Ricciardo wins crazy Azerbaijan GP as Vettel, Hamilton come to blows

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Daniel Ricciardo survived one of the most chaotic Formula 1 races in recent memory to win the Azerbaijan Grand Prix as championship rivals Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton both hit trouble and came to blows on-track.

A clash between the pair under the safety car acted as the first sign of a needle in their title fight, relations having remained fairly cordial to this point.

Vettel was deemed to be responsible for dangerous driving, receiving a penalty, while Hamilton was forced into an unplanned second stop when his headrest came loose, ruling both title contenders out of contention for victory.

All of this allowed Daniel Ricciardo to battle his way from 10th place on the grid to take Red Bull’s first win of the season, leading home Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and F1 rookie Lance Stroll, who took Williams’ first podium in over a year in just his eighth grand prix start.

Hamilton managed to make a clean getaway from pole position to retain his lead ahead Mercedes teammate Bottas and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, only for contact between the two to leave both cars with damage. In Bottas’ case, a new front wing was required, leaving him to limp back to the pits and fall a lap down.

The incident allowed Vettel to gain two places and run second behind Hamilton, with Sergio Perez moving up to third for Force India ahead of Max Verstappen and Raikkonen down in fifth, the Finn unamused by Bottas’ move at Turn 2.

Hamilton wasted little time in beginning to push at the front, quickly opening up a three-second gap ahead of Vettel, forcing the Ferrari man to respond to stop the gap from growing further.

In the battle behind, Perez was left fighting hard to keep Verstappen back with some bold defensive moves, only to soon be relieved of the pressure when the Red Bull driver suffered an engine problem, causing him to slow and drop all the way to eighth.

The safety car was deployed on Lap 12 to allow Daniil Kvyat’s stricken Toro Rosso to be recovered after an engine issue, sparking the lead drivers to dive into the pits. Hamilton was able to retain his lead ahead of Vettel, but Verstappen was forced to park his car up in the garage, marking his fourth retirement in six races.

The entirety of the field made use of the safety car to pit and switch to the soft tire that would likely take them to the end of the race, with Hamilton heading the field ahead of Vettel and Perez for the restart on Lap 17.

Hamilton bolted early as the safety car peeled in, dropping the surprised Vettel into the clutches of Perez behind. Vettel was able to defend on the inside at Turn 1 and hold the position, but teammate Raikkonen was less fortunate, slipping behind Felipe Massa and Esteban Ocon. The Ferrari driver also lost a chunk of bodywork from his car at Turn 1, prompting the stewards to throw a second safety car to allow the track to be cleared.

After nearly catching the safety car up on the first restart, Hamilton went to the other extreme the second time around, bunching the field right up. The Briton slowed so much that Vettel bumped into the back of him at Turn 15, before going side-by-side and raising his hand to complain. The pair touched again, Vettel appearing to drive towards Hamilton in a deliberate move.

When the race returned to green, Hamilton streamed away at the front while Vettel, running with damage, was left to defend his position from Massa, Perez and Ocon behind.

Massa tried to pass on the inside and moved up to third, while Ocon dived past Force India teammate Perez at Turn 3 and made contact, leaving both cars with damage. Ocon pitted and got a new front wing before going back out, but Perez was less fortunate, returning to his garage.

The safety car was deployed for the third time as debris was cleared, albeit too late for Raikkonen, who sustained damage to his car after running over bodywork at Turn 1, forcing him to head to the garage.

With debris strewn across the track, the FIA race stewards opted to throw a red flag so that the marshals could properly clear it, leaving all of the cars to return to the pit lane and queue up. Both Vettel and Hamilton were left in deep conversation with their teams regarding their clash, with the stewards doing much the same, confirming the incident was under investigation.

As teams waited for the race to resume behind the safety car, Ferrari and Force India were both able to complete rapid repairs on Raikkonen and Perez’s cars to get them back into the race, albeit two laps down on the field.

Around 25 minutes after the red flag was thrown, the race resumed behind the safety car with Hamilton and Vettel leading the way. Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll made the most of the madness to rise up to third and fourth respectively for Williams, while Ricciardo sat fifth for Red Bull.

Ricciardo was the big mover on the restart – which was absent of contact – to move from fifth to third ahead of both Williams drivers. Having reported a problem on his car, Massa began to lose multiple positions, while Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg clipped the wall and damaged his car, resigning both to retirement.

As the stewards continued to mull over his clash with Vettel, Hamilton began to pull away at the front once more, running over two seconds clear of his rival as the race passed half distance. His race took a twist when his head rest started to come loose, forcing the Briton to try to push it back down while running at 200 mph on the main straight. Unable to clip it back in fully, Hamilton was left to manage as best he could to keep the head protection in place.

Not wishing to risk a safety breach, Mercedes had no choice but to pit Hamilton from the lead and fit a new headrest, dropping the Briton all the way back to eighth place. However, just as he came in, the stewards announced that Vettel had been hit with a 10 second stop/go penalty for dangerous driving, pulling the race away from the Ferrari man just when it had been presented handed to him.

Vettel served his penalty and emerged back out on-track in seventh, one place ahead of Hamilton, with both drivers unhappy with the sanction that had been handed out. All of this left Ricciardo leading from Stroll and Magnussen, with Ocon fourth and Bottas – who was a lap down early on – fifth with 15 laps to go.

Magnussen was powerless to stop the Mercedes-powered cars from passing, with Bottas also overhauling Ocon to take third. Vettel and Hamilton were also able to slip past Magnussen before coming across Ocon, the Force India being made light work of, making Bottas the next target with six laps to go, who himself was catching Stroll at a rapid rate of knots.

At the front, though, Ricciardo had no such dramas to contend with. After 51 crazy laps in Baku, the Red Bull driver crossed the line to record the fifth victory of his grand prix career and the team’s first of the season.

Bottas denied Stroll second place at the line, finishing just 0.1 seconds ahead after a drag race at the finish, but the Canadian was nevertheless able to take third for Williams in just his eighth grand prix start, acting as a remarkable result for the rookie.

Vettel’s fightback from his penalty saw him finish fourth and extend his championship lead to 14 points over Hamilton, who was left to settle for fifth place.

Esteban Ocon took sixth for Force India – a good result given his clash with Perez and damage – while Kevin Magnussen took seventh for Haas ahead of Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr.

Fernando Alonso was another driver to benefit from the race of attrition, crossing the line ninth to take McLaren’s first points of the season and end its point-less run. Pascal Wehrlein rounded out the points for Sauber in P10.

Formula 1 returns in two weeks’ time with the Austrian Grand Prix in Spielberg.

Bottas feels at home at Mercedes as a challenger, not No. 2

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Valtteri Bottas feels like he finally belongs at Mercedes, and that is not as a support driver to Lewis Hamilton.

The Finnish driver has exceeded expectations since joining from Williams as an emergency replacement for Nico Rosberg, who dramatically retired days after winning last year’s Formula One championship.

“I feel very much part of the team, I feel I can definitely perform at my best level,” Bottas said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “(There is) plenty more to come.”

The widely held perception was that Bottas, who had never won a race before this season, was clearly arriving as the No. 2 behind Hamilton, a three-time F1 champion.

Yet at the halfway point of the 20-race season, Bottas is in third place overall, 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. That puts him within touching distance.

Bottas won in Russia and Austria, and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Britain. With four straight podium finishes, he has good momentum for the Hungarian GP, the last race before a month-long summer break.

If not for his failure to finish the Spanish GP in May, Bottas could be even closer to Hamilton and Vettel.

“I feel like I am getting up to speed now. In a way I hope there wasn’t a break,” Bottas said Thursday. “I always set targets higher. I didn’t expect myself to be behind (Hamilton) all the time. I’ve shown it is possible to battle and show my skills.”

Asked if he thinks he can win the title, the 27-year-old Bottas says “everything is wide open,” adding “I believe I can fight for the pole (position) here.”

The twisting nature of the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) Hungaroring circuit may favor Ferrari more than Mercedes, however.

Mercedes struggled at this season’s Monaco GP, which is a similarly tight-turning track where overtaking is much harder. Vettel won in Monaco from pole, while Bottas was fourth for Mercedes and Hamilton managed only seventh spot.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Monaco,” Bottas said. “I think it will be a good test for our car, we’re expecting a close battle.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Formula 1’s final race before the summer break takes place this weekend with the Hungarian Grand Prix from the Hungaroring in Budapest.

It’s a busy time of year and a highly important weekend on the calendar, with the two championship combatants only separated by one point and all the silly season talk about 2018 heating up – particularly with the two-day young driver test set to run on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week after the race.

And with the confirmation the Halo device is set to be introduced next year, what are the drivers thoughts on that?

All that makes for ideal timing of this weekend’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with Will Buxton checking in from the ground in Hungary.

Here’s the pre-race episode, below.

Drivers divided over F1 halo cockpit device

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) The “halo” cockpit head protection system that will be mandatory on Formula One cars next season protects drivers from the potentially fatal impact of objects like a loose wheel traveling at up to 225 kph (140 mph).

Motor sport’s governing body, FIA, has been looking at ways to improve cockpit protection and limit the risk of head injuries, after French F1 driver Jules Bianchi died in July 2015 and British IndyCar driver Justin Wilson died a month later.

“The halo will become the strongest part of the car, a secondary wall structure (along with the helmet) and can take about 15 times the car’s weight,” FIA safety director Laurent Mekies said at a news conference Thursday. “We know that our resistance against small objects has stepped up.”

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – JULY 27: FIA Race Director, Charlie Whiting and Laurent Mekies, FIA Deputy Race Director and Safety Director talk in a press conference regarding the halo device during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 27, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Drivers remain divided over the move.

The halo design forms a semi-circular barrier around the driver’s helmet in the front half of the cockpit, protecting against debris without completely closing the cockpit. When first tested ahead of 2016, drivers were split as to whether they liked it with some – such as three-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton – criticizing it on aesthetic grounds.

Tests were done from the front and side of the car with a loose wheel weighing 20 kilograms. Researchers took in various factors: car-to-car contact, car-to-environment contact and external objects, such as a wheel. They also analyzed real-life accidents, including those with fatalities.

In terms of manufacturing design, FIA race director Charlie Whiting said “it’s going to be a one-part (piece) made by one company, so they all have to fit the same one.”

The device is expected to weigh about 8 kilograms, Whiting said. The manufacturer has yet to be decided, although several companies have been contacted. Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas both expressed concern that the extra weight will impact driving, particularly on cornering speeds.

Other safety devices were considered before the halo was approved by the FIA last week.

At the British Grand Prix two weeks ago, a transparent open canopy system constructed using polycarbonate, and known as the “shield,” was tested at Silverstone by four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel.

The Ferrari driver was critical.

“I wasn’t a big fan of the shield,” Vettel said. “For sure you need to get used to the halo, but at least it didn’t impact on the vision.”

Bianchi died at the age of 25, several months after massive head injuries sustained at the Japanese GP in October 2014.

Bianchi’s accident at Suzuka occurred at the end of the race in rainy, gloomy conditions, when his Marussia team car slid off the track and ploughed into a crane picking up the Sauber of German driver Adrian Sutil, who had crashed at the same spot one lap earlier.

Wilson died in August 2015, a day after being hit on the helmet by debris from another car at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

“We believe (the halo) would have changed dramatically the outcome of the accident,” Mekies said.

Vettel, who emotionally dedicated his 2015 win at Hungary to Bianchi, said the change was justified.

“We would all take it, to help save his life. We can’t turn back the clock,” the German driver said. “But knowing something is there that would help us is stupid to ignore. Overall it’s supposed to help us, so that’s what we should remember.”

While Hamilton and others have been critical of the halo’s appearance, Vettel championed it.

“Times are changing and moving forward,” Vettel said. “It helps us in the car in case something goes very wrong.”

Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso is also in favor.

“If we could go back in time and save lives we would all be happy,” the Spanish driver said. “That’s the first and only thing we should talk about. The aesthetics I don’t care too much (about).”

Several drivers disagree.

“Doesn’t look too good,” Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg said. “Not sure that this additional protection is necessary because all the other areas (of safety) are improving.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, and Haas drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean are also against it.

“I didn’t like the visibility and the thing in front of you, it’s not great,” the 19-year-old Verstappen said. “I don’t think you will lose the wheel very easily (anyway) and when there are parts flying around the car it’s not going to protect you. So I don’t know why we need it.”

Magnussen took a sarcastic tone.

“F1 cars aren’t meant to be ugly. That is the reason that a Ferrari is more exciting than a Mazda,” the Danish driver said. “I think there is a limit where it becomes too safe to be exciting. We could make the cars go 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour and it would be boring.”

Grosjean said “it was a sad day for Formula 1 when it was announced, and I am still against it.”

Sergio Perez wants 2018 F1 contract secured by Spa

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Sergio Perez is keen to swiftly define his Formula 1 future and secure a contract for next season by the time the paddock reconvenes in Belgium at the end of August after the summer break.

Perez has been one of the stand-out drivers in F1 this year, sitting seventh in the drivers’ championship as the leading midfielder behind those racing for Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull.

The Mexican’s future has become a regular talking point during F1’s ‘silly season’, with links to Ferrari being thrown about for 2018 as it mulls over Kimi Raikkonen’s position.

Force India has been punching well above its weight in F1 this year, much to Perez’s delight, and he hopes to have a new contract with the team sorted for next year within the next month.

“I think the team has been moving forwards every year. Although last year we achieved the same position which we have now which is fourth, I think we have consolidated that fourth place,” Perez said.

“I think the team is moving forwards; there is a lot more interest in terms of sponsorship into the team, more investment but it’s not easy to make the next step with the big boys, with the big teams, it’s not easy.

“In terms of my future, I just hope that once I come back to the next race, after the summer break, I can have a new contract.”

When asked if he meant a new contract with Force India, Perez said: “That would be good you know, but you never know what will happen.”