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INSIDE F1

Azerbaijan.

Does anybody even know where it is?

Well, in simple geographic terms: east of Turkey, on the western coastline of the Caspian Sea, stuck between Russia and Iran.

Enemy territory, if you ask any Westerner.

But that’s before they learn that Azerbaijan is known as “The Land of Fire”, courtesy of burning gas seeping through fissures in the earth; Azerbaijan is oil rich. Immensely rich. Stinking rich.

That’s why the country can afford to host a Grand Prix.

Now, last year’s inaugural race through the streets of the capital Baku was the most boring event on the F1 calendar since Korea and India dropped off Bernie Ecclestone’s list of build-and-discard venues. Nobody, therefore, looked forward to this year’s Azerbaijan GP.

And then we got a cracker on the Caspian coast; the place was set on fire.

RICCIARDO IN TOP FORM

It started with three safety car periods and ended up with Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo winning the fifth Grand Prix of his career; all of them, by the way, from outside a Top Three grid position.

Like starting tenth in Azerbaijan, following a crash in quali, before dropping to 17th after having pitted on lap five, due to debris on the track when two old foes, the Finns Räikkönen and Bottas, clashed yet again – this time on the opening lap, Valtteri bouncing off a kerb straight into Kimi’s car.

The last driver to have won from 17th in the opening laps was Räikkönen himself, after an inspired drive in Japan, in 2005.

In Baku, however, the Kimster had to retire, while Bottas limped back to the pits with a puncture and then recovered, from a lap down and dead last, to finish second.

Third went to 18-year-young Canadian rookie Lance Stroll who, for once, had a clean weekend and, for once, managed to out-qualify experienced Williams team mate, Massa.

An extraordinary result, given the odds.

But not as extraordinary as the events that shaped this very podium.

THE BIG BASH

Out in front, see, we initially had a full-blown battle between title protagonists Hamilton and Vettel, until one of the most bizarre incidents ever on a Grand Prix track.

On lap 20, Hamilton’s Mercedes – still behind the safety car – was rammed up the rear by Vettel’s Ferrari.

Vettel then pulled out of the queue behind the Merc to draw level, gesticulating wildly for what had been deemed, from the German’s perspective, as a brake-test by the Brit.

In the process, Vettel either deliberately steered his car into Hamilton’s, hitting the Merc’s left front wheel hard enough to lift the Ferrari’s right front clean off the ground; or Vettel lost control over his emotions to such a degree that the hand still steering the car blindly followed the direction of his vitriol.

To this day, the German has not offered an explanation of which of the two it was, leaving many an observer to believe that he had driven into the Brit intentionally.

So, was Vettel within his rights to be angry? Did Hamilton brake-test him?

Side-by-side video clips of the same stretch of tarmac filmed from behind the Safety Car conclusively show that Hamilton did exactly the same thing through the same corner at the end of the first Safety Car stint.

On that occasion, Vettel hung back a lot further, which gave Hamilton some room to escape the Ferrari’s attentions, once the safety car had signalled that the race was about to be re-ignited.

This left Vettel open to an attack down the long main straight by Perez’s Merc-powered Force India, a repeat of which the German wanted to prevent the second time around by sticking to Hamilton’s gearbox.

In anticipation, then, of Lewis hitting the gas, Seb jumped the gun, and when it transpired that the Silver Arrow was going nowhere, the Ferrari went straight up its backside.

The German therefore had no right to be angry. The mistake was his, and his alone. As the safety car was about to pull into the pits, the responsibility of setting the pace became Hamilton’s; the responsibility of following safely remained Vettel’s.

Telemetry proved, in any case, that Hamilton never even touched his stoppers.

JUMP-START IN AUSTRIA?

Yet, in defiance of this, Vettel simply persisted with his brake-test accusation. He had to, of course, to justify the assault on Hamilton’s car. The more reporters asked him about the incident, the more Seb acted as if it never happened.

Until the FIA forced him to apologise, a week later.

Now, Sebastian is a lovely guy out of the car: funny, engaging, sharp, and quick-witted.

But, there is a problem inside the car and there is a problem with owning up; it is always somebody else’s fault. In Austria, it turned out to be the race stewards who, according to Vettel, allowed Bottas a jump-start – even though telemetry proved that it was simply a perfect start.

And yes, it would have had a telling effect on the title fight, had the Finn been overly eager off the line. Any kind of penalty would have promoted Vettel (who caught Bottas hand over fist in the tense and exciting closing stages of the Austrian GP) from second to first, meaning an extra seven points in a season when every single one is gold.

Hamilton, of course, was out of contention on Spielberg’s Red Bull Ring, having been demoted to eighth on the grid, courtesy of a replaced gearbox, while Ricciardo had another great race to the podium, after team mate Verstappen and ex-champ Alonso were innocent victims of yet another mad Danni Kvyat rush into the first corner.

And did we say “another great race” by Ricciardo?

LEWIS CONQUERS BRITAIN

Yes, at Silverstone as well, scorching through the field, virtually from dead last, to finish just behind Red Bull partner Verstappen, who had a great early dice with Vettel, who in turn lost his left front tyre on the penultimate lap, minutes after similar bad luck struck Ferrari pal, Räikkönen.

All of this left the way open for an imperious Hamilton – in quali and in the race – to win in front of his adoring home fans and cut the deficit to Vettel to one point.

And in Azerbaijan? What happened to the two top dogs over there, after the Big Bash?

Well, the Hammer had to pit to tighten a loose headrest. And Vettel had to pit to serve a penalty, though he professed not to know what for.

By the time you read this, the Hungarian GP might have been run before F1’s month long summer break can give Sebastian lots of time to figure out the riddle of that penalty in The Land of Fire, where he started one himself.

In fact, if Seb analyses deeply enough, he’ll count his lucky stars that he has not been black flagged in Baku, nor called to task for casting aspersions on the ability of Austrian race officials to differentiate – with the help of telemetry – between jump starts and perfect starts.

By golly, when margins are as small as they are in F1 2017, we have to rely on technology to measure them.

Or would Sebastian Vettel’s eye be a more reliable instrument?

Report by EGMONT SIPPEL | Images © MERCEDES / FERRARI / RED BULL

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