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For much of the race it looked like the German was on course for his third win in four Grands Prix. But when the Safety Car was called into action, following the two Red Bulls’ high-speed collision, Bottas - having inherited first after delaying his stop for fresh rubber - got a free pit stop and retained the lead.
At the re-start Vettel wasted no time in launching an attack, diving up the inside at Turn 1. But he subsequently locked up and ran wide, allowing Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen to sneak past. And with flat-spotted tyres, Sergio Perez soon picked him off too.
“Obviously without the Safety Car it would have been a different race but there was the Safety Car,” rued Vettel afterwards.
“We had a decent restart and I saw the gap up the inside but unfortunately I locked up.
“Without the lock up and braking at the same point, I think I would have made the corner and it would have turned out to be a good move.
“Obviously it is easy to say not it was not the right move and it didn’t work. I had to try, I tried and it didn’t work.”
Vettel ultimately finished fourth, earning an extra position when Bottas retired after hitting some debris and picking up a rear puncture on the start-finish straight.
But having arrived in Baku with a nine-point lead in the drivers’ standings, Vettel now heads to round five in Spain four adrift of Mercedes rival Hamilton.
However, he was encouraged by the strong pace Ferrari showed across the Baku weekend, relative to Mercedes and Red Bull.
“The most important thing is that we have a good car and we have a car that we can work with in qualifying,” he said. “If we can put at the front we have good pace for the race.
“I am not worried at all as it is quite different to last year in qualifying where most of the year we weren’t competitive enough.
“Then later on in the season in the race we weren’t competitive enough to make things happen but if you are quick enough you can make this happen.
“Now the way the race turned out today for some people good and for some people bad.
“Speak to Valtteri I am pretty sure he is not happy because it was his win. That’s how it goes but I’m not worried because the car is there and we need to make sure it stays there.”