The Race that was: Azerbaijan 2018
The Azerbaijan GP has quickly built itself a reputation for fast, unpredictable races, and 2018 helped cement that position.
With the high-speed and lower downforce demands in Baku, the Force India cars of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon were in a strong position to challenge for the higher places on the grid.
Come qualifying and the pace was evident – the pair lined up side-by-side in seventh and eighth.
The opening sector of the track is characterised by long straights and 90-degree corners. It can be an opportunity to get alongside other cars and be brave on the brakes, but on the first lap, there’s always the risk of the field bunching together.
That’s what happened to Sergio Perez and Kimi Raikkonen. The pair made light contact, but it was enough to break Checo’s front wing, and a first lap pit stop was needed.
Team-mate Ocon had a good first couple of corners, and he too pulled alongside Raikkonen on the run to Turn 3.
Trying to move around the outside, the Finn’s Ferrari was forced to run wide. Contact was inevitable and Ocon ran into the wall and out of the race.
Even more drama on the opening lap brought out the safety car, and this provided Checo a lifeline.
With the race neutralised, he was able to pit without losing too much time, rejoining towards the back of the field.
With his stop out of the way, Checo’s task was simple: To make his way through the field and claw back as many places as possible.
By lap 39 –and with everyone else having made a stop – he was up to P7, but things were about to get even more interesting.
The Red Bull drivers, who had been battling for most of the race, got a bit too close on lap 40 and collided in Turn 1.
Checo gained two places instantly, and another safety car provided another opportunity to pit for fresh rubber, gearing-up for an attack in the final part of the race.
A few laps later, and race leader Valtteri Bottas was the next to hit trouble, with a piece of debris causing an instant puncture. He too was out of the race.
There was now just one place separating Checo and the podium.
With just three laps to go – aided by his fresher tyres and the slipstream on Baku’s long straights – Checo made a decisive move on Sebastian Vettel to snatch the final podium spot, holding the position to the chequered flag. He remarked after the race that those final laps were the finest of his career – each of them like a qualifying lap.
The race marked the second points-scoring finish of the year for the team and provided a renewed motivation heading into the European-leg of the season.