2017 has been an interesting year once again for many motorsports fans with highlights galore for their respective series.
From the threat that an LMP2 car could win Le Mans this year due to the high attrition rate of the LMP1’s, to the 3000th Moto GP race to have ever run this season won by Dani Pedrosa, to Mercedes final weekend in DTM there’s been a lot of moments to savour from this year.
Formula 1 has seen it’s fair share of amazing moments too this season. From the two-horse race for the driver’s championship that went so wrong for Ferrari in the end, to the battle between the Force India drivers, and of course the moment that proved even the iceman has a heart in Spain. When Kimi Raikkonen met with a small fan who had been crying previously at seeing his hero crash out of the race.
For me though, there is arguably one moment that stood out above the rest to be crowned my Motorsport Moment of 2017, and that is the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
This race was, for me, the stand out race of the season and the one with everything you could possibly want from a race. The race itself was packed full of drama from the first lap right up till the chequered flag fell, and there was still drama to be had afterwards. I’ll admit, based on the dismally boring race in 2016 I had no real expectation that this race was going to be anything special, I was glad to be proven wrong.
From lights out we had drama in the first corners, with the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas and Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen came to blows once again as they had done previously in Spain a few races ago. Add in Daniel Ricciardo also having to pit due to debris in his break ducts, and what you had were three of the fastest cars on the grid at the back, trying to fight their way through the field.
Because of this we were treated to a masterclass in overtaking. The Baku street circuit on paper does not look like a track that would lend itself to overtaking. It seems to suffer from the same issues all street circuits do, especially Sochi in Russia. The issue is there’s nowhere to overtake really and as a result you end up having a rather processional nature to the race unless a team can do something incredible with strategy. Bottas, Raikkonen, and especially Ricciardo mercilessly proved that you can overtake on this circuit if you’re the last of the late breakers and have the guts to do it. Ricciardo even pulled off the overtake of the season when he went passed Lance Stroll, Felipe Massa, and Nico Hulkenberg into the first corner.
This kind of action would be enough to elevate a race from a mediocre one to a good one, but what set Azerbaijan up in my mind as a great race was the drama that came along with it, and the implications for the championship.
I am of course referring to the incident between the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton, and the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel behind the second safety car. Hamilton and Vettel were running first and second respectively at the end of the second safety car period, throughout which Hamilton had been complaining that the safety car had been going too slow. At turn 16, behind the safety car, Hamilton appeared to go a lot slower that Vettel expected, causing the German to hit the back of Hamilton in his Ferrari.
Seeing red at what Vettel claimed was Hamilton deliberately brake checking him, he waved a hand from his cockpit before pulling up alongside Hamilton. He then appeared to, in a fit of road rage, to turn right into Hamilton deliberately as he threw his hand up in anger. Resulting in the Ferrari and Mercedes bumping wheels.
Enough has been made of the incident already in terms of if the punishment Vettel received was serious enough. And every pundit, reporter, and fan has their view on the incident and if they believed Vettel was right or wrong for bumping into Hamilton like that. And that is yet another debate for another day. What that incident signified for me though once you strip away the controversy, was the real start of the championship.
Up until this point, Vettel and Hamilton’s championship battle has been rather cordial in nature, with both drivers heaping praise on the other during their various victories over the other. It had been a stark contrast to the previous all Mercedes championship battle of the last three seasons, where Mercedes former driver Nico Rosberg and Hamilton were often at each other’s throats. Baku proved that the gloves were now officially off for the championship fight and that the two men were out for glory. The buddy-buddy nature of the championship fight would be no more.
The race delivered right up until the final moments as well with a fight for second on the podium. The Williams of Lance Stroll took advantage of the stop-start nature of the race with the multiple safety cars to gain track position, putting his Mercedes engine to good use on the long straight. Staying out of the drama as best he could in his car, Stroll did run as high as second place during the race. In the closing stages however he was hunted down by the Mercedes of Bottas who had managed a titanic fight back through the field. When Stroll remained ahead of the Mercedes into turn 1 on the final lap of the race, and after the run down into turn 3, many suspected that would be it for the fight for second place on the podium. However, Bottas had one final lunge with DRS on the straight to the chequered flag, and just pipped Stroll at the line for second place in a shock to everyone.
Stroll may have been disappointed to lose the podium, but he did claim his first podium finish, becoming the youngest rookie driver to do so in Formula 1 history. He was also the first Canadian driver to appear on the podium since Jacque Villeneuve at the 2001 German Grand Prix.
Overall the race was pure chaos from start to finish, with drama up and down the field wherever you looked. There’s too much to even mention in this summery alone of all the drama that went on, with several teams including Force India, Sauber, and Toro Rosso having issues created by team mate’s fighting. It would appear the cardinal rule of racing, do not hit your team mate, went out of the window for several drivers during the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. And I’m sure left several teams with some very frosty debriefs that night.
From the team mate on team mate battles, to the overtakes through the field for Riccardo, Raikkonen, and Bottas, the finl gasp for the line finish from Bottas and Stroll, to the controversial drama of Hamilton and Vettel, plus much more. The Azerbaijan Grand Prix deserves the title of race of the season, and my motorsport moment of 2017.