FOR a while it looked as if Ferrari’s young star Charles Leclerc might overcome the odds and win the Azerbaijan Grand Prix — but it was not to be.
After 51 laps of the 6.0km 20-turn Baku street circuit, it was Valtteri Bottas who led Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to another 1-2 finish for the Silver Arrows — their fourth consecutive of the season.
However, Leclerc, who had the misfortune of putting his Ferrari into the barriers in he final qualifying session, which relegated him to 10th on the starting grid, put in a great drive and finished fifth after having led the field for many laps.
That was due to him starting on medium tyres, which let him stay on track longer than the front-running Mercs and most of the other drivers who opted for the higher grip but faster-wearing soft compound rubber.
He did, however get the bonus point for setting the fastest lap – and there were murmurs that his team management should have brought him in sooner for a change to soft tyres.
It was a miserable race for Daniel Ricciardo and Renault teammate Nico Hulkenberg, with Ricciardo involved in an embarrassing incident that robbed him of a probable 10th place.
He was trying to squeeze past Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat, but outbraked himself, overshot a corner, bringing both cars to a halt in the escape road.
Then Ricciardo had a supermarket car park moment, reversing into the Toro Rosso.
That put both cars out of the race.
Sebastien Vettel ended up third, behind Hamilton, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen fourth (again), Leclerc fifth and Racing Point veteran Sergio Perez securing a fine sixth place.
Seventh and eighth were the Renault-powered McLarens of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris.
In ninth spot was the Racing Point of Lance Stroll, while Kimi Raikkonen claimed the final championship point for Alfa Romeo.
Pierre Gasly put in a strong drive in the second Honda-powered Red Bull, charging through the 20-car field from last — because of a shunt in the first qualifying session — to run as high as sixth, when he parked the car after experiencing a loss of power.
Soon after, Romain Grosjean retired his Haas with brake problems.
The 2019 season looks like being another Mercedes benefit, their four consecutive one-two finishes being unprecedented at the start of any F1 season.
Valtteri Bottas, who started from pole, led from the start and held off a late challenge from Hamilton.
“It was a tough race even if not much happened at the front,” the modest Finn said.
“Lewis was putting pressure all the time so I couldn’t do any mistakes.
“Everything was under control so I was happy to see the chequered flag.
“It means a lot. It’s incredible as a team the level we are performing at now.
“For me, it’s only my fifth win so it feels good and it carries on.”
Hamilton applauded Bottas’ win.
“He drove a fantastic race and made no mistakes so he deserves the win,” he said.
“There’s not more I can say. It’s a great result for the team.
“This is the best start to a season we’ve ever had.”
Ricciardo later apologised for his error.
“It was a strange incident which forced the retirement, but it was my mistake and I’m sorry to the team and to Daniil [Kvyat],” he said.
“It was a bit of urgency on my behalf and I didn’t think straight for a few seconds, so I have to take that one on the chin.
“The team certainly deserved more today. We were bringing on a nice rhythm there and had some good pace on the medium tyres to continue on and we probably could have scored points.”
Teammate Hülkenberg, who started from P15, finished P14, also showed his frustration.
“It’s been a tough weekend. I have no response or anything to offer,” the German said.
“I was pushing really hard, I felt like I was driving as best as I could but couldn’t extract the maximum from the car today.
“We have a lot to investigate going forward, but maybe it’s one of those mysterious weekends, which happen.
“It’s been difficult from lap one on Friday and we’ve consistently struggled.
“It’s a bitter one for me and the team, but we’ll move on from this and be as best prepared for the next one.”
And team principal Cyril Abiteboul agreed.
“Very clearly, it’s been a bad weekend,” he said.
“We never found our pace despite big changes to the car overnight. We finally managed to recover an acceptable competitiveness level during the race for Daniel but it would never be the case for Nico.
“Overall, the first stint of the season has been disappointing, but if we manage to get all things in order we can have a decent competitiveness level.
“We must absolutely see the start of the European season as an opportunity to reset.”
Next race is the Spanish Grand Prix on May 12.
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