25 LEADERSHIP POINTS UNDER THE SEA
The world's lowest city sends championship leader Verstappen and reigning champion Hamilton spiralling down the whirlpool.
What does the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix and the 1995 blockbuster "The Usual Suspects" have in common? You only remember the ending. Today's race was by no means a classic, until lap 45 saw race leader Verstappen smash into the main straight wall, cataclysmically setting up a plot-twisting finale more unpredictable than Keyser Söze's identity.
"Suddenly, a predictable ending was at risk of leaving the main characters to face an unnerving antagonist - tyre pressure."
I'm always the first to admit that Baku is one of my least favourite circuits of the race calendar. Its debut in 2017 was as enjoyable as a puncture on the final lap but the ability to overtake somewhat subdued my scepticism in the years that followed. However, I've never been able to shake the feeling that there's necessity for drama amongst the dreariness in order to keep Baku entertaining. Watching the F2 Sprint Races and Qualifying preceding the race left me wondering how many photographers would try to park themselves at Turn 15 after it turned out to be a Venus Fly Trap for most of the cars. Alas, I accepted the possibility of theatrics for today's race.
Initially I thought we were being deceived. Excellent behaviour from the drivers around Turns 3 & 15 left all manner of anticipation at the door. Stroll, who himself appeared to be waiting for a Safety Car to aid the passing of his soon-to-be late pit stop was himself the cause of just that - a surprise tyre blowout seemingly to blame. Suddenly, a predictable ending was at risk of leaving the main characters to face an unnerving antagonist - tyre pressure. Sure enough, lap 45 saw a blowout claim another victim, this time from the race and Championship leader himself, Verstappen. Cruel and contrary to Hamilton's blowout on the last lap of the British Grand Prix last year, who miraculously managed to nurse the car over the line in 1st place.
Red Bull are no strangers to late drama in Baku, after the 2018 coming together of Ricciardo & Verstappen sent both drivers crashing into the run-off area at the end of the main straight. This year however, a little bit of luck was on their side. The restart from the Red Flag in the aftermath of Verstappen's crash once again dished out nerves in abundance as Perez inherited his teammates' lead, only to try and defend a 7-time world champion from taking it once more. Nevertheless, 4 seconds is a long time in F1 and all it takes for everything to change. A strong start off the line from Hamilton looked like a certain P1 as he cut the outside line from Perez, only for a lock-up before the first corner sending him straight on. Perez won. The reigning Champion finished P15.
And so once more Baku demonstrates its ability to show us a blockbuster ending with all the heartache and emotional rollercoasters of a classic race. I do though, continue to be unconvinced that races need crashes to be entertaining - on this, I wholeheartedly remain in the camp that overtaking and racing for the win is far more satisfactory. However, in spite my reluctance I'm beginning to appreciate Baku's unapologetic attempts to twist our expectations more than a Stephen King novel, and the potential significance of this race in the grander story yet to be written this season.