastic. The team has done a brilliant job and we are having an amazing year.”
Force India cemented fifth in the standings in the process and now has one more podium than fourth-placed Williams, which had Valtteri Bottas in sixth and Felipe Massa a low-key 10th, the latter labelling his race as “terrible” amid tyre woe.
Ricciardo and Verstappen dropped back after two-stopping but made progress on the Medium tyres to place seventh and eighth, both overhauling Force India’s Nico Hülkenberg late on. The German demonstrated similar pace to Pérez during the initial stages of the weekend but spinning in Q2 left him mid-grid, effectively scuppering his prospects.
But if one Nico was left to rue a mistake, the other had no such problems.
“I am so happy to win in Baku,” he said. “I really felt at one with the car in a way I've never felt before. I didn't have the feeling that something would go wrong at any point. The car was awesome this weekend, so thank you so much to the team for this.”