Unsung heroes finally claim the day: Five highlights from the Azerbaijan GP
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JOHANNESBURG - The Azerbaijan Grand Prix had it all - intrigue, drama, the underdog coming to the fore, and a twist ending worthy of any M. Night Shyamalan film. The usual suspects this was not, and it was the unsung heroes that finally claimed the day.
Here we look at five highlights from Baku - and what a race it was.
5 Pirelli not having a Goodyear
The biggest loser in Baku was not Max Verstappen, or Lewis Hamilton - it was the tyre manufacturer.
Pirelli has come under a lot of criticism these past few weeks, and the scrutiny they are now experiencing after Baku will make the next few weeks even tougher. The white-band hard compound tyre was expected to be the best rubber for the race, and was supposed to last around 40 laps, but the high speed and unexpected crashes of Lance Stroll of Aston Martin, and then Verstappen, point to a fundamental problem with the compound. After the race it was reported that one of Hamilton's rear tyres also had a cut on it.
Pirelli have vehemently denied there is an issue with their design, instead placing the blame on debris on the track. On initial viewing of both crashes that does not seem to be the case, nor did the telemetry of Red Bull indicate that there was a cause for concern.
The drivers' also seem to have a corporate distrust of the manufacturer, with Verstappen implying after the race that there will be a discussion with Pirelli in the coming weeks, but that he already knows what the outcome will be. Next up is the French GP at the Circuit Paul Ricard, which as a mammoth 1.8km back straight - almost as longs as the main straight at Baku - so Pirelli need to swallow their pride, stop deflecting, and work on their tyre performance to ensure the safety of the drivers, especially if the resultant investigation finds them at fault.
4 Seb steps up
For the first time since Turkey last year, Sebastian Vettel found himself on the podium, and what a glorious sight it was. This report has never shied away from the admiration it has for the four-time world champion, so it has been especially pleasing to see the German's improvement in the last two races after a horrid start to the season.
Sure, there was a bit of luck involved, and the retirement of Verstappen and Hamilton certainly propelled Vettel into the top 3, but the Aston Martin driver started in 11th on the grid, used the team's tactic to maximum effect with a longer run which saw him lead the race for a time, then overtook Charles Leclerc and Pierre Gasly after the safety car stop, and finally at the restart held his nerve to claim second.
He was again awarded the Driver of the Day, and he fully deserves it.
3 Dark day for Silver Arrows
Mercedes whined and complained their way through the weekend with regards to their performance and setup, but at the start of the GP it honestly didn't look so bad. Hamilton took the lead early on, and seemed to be managing his pace well - you'd expect nothing less from a seven-time world champion.
Teammate Valtteri Bottas, meanwhile, had a shocking weekend, and his running in the mid-card exposed Hamilton tactically to the Red Bull strategy - first Verstappen undercut him, and then eventual race winner Sergio Perez overcut him which saw him fall back to third.
Hamilton's mistake at the restart, where he accidentally flicked a switch that shut off the brakes, cost him his 54-race streak of scoring points, and moreover ensured that his retired rival kept the lead at the top of the drivers' world standings. It is now two races that the Silver Arrows have underperformed. The French GP is a power track, much like Baku and Silverstone with the expectation before the season that it would be advantageous to Mercedes.
After this weekend, no one can be as sure. Nevertheless, it would be fool-hardy to write the team off - they are experts in turning around their fortunes, and could show their championship-winning calibre again in France.
2 That other Red Bull team
No one expected Pierre Gasly of AlphaTuari would step onto the podium - the talk has been all about Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari in recent weeks. Frenchman Gasly's performance was then an excellent outcome for the team this past weekend.
The AT02 was extremely racey at Baku, with even rookie Yuki Tsunoda finishing in the top 10 with an impressive seventh-place. The midfield has certainly ebbed and flowed this year, making it virtually impossible to predict who amongst AlphaTauri, Alpine and Aston Martin will have the upper-hand on any race weekend. Only McLaren and Ferrari seem to have nailed down consistent performances, but the capriciousness of the midfield is most definitely adding to the overall drama to an already excellent season.
1 Checo picks up the pieces
It took Sergio Perez six races to win his first GP for Red Bull, and what an important moment to have done it. It also took him a similar amount of time to get to grips with the RB16B, and his win this past weekend could be a season-defining victory for the team, and also the moment that helped Verstappen to the championship.
Sure, Hamilton braking off at the restart helped, but Checo ensured the team limited the damage, and strengthened their position in the constructors' title. Would Alex Albon, or Gasly have been able to do the same had they been in the second seat?