Valtteri Bottas Retakes F1 Drivers’ Title Lead With Azerbaijan Grand Prix Victory
This year's Baku race may have been more a Bland Prix than a Grand Prix, but it showed that Bottas is taking the fight to Hamilton like never before.
Valtteri Bottas held up under immense pressure from Mercedes-AMG teammate Lewis Hamilton to win the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, retaking the Formula 1 World Drivers' Championship lead.
Bottas and Hamilton shared the front row after locking down the lead positions in qualifying, and as has happened at every race this season, the polesitter got a poor start, and Bottas found himself challenged by Hamilton entering the first corner. But the Finn held on around the corner's outside, getting a better exit, and again had to take the long way 'round in Turn 2, Hamilton on his inside. Drafting didn't help the Brit and he had to submit the lead to Bottas, who would assemble a gap to his teammate in the following laps.
Further back, Racing Point's Sergio Perez took the fight to Red Bull's Max Verstappen, snagging fourth place, while ninth-starting Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc made up positions. Perez's car didn't have the gusto to hold his newfound position in front of Verstappen, though, and the Dutchman retook fourth with the aid of his drag reduction system on the pit straight on Lap 6. Leclerc cloned the move a lap later and leveled his sights on Verstappen, who would prove to be easy prey. The Dutchman complained over the radio of unpredictable engine braking performing "like a handbrake" on Lap 9, and it took Leclerc only until Lap 10 to breeze past the struggling Verstappen and into the wake of Sebastian Vettel.
Vettel became the first frontrunner to swap tires on Lap 12, swapping between sets of mediums, which got him out of the path of the rampaging Leclerc. He rejoined the race fifth, sandwiched by Verstappen and Carlos Sainz, and triggered the first Mercedes pit stop, for Bottas, who also elected to use medium tires. Bottas emerged fourth ahead of Vettel, and Hamilton dipped in for mediums of his own, splitting Bottas and Vettel in fourth.
Verstappen joined the other frontrunners on medium tires after 14 laps, and exited the pits sixth behind his teammate Pierre Gasly, who had yet to stop. He caught the Frenchman at the start of Lap 17 and waltzed past via the use of DRS. Up the road, Bottas assembled the race's fastest lap while trying to catch Leclerc, and Hamilton returned fire a lap later, stealing the fastest lap for himself. Hamilton bested himself on Lap 20, but Verstappen, seemingly having adjusted his car or driving to account for abnormal engine braking, took the fastest lap and provisional point therefor from him.
With Hamilton closing up, Bottas got the go-get-him order with regard to race leader Leclerc on Lap 28, and the trio of drivers closed to within a second of one another on Lap 31. Bottas boosted past Leclerc with DRS the lap thereafter, and as Hamilton closed the gap, Toro Rosso's Daniil Kvyat and Renault's Daniel Ricciardo had an odd coming-together.
Ricciardo made his trademark late lunge on the inside of Kvyat into a square left corner, but struggling with the R.S.19's "knife edge" brakes, he locked up and went wide. Kvyat, who anticipated that Ricciardo would make the corner, attempted to go around the outside, but found himself blocked by a locked-up Ricciardo. The Aussie sailed on into the runoff area, where he stopped, and Kvyat attempted to make the corner, but ran out of road. Both cars stopped, Kvyat unintentionally blocking Ricciardo from reversing, but the Renault driver didn't realize the Russian was behind him, and backed into the Toro Rosso. Both cars sustained damage that would force their retirement, and Ricciardo was issued a grid penalty for the upcoming Spanish Grand Prix.
As this went on, Hamilton competed his overtake on Leclerc into Turn 1 of Lap 33, Leclerc's medium tires burning out. Ferrari ordered the Monegasque man to let his teammate Vettel past on Lap 34, uncertain Vettel's tires would last long enough if the two had to fight for position. Verstappen posted a new fastest lap as Leclerc at last pulled in for his pit stop for soft tires, reentering the race just behind Gasly. By early Lap 36, thanks to DRS, he was past the Frenchman.
Gasly's recovery drive came to an end on Lap 39, his car crawling to a halt with the report of "lost power." Race control activated the virtual safety car, freezing the race, under which Romain Grosjean retired his Haas. When the condition lifted, Leclerc, distant from his nearest competitors, made a late-race Lap 47 pit stop for soft tires, in a free bid for the fastest lap at no cost to position.
Up front, with the race's final laps ticking away, Hamilton slipped within the one-second DRS range of race leader Bottas at the end of Lap 48. The Finn recovered some time on the track's slower second sector, but Hamilton reeled him back in on the straight on Lap 49, and crossed the detection line scarcely less than a second behind. Aided by DRS, Hamilton ate away at Bottas' lead on the pit straight before encountering the track's slow sector, where Bottas again built his gap back up to just over a second. This time, on Lap 50, Hamilton went wide while trying to exit Turn 16, losing a crucial few tenths that meant no DRS, while Bottas picked up DRS on backmarker George Russell, scooting away with the race lead and eventual win.
DRS let Bottas set the fastest lap of the race on Lap 50, but Leclerc's switch to new soft tires combined with a backmarker-aided tow and DRS let him take the fastest lap and its single point back. He would finish the race fifth, behind Verstappen and podium finishers Bottas, Hamilton, and Vettel, in that order. With his race win that makes up for his heartbreaking result at the 2018 Azerbaijan race, Bottas retook the championship lead from Hamilton, 87 points to the Brit's 86. Vettel edged up to third ahead of Verstappen, 52 points to 51. Leclerc was voted Driver of the Day and remains fifth in the championship with 47 points.
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