It was an afternoon of non-stop drama at the Baku City Circuit, featuring no less than three safety-car periods and a red-flag race stoppage.
Ricciardo might well have sniggered to himself as he crossed the finish line. The Australian had gone from the back to the front after an early pit stop to have debris cleared from his brakes dropped him to 17th place, and was perfectly placed when leaders Hamilton and Vettel had to make unplanned pit stops after a clash under the safety car had left their entente cordiale well and truly broken.
Hamilton had led Vettel easily until the 13th lap when the safety car was deployed for the first time to rescue Daniil Kvyat’s broken Toro Rosso.
No sooner had the racing resumed on the 16th lap than it was sent out again because of debris, after the Force Indias had collided as Esteban Ocon made an aggressive Turn 2 pass on team mate Sergio Perez at the restart.
This time the field bunched behind Bernd Maylander’s Mercedes until the 21st lap, during which time Hamilton had complained repeatedly that it was running too slowly, and then himself had a slow exit from Turn 16 on the 20th lap. Vettel, taken by surprise, hit him in the rear. Clearly believing Hamilton had done it on purpose, the German then pulled alongside and drove his Ferrari into the side of the Mercedes. He would subsequently receive a 10-second stop-and-go penalty from the stewards, something about which Hamilton was very unhappy.
The race was red flagged on the 22nd lap so that all the debris could be cleared away, and teams were allowed to repair their cars. Ocon’s Force India just needed a new right rear wheel and tyres; Perez’s needed a new nose and front wing. At the same time Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari, under attack from countryman Bottas on the opening lap, had various bits of damage repaired. Both Perez and Raikkonen would retire later, each having been penalised for their teams working on their cars outside the fast lane in the pits.
Ferrari also looked at the front of Vettel’s car and fitted a new nose, while Mercedes worked on damage to Hamilton’s diffuser.
When the race was restarted behind the safety car after 23 minutes, Hamilton resumed the lead again from Vettel, as the Williams cars of Stroll and Massa had moved to third and fourth after the Force Indias’ coming together. Ricciardo, meanwhile, had recovered to fifth under the safety cars, and pulled off a stunning move to pass both Williams to take third by the first corner.
Soon it became clear that Hamilton’s headrest had been incorrectly fitted during the red flag action, and after he made a couple of unsuccessful attempts to clamp it down, he was obliged to pit on the 31st lap to have a new one fitted.
He dropped down to eighth, and when Vettel was given his penalty and eventually took it on the 33rd lap after continually asking what he had done that was dangerous, the Ferrari emerged just ahead of the Mercedes.
So Ricciardo was now leading, laughing to himself all the way home to his fifth victory, in what he rightly described as ‘a crazy race’. Stroll kept him honest, pushing as hard as he dared in Williams’ best race since Spain 2012 when Pastor Maldonado scored his unlikely victory, as Bottas, the man who had collided with Raikkonen on the second corner and fallen to last place after pitting to have a punctured tyre replaced, was coming back like gangbusters. The Finn made full use of the ‘get out of jail’ card he’d been given under the safety cars, and just snatched second place from the young Canadian by a tenth of a second on the line.
Behind him Vettel and Hamilton were powering along, the Englishman getting within two-tenths of the Ferrari as they crossed the finish line but having to settle for fifth place as Vettel increased his points lead to 14. No doubt they will have discussions later on.
Ocon also got a reprieve and dragged his damaged car from way down the field to sixth, having run as high as third after the restart before the faster runners overwhelmed him, as Kevin Magnussen brought Haas more points with a good drive to seventh and Carlos Sainz recovered from a spin in Turn 1 on the opening lap to take eighth for Toro Rosso.
Fernando Alonso finally opened McLaren’s account for the season with two points for ninth place and behind him the Sauber drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson collided briefly on their way to 10th and 11th places, with McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne pushing the latter all the way home.
Haas’s Romain Grosjean was the final finisher, as Raikkonen, Perez and Kvyat were joined on the retirements list by Massa with a broken damper, Max Verstappen with oil pressure problems in his Red Bull, Nico Hulkenberg who crashed his Renault, and his team mate Jolyon Palmer whose car broke early.
This was the race of the season, when almost all of the top finishers were drivers who met misfortune early on, though it will undoubtedly be just as well remembered for the clash between Hamilton and Vettel which has soured their previously sporting battle.
Roll on Austria in two weeks’ time!