BAKU, Azerbaijan — Luck shone on Lewis Hamilton as he returned to the top of the Formula One drivers’ championship Sunday with victory at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
With Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari clearly faster than Hamilton and his Mercedes, it took a crash, a mistimed lunge and a puncture to elevate Hamilton to the top spot in Baku.
Vettel led for much of the race, but was stuck in second behind Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas when a crash between the two Red Bulls brought out the safety car.
On the restart, Vettel lunged for the lead but could not keep his car on the racing line at the exit of the next corner and instead lost places. Soon afterward, Bottas’ right-rear tire picked up a puncture, ending his race and elevating Hamilton to first.
"Very mixed emotions from today," Hamilton said. He was late to the podium celebrations because he went to speak with Bottas, who "deserved" the win. "I wouldn’t have got by him in those laps if he hadn’t had that tire blowout," Hamilton added.
Despite taking the standings lead for the first time this season, Hamilton said the win didn’t mark a turning point in the fight with Vettel and Ferrari.
"I think Ferrari still have the upper hand," he said. "This year, they’ve really outperformed us most of the time. We’ve been able to just hold onto them in the race, but our qualifying pace isn’t up to theirs."
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen claimed second place after having dropped to 14th following an early collision, but said he wasn’t satisfied with his drive and he had struggled to get the best out of the Ferrari.
Sergio Perez overtook Vettel after his mistake on the restart, and held off the four-time world champion to claim third place. It was his and Force India’s first podium since 2016.
"It was a roller coaster of a race," Perez said. "The last two laps, they were the best two laps of my life."
Vettel said he was "very upset," adding that "I had a chance to win and I tried. It just didn’t work."
The two Red Bulls driven by Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo fought all race for fourth place. After several dramatic near-misses, they collided on lap 40 when Ricciardo — the winner of the last race in China — ran into the back of Verstappen under braking at the first corner. That sent them both off the track. Both received reprimands from the stewards.
Bottas had been left in the lead when first Hamilton, then Vettel, stopped for fresh tires. He would have had to stop soon but for the Red Bull crash, which allowed Bottas to pit and keep the lead.
Romain Grosjean crashed under the safety car on lap 42, sliding into the wall while weaving in an attempt to heat up his tires. That delayed the restart, and when it came Vettel charged down the inside of Bottas but couldn’t slow enough to make the corner and went onto a runoff area.
Hamilton leads Vettel by four points, followed by Raikkonen and Bottas. Ricciardo’s second retirement this season leaves him fifth, 33 points off the lead. The Australian has said he could leave Red Bull next season in search of a car capable of challenging for the title.
After a start in cool, windy conditions that made it hard to get enough grip, the safety car was out almost immediately on lap 1 as several cars collided in the middle of the pack.
Sergei Sirotkin ran into the back of Perez, causing contact between several other cars. That in turn left Fernando Alonso limping back to the pits with two punctures and Sirotkin out of the race. The Russian has been given a three-place grid penalty for the next event in Spain.
The drama continued at the next turn, where Raikkonen’s aggressive lunge at Force India’s Esteban Ocon plunged Ocon into the wall and out of the race. Raikkonen needed to pit for a new nose and his chances of a podium finish appeared over.
Renault’s Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg briefly stormed past both Red Bulls into fourth and fifth, but Sainz lost his spot when he pitted, while Hulkenberg’s race ended with a slide into the wall on lap 11.
Vettel was fourth after failing to retake third spot from Perez.
Sainz climbed back into fifth thanks to the turmoil ahead of him, claiming Renault’s best finish since Vitaly Petrov was fifth in Canada in 2011. Charles Leclerc was a career-best sixth for Sauber.
The McLarens of Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were seventh and ninth, sandwiching Lance Stroll’s Williams.
Tenth place for Brendon Hartley in the Toro Rosso was the best result by a New Zealander in F1 since Chris Amon took his final career points in Spain in 1976.