In a season that is turning even the most cynical of heads around to expect a good title fight to the finish, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was by far the most weird and wonderful yet. With what appeared to be an inherited win by Sergio Pérez, the Mexican then had to earn it as Formula 1 partook in its first ever NASCAR-esque sprint race to finish the final two laps of racing.
It was a race strewn with incidents and cars out of place. So just who deserved our coveted Reject of the Race and Infinite Improbability Drive of the Race awards above any other? Well in the end it was tough to decide.
A tie for Reject of the Race in Azerbaijan
That’s right! For the first time since the 2019 Mexican Grand Prix, we have joint-winners. The first, in something of an unexpected repeat of the previous round at Monaco: the Mercedes team. While in Monaco, Bottas was blameless and left out of the award, this time both the Finn and his teammate Lewis Hamilton have been chosen as the clear culprits in Merc’s second dreadful weekend in a row.
At Monaco, the drivers blamed bad strategy and poor pitstops, and at Baku they had only themselves to blame. Lewis Hamilton drew the most limelight with his disastrous move on the final two-lap sprint. Declaring live to the world feed before it began that “this is a marathon, not a sprint”, the seven-time world champion then proceeded to make the only mistake of any driver in those final two laps.
Accidentally flipping his brake bias direction, he proceeded to lock-up after just jumping Pérez on the restart, and lost 2nd place and a sure 18 points that would otherwise have rocketed him back to the front of the championship. It was Hamilton’s first driver mistake in a very, very long time, and a sign that perhaps Red Bull and Max Verstappen – who were cruelly robbed of victory in the dying moments of the race after a tyre failure – are far more in Mercedes and Hamilton’s head that they want us to believe.
Fighting for the championship, Hamilton naturally takes the attention away from just how miserable Bottas’ race (and weekend) was. While Hamilton eventually ran a low-downforce package, Bottas was left on the racetrack carrying extra downforce, and he just never got to grips with the W12 around the Baku City Circuit. After qualifying in 10th place, throughout the race he was never higher than 9th for the duration. His restart after the first safety car, caused by Lance Stroll’s crash, showed how little confidence he found in the car this weekend, as Bottas fell from 9th place to just behind ahead of the Williams and Haas drivers. He finished 12th in the end, in what can be judged as one of the weakest showings in a championship-capable car since Jenson Button’s infamous 2012 Canadian Grand Prix.
Tied with Hamilton and Bottas is the race director Michael Masi. Masi, since his succession to the role in place of the late Charlie Whiting, has overseen an increasing laxity in driving standards, with controversial decision-making regarding on-track safety. Azerbaijan seemed to be the culmination of that: with two major tyre blow-ups on the start straight, Masi worked at a turtle’s pace to eventually bring out the safety car on both counts – 43 seconds for the Stroll incident and more than 80 for the Verstappen crash. The later one even led to Leclerc, in disbelief, asking on the radio to his team as to why the safety car wasn’t deployed, after his engineer told him “we are still racing“.
Drivers were found to be speeding through double-waved yellows, and penalties were not delivered. The race appeared to be over with three laps to go, and Masi chose to run an American-style “green-white-chequers” run, which only encouraged further careless driving and possibly more accidents. The choice to throw the red flag seemed to have been decided by Red Bull as well, with Jonathan Wheatley contacting the race director asking for a red flag to be deployed, in order to evaluate if it was safe to continue racing. The sheer lack of leadership threw a dark shadow on the direction F1 might be heading. Masi’s reign over the sport has seen a stark decline in the safety standards that have been so hard-fought for. The sport can’t forget that safety standards are a everyday fight – it must do what it can to continue to improve them.
The final main candidate, Pirelli, deserve a mention for their continued delivering of dangerous tyre compounds to race weekends. In their 11th year as F1’s sole tyre supplier, it seems the marque have made little to no progress in a decade in developing a successful working tyre that isn’t easy to take advantage of, or conversely so quick to degrade that it is dangerous and causes the kinds of blow-outs seen at Baku. Blame has been cast, but this is hardly the first time that Pirelli’s tyres have done their own part in endangering drivers.
The initial report blamed debris for the incident, but information from La Gazetta dello Sport indicates that it’s possible low tyre pressures ran by the teams were to blame for the incidents. The final report should be published before the French Grand Prix but, whatever the blame ends up being, this is another nail in the coffin regarding Pirelli’s image as F1’s sole tyre supplier.
The happiest podium in a long time together win Infinite Improbability Drive(s) of the Race
In spite of all mentioned above, the result for F1 turned out to be a very positive one. The three drivers on the podium were all pleasant surprises in their own way. For the first time, Pérez strung together a complete weekend, and did exactly what a number two driver should: pick up the results when Verstappen could not. He scored his first podium and his first win for Red Bull, leaping up to 3rd in the standings while Bottas falls to 6th. Crucial for both drivers trying for contract renewals in 2022, and crucial for the constructor’s come season end: Red Bull are looking much stronger than Mercedes at the moment, increasing their lead with the aid of Pérez’s win.
In second place came Sebastian Vettel, who once again produced a drive that displayed his increase in confidence. Just like how nobody expected Mercedes to do worse than at Monaco, nobody expected Vettel to do better than he had at Monaco. Even without the sprint and Hamilton’s mistake, the German had earned a mighty podium on merit, with a good strategy from Aston Martin, and, had the race finished a lap later, he would have won as Pérez’s car failed across the line! This is a far cry from the Sebastian Vettel of 2020, and it may end up as the most unexpected result of the year.
In third place was Pierre Gasly, by now easily the most successful Toro Rosso / Alpha Tauri driver of all time. The Frenchman just seems to thrive in the junior team in a way he was unable to at Red Bull, seemingly having found the perfect environment to consistently challenge and push his chassis above where it deserves to be. He has set a great benchmark for his rookie teammate Yuki Tsunoda (who also had his first solid weekend since Bahrain), and looks to fight for “best of the rest” in the midfield this season.
Fernando Alonso is the driver worthy of the final shout-out for the award. His final restart was the first time this year that we’ve seen the Alonso of old, as he produced four overtakes in two laps to take 6th place in the Alpine. The Spaniard seems to be in a very happy team environment, and his positivity is being reflected in his driving. After everything, he was probably the only driver smiling as much as the top three on Sunday evening!
|REJECT OF THE RACE
|INFINITE IMPROBABILITY DRIVE OF THE RACE
|Mercedes drivers: Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas
|Everyone on the Podium
|Number of votes: 33
|Number of votes: 28
Disclaimer: The ROTR and IIDOTR awards are purely for fun purposes.
The IIDOTR is a democratically-decided award, based on the assumption that, at any moment in time, there is a non-zero probability that even the slowest, most inexperienced and least reliable of underdogs might win the race. That under every rock, there might be a gold nugget. This is the award for that first podium that we all celebrate, for the overtake no-one was expecting, for the underdog’s first win. This is the award, in short, for the driver or team that makes you go “Woah! Where did THAT come from?!”.
The ROTR is a medal of dishonour that celebrates the most noteworthy failure of a Grand Prix weekend, based on expectations heading into the weekend and general performance. That one brainfade, the silliest mistake or the most patent nonsense going on, all that is what being the ROTR is all about.