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Smith: Baku, Ricciardo, Stroll shine as Vettel/Hamilton title fight ignites

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Almost 24 hours have passed since the checkered flag fell in Baku, yet the dust shows few signs of settling after one of the most explosive Formula 1 races in recent memory.

It was inevitable though, wasn’t it? The chummy, cordial, sickly-sweet duel between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel for this year’s F1 drivers’ title had to blow up at some point.

And boy, did it blow up.

This was a race that had it all. A far cry from some of the more processional races that have been rather regular in recent times, the inaugural Azerbaijan Grand Prix will be remembered for all of the right reasons (well, unless you’re Sebastian Vettel); a defining moment for the 2017 season and the new era of F1 that started in Australia.

THE INEVITABILITY OF SEB VS. LEWIS

It was bound to happen in the end. There was no way that a direct fight between the two of the finest racers of F1’s current generation could not descend into chaos at one point.

It’s perhaps surprising that we made it eight races before the first cracks in the Gatsby-esque “well done old sport” camaraderie between Hamilton and Vettel began to show.

This will be looked back on a key flashpoint in the title fight for 2017 and the wider rivalry between Hamilton and Vettel. Baku was where things got nasty.

The incidents themselves were pretty cut and dry. Anyone watching could see what happened.

The first contact between them coming out of Turn 15 was a result of Vettel misjudging how Hamilton was controlling the pack. With the safety car’s lights going out and peeling away, Hamilton became the defacto safety car. He had every right to go as fast or as slow as he liked.

Vettel was expecting Hamilton to accelerate out of Turn 15, perhaps thinking the Briton would bolt early as he did on the first restart. Hamilton instead kept at a steady pace, with the FIA data confirming as much, leading to the contact between the pair.

Vettel was unhappy and frustrated. That was perhaps justified. But what happened next was not. Not one bit.

Drawing alongside Hamilton, Vettel wanted to make his feelings known. He raised his hand in complaint, which may have been enough to get the Mercedes driver to speed up. After all, he needed to stay ahead as the lead car.

The swipe that Vettel then made towards Hamilton was, as explored by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton in this thread, a scare tactic. It was meant to spook his rival. But he got it wrong and the two made contact.

The FIA’s response was to give Vettel a 10-second stop/go penalty, the strongest in-race sanction barring disqualification. It dropped Vettel back down the order and ended his win hopes, yet because of Hamilton’s unplanned pit stop to fit a new headrest, the German actually jumped ahead of his rival.

The end result should not be part of the context of the incident, though. Hamilton losing his headrest and dropping behind Vettel was totally separate and, frankly, just bad luck for the Mercedes man. The two incidents were unconnected.

Would Hamilton have been so aggrieved had he won the race and regained the lead of the championship from Vettel? One would hope so. Because it was a dangerous incident that, as Hamilton told NBCSN after the race, sent out totally the wrong message to young drivers coming through the ranks.

You do not, even just to spook your rival, deliberately drive towards another car like that under the safety car.

Why no disqualification? A report from Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport after the race suggested there were fears it could impact the title fight. Exclusion may have been a strong response, but it would certainly have sent out a clear message. Perhaps this was a missed opportunity to do exactly that.

Instead, Vettel and Hamilton will now be left to stew over it for a couple of weeks before heading to Austria. Once both drivers have cooled off, hopefully proper, adult talks can take place in a bid to clear things up.

We may like a bit of heat between sporting rivals, but respect is a rarer, more precious thing. It is something that was severely lacking in Baku.

Hopefully we can then see them settle things out on-track the proper way, just as they have done for much of the season so far.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 25: Race winner Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing celebrates his win in parc ferme during the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 25, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

“BUTTER MY BUTT AND CALL ME A BISCUIT”

Daniel Ricciardo rarely disappoints when it comes to a good quote, with the words of wisdom above gracing his Twitter account in the aftermath of the race. Frankly, we couldn’t have put it any better.

Ricciardo’s charge from P10 on the grid to victory was an unlikely one, requiring him to negotiate a number of pitfalls that caught out his rivals – and, as proven by his qualifying crash on Saturday, had already bitten him.

Ricciardo attacked the race with his usual gusto and bravado, with the race-winning move – albeit just for third at the time – being a brave double-pass on the Williams pair of Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll into Turn 1 after the safety car restart.

Ricciardo has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. All five of his F1 wins have come from starting outside the top three, and all have required a good dose of fortune. Alas, a win is a win – and when the front-runners falter, more often than not it is Ricciardo who is there to pick up the pieces.

Ricciardo’s victory also means that we have more than two teams winning races in a season for the first time since 2013, when Red Bull, Mercedes, Lotus and Ferrari shared the spoils. Variety is never a bad thing.

The top officials at Red Bull are under no illusions about the team’s current standing in F1. It still remains the third-fastest team and, under normal conditions, would stand no chance of beating Ferrari or Mercedes in a straight fight.

But that doesn’t devalue Ricciardo’s win at all. Instead, it makes it all the more impressive that he was there to capitalize on the opportunity that came his way.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 25: Second place finisher Valtteri Bottas driving the (77) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO8 crosses the line ahead of third placed Lance Stroll of Canada driving the (18) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW40 Mercedes during the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 25, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

A FLYING FINNISH FOR BOTTAS

While the majority of the plaudits after the race lay with Ricciardo and Lance Stroll (who we’ll come onto), perhaps the greatest fightback of all in Baku came courtesy of Valtteri Bottas.

The Finn tangled with Kimi Raikkonen at Turn 2, sustaining a puncture that left him limping back to the pits for repairs and a lap down on the field. The race already appeared to have been turned into an extended test session.

But Bottas dug deep. He was able to get a wave-by under the first safety car, and then put the hammer down to pick his way through the field as those ahead began to lose their heads.

The drag race with Stroll to the line was dramatic, with Bottas emerging just 0.1 seconds ahead to clinch second place and salvage a big result from a pretty disastrous race for Mercedes, all things considered.

So what more can Bottas do to secure a contract renewal and ease the current “uncomfortable situation” he is in?

Frankly, nothing. He’s doing all he can. If the team wants harmony and stability, then surely keeping Bottas for 2018 and beyond is the way to do that.

If the appeal of Alonso, Vettel (well, maybe not after this weekend…) or Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon is a greater pull for the team, then it isn’t for want of trying on Bottas’ part he would depart, that’s for sure.

He has everything it takes to race for a title-winning team. Baku proved that.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 25: Lance Stroll of Canada and Williams celebrates his first podium and finishing in third place during the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 25, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

STROLL COMES GOOD – FINALLY

Lance Stroll’s charge to third place in Baku may have come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t have.

He was, after all, F1’s best-prepared rookie since Lewis Hamilton thanks to an extensive test program prior to his debut, and came off the back of a record-breaking Formula 3 title win.

But after a raggedy first six races in F1, the critics were beginning to question Stroll’s readiness for grand prix racing, with his charge to ninth in Canada going some way to proving a point.

Sure, his rise has been accelerated by funding from his billionaire father, Lawrence, but the talent has to be there to back it all up. We saw that talent in Baku.

Stroll drove a clean, trouble-free race that would have seen many other rookies lose their cool at the chaos that was unfolding around them. The Williams FW40 is a quick car, and while he couldn’t keep Bottas back at the end, P3 was nevertheless a remarkable result for the young Canadian.

The catalyst for all of this may have been a revised preparation program for Baku. Following his run to his first points finish in Canada, Stroll stayed out in North America to complete a private test at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas with a 2014-spec Williams, and has also been working with a new driver coach.

All of this appears to have calmed the 18-year-old. Now with his first points and podium chalked up, Stroll will hopefully be more at ease. He doesn’t have a point to prove anymore. Perhaps that will yield more displays like the one in Baku on Sunday.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – JUNE 23: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB13 TAG Heuer on track during practice for the European Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 23, 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

WELL DONE BAKU

The trackside message of “Well Done Baku!” that ultimately turned into a meme during F1’s first visit to Azerbaijan actually rang true in the wake of this year’s race: the crazy Baku City Circuit delivered, and then some.

The track is one of the maddest on the F1 calendar, featuring a mix of slow-speed sections, two high-speed complexes – oh, and a castle. It’s the kind of thing you might find in Mario Kart.

It was all said prior to the 2016 race when a crazy event featuring multiple safety cars and crashes galore was expected, only for a disappointingly straightforward race to set in. This time around though, Baku threw up the madness that has been expected.

Much like the 2012 European Grand Prix at Valencia, yesterday’s race proved that street circuits can throw up some spectacular results. For an event that seemed an odd addition to the F1 calendar at first, Baku has found a good groove with its second running.

So, well done Baku. You’ve given us a race that will be looked back on in years to come. Good on you.

IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

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With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things need to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

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