Lewis Hamilton congratulates Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas

Bottas heads home Hamilton in Azerbaijan for record fourth successive Mercedes 1-2

Valtteri Bottas held off teammate Lewis Hamilton to secure his second victory of the season, the Mercedes duo scoring a record fourth successive 1-2 with Sebastian Vettel third for Ferrari ahead of Max Verstappen.

Having labelled himself ‘useless’ after his crash during qualifying that relegated him to eighth on the grid, Charles Leclerc produced a sparkling drive to lead the race by lap 13 before eventually finishing fifth after having to stop twice.

Sergio Perez was an excellent sixth for Racing point ahead of the McLarens of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, Lance Stroll and the excellent Kimi Raikkonen rounding off the points scoring finishers – the latter having started from the pit lane after a front wing flex infringement.

It was a sweet victory for Bottas, who was denied a certain win at the same circuit 12 months earlier after running over debris and getting a puncture three laps from the finish. But he was made to work hard in the closing laps as Hamilton swarmed all over the back of him before a mistake on the penultimate lap cost the Englishman.

“It was actually a tough race even though maybe not that much happening at the front,” said Bottas afterward. “But obviously Lewis was putting pressure all the time so I could not do any mistakes but honestly everything was under control so I am happy to see the chequered flag and get this first place.

“It means a lot. It’s incredible as a team which kind of level we are performing now, so I want to say to the guys I am so proud to be a part of that and we are all performing really, really well and for me as well it’s only my fifth win, so of course it feels good.”

The race was effectively won at the start, Bottas displaying brilliant defensive skills to hold off Hamilton despite his teammate’s seemingly better drag off the line.

Behind the leaders, Perez was the stand-out starter, the Mexican getting past Max Verstappen as Riccardo out-dragged Leclerc, the Ferrari on the less grippy medium tyre in which he crashed during qualifying.

Following the processional nature of the Chinese Grand Prix, the vagaries of the Baku street circuit provided scraps aplenty, Daniil Kvyat plummeting backwards, Leclerc fighting through the field and Verstappen getting past Perez after an entertaining battle for fourth.

Out front, as he was in Australia, Bottas was a man possessed – the Finn pulling out a large gap over his teammate early on. But, with the track temperature cooling and his medium compound tyres coming into optimum working temperature, Leclerc was the man on the move, slicing his way past Verstappen and up to fourth on the run down to Turn 1.

With much talk surrounding Ferrari’s use of team orders before the race, Vettel was the first of the big hitters to pit on lap 12, just as Leclerc was poised to overtake him on track. It left the German back out in fifth. Next came the race leader, Bottas donning the medium compound rubber for the remainder of the race.

With Leclerc lapping almost three seconds a lap quicker than race leader Hamilton, it was the champion’s time to change tyres, also changing for medium tyres on lap 13, giving the race lead to the flying Ferrari.

It was now all going to come down to that crucial final pit stop, Leclerc seemingly having the advantage of the softer tyres for his final stint on a cooling track, Vettel closing on Hamilton on the same strategy. On lap 33, Bottas retook the lead, diving past the lead Ferrari into Turn 1 as Hamilton followed suit a lap later. And with Leclerc’s tyres rapidly deteriorating but with the worry of the soft compound not making the end of the race, his pace dropped off, leaving him a sitting duck to Vettel.

With Leclerc having to make an extra unscheduled stop at the end, it would be down to Vettel to spoil the Mercedes party. But Bottas would not be denied, using all his defensive nous to seal a second win that means he retakes the lead of the championship standings by a point from Hamilton once again.

“Congratulations to Valtteri, he drove a fantastic race,” said a magnanimous Hamilton afterward. “He made no mistakes and truly deserved the win. It was all lost in qualifying so there’s not really much more for me to say. But it’s a great result for the team. Honestly, this is the best start to a season we’ve ever had.”

A new lap record for Leclerc before the finish meant an extra point in Ferrari’s bag but the Scuderia has much to think about once again before racing resumes in Spain.

“The first sting was really poor,” said Vettel after the race. “The first stint I really struggled to initially get the tyres to work and I think they were too cold and then I damaged them and by the time they were hot they were damaged, so they were never really working.

“I was really uncomfortable and inconsistent, and I just couldn’t get a feel and confidence for the car, so that’s usually not so good around here. After that I was surprised. I was already looking forward to a difficult stint on the medium tyres but no problem to switch them on and they lasted until the end. At least we had the pace to go with them and sometimes put a bit of pressure. Still plenty of work for us to do and obviously not quite where we want to be.”

Strangely, given the history of the circuit, the race was one free of safety cars, although a late virtual safety car was deployed 12 laps from the finish to remove Pierre Gasly’s stricken Red Bull. He wasn’t the only retirement, Daniil Kvyat and Daniel Ricciardo involved in a bizarre incident that saw the Renault driver reverse back into the Toro Rosso after they both went straight on into the run-off area into Turn 3.

Given the disappointment of what had gone in the races before, driver of the day could arguably go to Leclerc but there were many candidates, Perez delighted to bring home more points for Racing Point on a circuit that he clearly enjoys.

“It has been a fantastic day,” said Perez after the race. “It was looking good at the start when I passed Verstappen, but we didn’t have the pace to fight against the Red Bulls over the race distance. I was actually focussed on keeping the McLarens at bay. It was not easy to keep them behind and I had to drive carefully for the whole of the race.

“After the VSC I was able to get good temperature in the tyres and this helped me stay in P6. I am happy we succeeded in keeping our position, now we can celebrate a good day for the team with both cars in the points. We have an upgrade coming in Barcelona and I am looking forward to our performance there.”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.