Opinion: the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was the race F1 needed

At the start of the 2017 season, hopes were high that this would be the year F1 found its feet once again. After years of processional racing, unattractive cars and an all-too-corporate image under Bernie Ecclestone and CVC, we were promised a whole new era for the sport, one that would take it back to the spectacle for which it was once renowned.

But when the championship got underway in Melbourne, the product appeared very much different from the initial pitch. The new regulations were slammed for stringing-out rather than levelling the field, and the apparent “sex appeal” of the aggressive new car designs was hard to find beneath an array of shark fins, thumb noses and T-wing appendages. Before long, the optimism surrounding Liberty Media’s acquisition of F1 also faded as its plans for T-shirt cannons at Grands Prix and a 25-race calendar prompted fears of a slide towards an “Americanised” sport.

Such criticisms were then amplified once it became clear the 2017 title fight would not become a legendary battle royale, with the likes of Fernando Alonso, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen held back once again by the inequality between F1’s engine suppliers—nor was the sport’s image helped by the censure directed at the on-track struggles of Jolyon Palmer and Lance Stroll. In short, Formula One has been left more bruised than bettered so far in 2017, and has been in desperate need of a pick-me-up for months.

Baku City Circuit, Baku, Azerbaijan.
Thursday 22 June 2017.
A view of the circuit.
World Copyright: Zak Mauger/LAT Images
ref: Digital Image _56I6235

Strange, then, that it should find that at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Although last year’s inaugural visit to the Baku City Circuit was a success logistically, from a fan’s perspective there was little to commit to memory—the race result was a walk in the park for Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg, and all the usual drama of street circuit racing was absent amidst a glut of run-off areas and spacious 90-degree corners. It seems safe to say that, given the response to 2016’s event, anticipation for F1’s return to the City of Winds this year was pretty muted.

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

But for all the pessimism, the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix turned out to be—in no uncertain terms—a surefire classic. Teammates collided, the title contenders clashed and controversy brewed all over the grid; and all that before the race was won by a driver who crashed out in qualifying, and a teenager in only his eighth Grand Prix start took a maiden podium finish. Looking through the classification tells only half the story of a race that would belong in the same camp as Senna’s Monaco ’84 podium, or Button’s infamous last-to-first win in Canada—and one that might prove exactly the shot in the arm that F1 needs right now.

For starters, the end result was packed full of good news stories. As neutral as we journalists are, it’s hard not to enjoy the sight of Daniel Ricciardo beaming down from the top step of a podium—especially when his victory makes Baku the first time three different constructors have won in a single season since 2013. Furthermore, Valtteri Bottas proved by finishing second that overtaking is clearly not impossible for the 2017 cars, having come back from last place after a collision with Kimi Räikkönen on the first lap.

Just as enjoyable was the return of Williams to the rostrum courtesy of Lance Stroll. The Canadian’s ability to bounce back from being blasted as F1’s worst-ever rookie to becoming its second-youngest podium finisher was astonishing to see, and will surely give the sport’s media something positive to discuss all the way to Austria. It may still be too early to tell if Stroll’s maiden podium will be the first of many or a one-off delivered by fortune, but the maturity he has shown in progressing from first finish to first points to first podium definitely suggests a promising second half of the season now that the wind is in his sails.

And as if that weren’t enough, there was also plenty of celebration at the lower end of the top ten as Fernando Alonso came home ninth to take McLaren’s first points of 2017. Admittedly, a haul of just two championship points is hardly the kind of result McLaren and Alonso fans want to be seeing, but for the two former champions to finally get on the board in such a woeful season can only be a good thing for them and F1 both.

Baku City Circuit, Baku, Azerbaijan.
Sunday 25 June 2017.
Fernando Alonso, McLaren, arrives on the grid.
Photo: Steven Tee/McLaren
ref: Digital Image _R3I3731

But as uplifting as those relative victories were, where F1 really won out in Baku was through the numerous controversies that unfolded on and off track.

When Sebastian Vettel banged wheels with Lewis Hamilton at the second safety car restart, it was almost possible to hear the collective intake of breath from spectators around the world. Although the contact was far from race-ending, the exit of Baku’s Turn 15 had all the hallmarks of a moment that turns a title fight from a fierce-but-friendly rivalry into a veritable powder keg: think Hamilton and Rosberg at Spa in 2014, or Vettel and Mark Webber at the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix. Without shared team management to cool things down between Hamilton and Vettel, the friction will surely only continue to escalate over the coming races, providing F1 with the kind of fiery headlines seen during the days of Senna and Prost—and that would hardly be a bad thing, as I’m sure any racing fan will agree.

And as the title battle rages, there is also a much greater chance for that tension to spill over into the intra-team relationships at Mercedes and Ferrari. As Hamilton chased down Vettel in Baku, he was heard on team radio apparently calling for teammate Valtteri Bottas to call off his own hunt for second place and hold up the Ferrari behind him. It’s hardly the first time Hamilton has intimated he would prefer a more favourable hierarchy within the team this season, and will no doubt be the last; especially as Räikkönen’s slumped position to fifth in the standings with less than half Vettel’s points will surely mean team orders coming into play at Ferrari sooner or later.

Großer Preis von Aserbaidschan 2017, Samstag – Steve Etherington /Mercedes AMG-Petronas

What’s more, although the box office clash at the front has become the dominant talking point from Baku, Hamilton and Vettel were far from the only ones cooking up a storm in the City of Winds on Sunday.

Force India endured what must have been one of its most painful races in a long while on Sunday, as Esteban Ocon tripped over the front wing of Sergio Pérez and turned what might have been a double podium into a sixth place and a retirement respectively. It was an incident that has frankly looked inevitable since their falling out at the last race in Montréal, but for things to come to such a head so soon was surprising, and it will be fascinating to see how the team manages this situation over the next twelve races.

Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson were also in the wars late in the race, rubbing wheels and shedding carbon fibre as they fought for position behind the top ten. Despite not producing the kind of fireworks as Ocon and Pérez, this will surely not help to ease the discord that has apparently arisen in the Sauber garage following media reports of the team favouring Ericsson over Wehrlein—especially as the German reputedly disobeyed a pitwall order to let his teammate through for tenth in the closing stages of the race.

What makes these two intra-team brawls particularly interesting (besides the resulting carnage and curse words) is that they’ve come at that point in the season when drivers’ eyes begin turning towards the negotiating table for 2018. A deteriorating relationship with one’s teammate now will make those summer break offers all the more enticing; factor in also the pointedly visible contact between Alonso’s entourage and the heads at Mercedes and Renault, and Max Verstappen’s continued displeasure with Red Bull’s reliability issues, and we could well have Baku to thank for one of the most engrossing driver markets in recent years.

Pascal Wehrlein (D), Sauber F1 Team. Baku Street Circuit.

Of course, only time will tell if the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix has earned a place in F1’s Hall of Fame. But what can’t be denied is that, at a track lambasted as soulless and bland, we were gifted with a race as compelling as it was unpredictable, one that has set a fire beneath an already-simmering championship contest and generated enough subplots to keep the press supplied with headlines all season long.

And if that’s not just what Formula One needs right now, I don’t know what is.

James Matthews, Deputy Editor

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