When an F1 modern classic arrived out of nowhere

In the latest of our series of races picked out by Autosport journalists, we look back at the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix. After an underwhelming debut for the Baku City Circuit in 2016, Formula 1's heavyweights made up for it with a chaotic race which had a title fight turning point, stunning comebacks and eye-catching overtakes

When an F1 modern classic arrived out of nowhere

Sometimes a race passes by without a notable moment, logged in the history book known only by its name and the winner.

It was the case during the first Baku Formula 1 race, given the European Grand Prix title for its inaugural year at the request of the race organisers as part of the re-imaging for the former Soviet state, with Nico Rosberg dominating to a Grand Slam in a race which took place without incident aside from an honourable mention for Sergio Perez's hard graft podium.

When F1 returned to Baku 12 months later, this time to compete in the first-ever Azerbaijan Grand Prix as the European moniker was dropped, expectations weren't high despite the drivers' title fight heating up between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.

Coming into the Azerbaijan GP the German led the standings by 12 points, despite finishing off the podium for the first time that season in the previous race in Canada. Meanwhile, Hamilton had produced his own Grand Slam in a Mercedes walkover, as Valtteri Bottas completed a 1-2 finish with Daniel Ricciardo rounding out the podium ahead of Vettel in fourth.

Ricciardo had enjoyed an upturn in fortunes following his low-key start to 2017, as a hat-trick of podiums provided encouragement amid an increasingly fractious relationship between Red Bull and engine supplier Renault.

But the Australian's hopes took a blow when he crashed in the final session of Baku qualifying, sliding into the barrier at Turn 5 on the unforgiving street track, leaving him down in 10th place.

Hamilton trounced the opposition for pole position, beating Mercedes team-mate Bottas by almost half a second and was 1.1s quicker than Kimi Raikkonen in third, while championship leader Vettel slotted into fourth place on the grid.

The first Baku City Circuit race had been a somewhat restrained matter for a street race, with drivers opting for the cautious approach at the unfamiliar and unforgiving 6.003km-long track designed by Hermann Tilke. So perhaps it was a case of familiarity breeding complacency; after the first two corners, two of the main protagonists had their race plans ruined.

In a rivalry which had largely been marked by respect for each other's achievements, an inkling of bad blood suddenly flowed between Hamilton and Vettel in the middle of the F1 title battle

Braking into the 90-degree left first turn, Bottas was under pressure from the Ferrari pair with Vettel giving a nudge from behind under braking, which unsettled the Finn in the run to the second corner. Further back, Carlos Sainz Jr was spooked by his Toro Rosso team-mate Daniil Kvyat returning to the track after running wide, which sent the Spaniard into a spin.

At the front, Raikkonen had greater momentum to attack Bottas around the outside of the second corner but in squeezing his fellow Finn it forced the Mercedes to bounce off the inside kerb and into the Ferrari. Both sustained damage, with Bottas coming off worse with a front right puncture and front wing damage. By the time he crawled around the opening lap to pit, he was a lap down in last place.

Early woes also hit Ricciardo as he rapidly lost performance from his Red Bull, dropping three positions on the fourth lap, before pitting a lap later to have debris cleared out of his brake ducts to stop his brakes from overheating, the unscheduled stop pushing Ricciardo back to 17th.

But with his Red Bull back up to optimum performance, the Australian began his climb up the order starting with an impressive double overtake on Sainz and Marcus Ericsson at the start of lap 10.

Ricciardo profited from the healthy dose of DRS, with an extra slipstream boost behind two cars running nose-to-tail, and the long pit straight providing ample opportunity for overtaking rarely attributed to a tight and twisty street track.

Fortune also favoured Ricciardo when Kvyat and Max Verstappen suffered terminal engine issues in consecutive laps. The Russian's car required rescuing by the marshals, which necessitated an initial safety car period giving the drivers ahead a free pitstop but wiped out the advantage built over Ricciardo due to his earlier stop.

In a lengthy neutralised period used to recover Kvyat's Toro Rosso and clear up debris from the earlier scuffles, the race's most dramatic and unexpected turning point played out behind the safety car.

Hamilton, who had earlier asked the safety car to speed up to allow him to generate more temperature in his tyres and brakes, was backing up the pack ahead of the restart but his slowing caught out Vettel as he bumped into the rear of the Mercedes.

Vettel voiced his grievances over his team radio on what he considered a pre-meditated move: "He brake tested me. What the fuck is going on?"

But it would be Vettel's actions that would land him in trouble. As the red mist descended he pulled alongside Hamilton to remonstrate with him and in the process barged wheels with his rival - all while the safety car scampered off ahead and the rest of the F1 pack lined up for the restart.

In a rivalry which had largely been marked by respect for each other's achievements, an inkling of bad blood suddenly flowed between Hamilton and Vettel in the middle of the F1 title battle.

"Driving alongside and deliberately driving into another driver and getting away pretty much scot-free as he still came fourth, I think that's a disgrace," said Hamilton after the race.

"It definitely sets a precedent within F1 and it also does for all the young kids that are watching us drive and conduct ourselves. They've seen today how a four-time champion behaves. Hopefully that doesn't ripple into the younger categories."

The incident was instantly put under investigation by FIA race director Charlie Whiting, but his focus would be drawn by further bedlam.

Vettel, distracted by his clash with Hamilton and suffering the unknown effects of a damaged front wing, found himself defending against Felipe Massa and Sergio Perez at the restart with the pair going either side of him into the first corner.

Forced to back out on the outside line, Perez inadvertently left the door open to Force India team-mate Esteban Ocon to launch his own attack under braking for Turn 2.

In almost a copy to the Bottas/Raikkonen clash on the opening lap, Ocon pushed Perez into a gap his Force India wouldn't be able to squeeze in leaving the Mexican to sustain hits against his team-mate and the wall. The collision resulted in both Force Indias needing to pit due to damage - and with debris scattered along the track, the race was red flagged on lap 22.

Once the circuit was cleared up, many were braced for part two of Hamilton vs Vettel at the race restart, but this time both drivers got clean getaways down the 2.22km main straight.

Behind the leaders, Ricciardo continued to make his moves. Having climbed up to fifth place when the red flag was shown, Ricciardo sized up the Williams duo in front of him with an unlikely podium position in reach having been towards the rear of the field 18 laps earlier. With fresh experience from his earlier double overtake, the Red Bull driver repeated the feat using DRS, the slipstream and sticking to the inside line to brake latest and dive past both Massa and Lance Stroll.

Having made his own luck with arguably two of the overtakes of the season, Ricciardo's charge paid off - but this time through none of his own doing. Following the red flag period, Hamilton's headrest unit had come loose and by lap 29 it was being pulled up by the immense air vacuum on the straights.

It forced Mercedes to pit him from the lead under the orders of race direction at the end of lap 31 to affix the headrest. Hamilton returned to the action in eighth place and directly behind team-mate Bottas who had been quietly picking his way through the pack since his opening lap clash. It left Vettel to inherit the lead but his joy was short-lived because, with a good sense for dramatic timing, the FIA stewards slapped him with a 10-second stop/go penalty for his collision with Hamilton behind the safety car.

With fresh experience from his earlier double overtake, the Red Bull driver repeated the feat to brake latest and dive past both Massa and Lance Stroll

Aggrieved at the decision Vettel argued his case over his team radio: "When did I do dangerous driving?"

Wary of the German talking himself into further trouble, his Ferrari race engineer Riccardo Adami instructed him to focus on the race with the opportunity for a positive result given Hamilton's headrest problem, with Vettel slotting into seventh place directly in front of Hamilton at pit exit.

With a period of calm following the numerous collisions, the closing 18 laps gave the frontrunners the chance to sustain their elevated positions ahead of the Mercedes pair and Ferrari's Vettel. The trio made light work of picking off Kevin Magnussen, Fernando Alonso in his underpowered McLaren-Honda and Ocon in his wounded Force India but the laps ran out for the championship's top two to make further progress.

Ricciardo retained a buffer against Stroll to look after his tyres and susceptible engine and duly clinch Red Bull's first win of the season. The twists in the race's story continued to the finish line, with Bottas - from a lap down and last place - reeling in Stroll on the home straight to pinch second place by 0.105s.

In truly the most bemusing race, being demoted to third place over the final few metres didn't really matter to the Canadian as he still celebrated his maiden F1 podium, becoming the second youngest ever F1 rostrum finisher - missing the outright record by just 12 days to Max Verstappen after his surprise 2016 Spanish GP win.

With Vettel in fourth place and Hamilton in fifth, the German ended the Azerbaijan GP having extended his championship lead to 14 points, but it would fade into insignificance due to the questions he would face about his own conduct having run into Hamilton behind the safety car.

The Ferrari driver reflected on Baku after his title candidacy imploded during the Asian flyaway rounds.

"The worst feeling I had was after Baku," Vettel told Autosport. "I struggled with that.

"Singapore, my point of view is that's racing. I thought about it a lot on Sunday night and it wasn't easy to put behind, but then, what do you do? Same in Japan. Sometimes things are not in your hands and you have to move forward. I think you struggle a lot more in life with things that you messed up rather than got messed up for you."

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, which showed Vettel might have won the battle against Hamilton that day (albeit marginally) but it triggered a power shift in the war. With action everywhere you looked and often when you least expected it, plus the delivery of a pivotal moment in the F1 world title fight, almost every driver on the grid had a story to tell.

Daniel Ricciardo may have won the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, but there was much more to it than that.

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Author Haydn Cobb
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