A dry track greeted the 19 drivers as they entered the session and took place in their garages within the pit lane. Three regulars could not make it to the event; both Force India drivers Jarno Opmeer & Cas_0807 as well as Haas’ Dani “DaniMG” Moreno. That allowed reserve drivers clarky_110 and Aressi91 to take place in a Force India and a Haas, respectively.
Dominik NTG2011Freak” Hoffman took provisional pole early in his Ultrasofts-shod Mercedes and a time of 1:36.681 which held on atop the leaderboard until Hoffman himself came back out for his second run to beat his own time with a 1:36.416. The reference did not come under any serious threat right away due to multiple drivers choosing to have a go on the harder Supersofts instead. It took the last minute effort of Toro Rosso’s Flying_F1nn to dethrone Hoffman, setting a lap of 1:36.363 for the pole position honors.
DeagleKiller took 3rd place for Red Bull with a sensational 1:36.599 on the Supersofts, closely followed by the Haas of Lucas “EpicGamer” Blakeley (1:36.626), also on the Supersofts. Williams’ Alex Hanses secured fifth position on third row with a Supersoft time of 1:36.729, Sauber’s Alonso44 took sixth with a 1:36.871 on the Ultras. Championship leader Michael Romanidis also went for a flying lap on the red Supersofts to take P7 (1:36.898) and to be flanked by the Ferrari of Curlywurly7 (1:36.913 – US), winner of the Chinese Grand Prix. Rounding up the top 10; the Mercedes of Ollie Davies (1:37.052 – US) and the Williams of Bernardo “Nardy” Perez (1:37.143). Twice a pole sitter this season, McLaren’s Floris Wijers, qualified 12th on the Supersofts.
The grid was relatively shuffled compared to what we’re used to seeing in this league, but with the forecast calling for rain in the race, it might have been a matter of wet-biased setups creating the unexpected results. Although it must be said, the Baku City Circuit is known to suiting different driving styles than what we usually see.
It was difficult to believe the weather predictions when entering the sunny race session, absolutely cloud free. The 19 drivers behaved nicely as they stormed out of the gates in Azerbaijan. Veteran driver clarky_110 along with Sauber’s Jthorn97 were the first drivers to succumb to the walls of the castle section, both instantly retiring from the race. Flying_F1NN struggled from the get go and was put under pressure by the Mercedes of Hoffman. He made a mistake, clipping the exit wall of Turn 15 and eventually surrendered the lead on the main straight to Hoffman, who led from the Toro Rosso driver, DeagleKiller, EpicGamer, Alex and Curlywurly7 as they started the second lap, the top 10 tightly packed all within a second of each other. Flying_F1NN kept tumbling down, unable to defend against DeagleKiller & EpicGamer’s attacks. The bleeding stopped when Alonso44’s crash in the castle section on Lap Four brought out the Safety Car. Every single driver within the top 10 merged into the pits, as the pack slowly reached the start-finish line lead by the Safety Car, to install four yellow-marked Soft tyres on their cars in a NASCAR-esque scene. It’s the Red Bull of DeagleKiller who won the race out of pit road with Haas’ Lucas Blakeley notably losing three places, rejoining in sixth.
The restart on Lap Six outlined how unfamiliar the field is with safety cars. DeagleKiller, controlling the pace from the moment the pace car was ending, was hit from behind by Hoffman’s Mercedes while waving left and right to heat up his tyres and picked up a five-second stop & go penalty as a result. A bit of chaos ensued further back as it looked like the drivers were confused whether to punch it or not. Ultimately, no race-ending incident occurred. Meanwhile, Hoffman misjudged his braking point for Turn One and ran wide, giving Flying_F1NN a free pass to reclaim P2. Alex, quick on the reactions, was able to take P4 from Curlywurly7 right behind the leaders. The standings as the order settled after the restart : DeagleKiller, Flying_F1NN, Hoffman, Alex, Curlywurly7, Blakeley and Michael.
Hoffman had to come back in for an unscheduled pit stop on Lap Eight from third position to replace the front-wing he had damaged at the safety car restart. Lucas Blakeley went on a supreme charge in the following laps, discarding Curlywurly7 and Alex Hanses early on Lap Eight, then picking off Flying_F1NN on the main straight of the 12th lap, putting him in P3. As for Flying_F1NN, he once more embarked on a downward spiral, losing positions to Alex and Michael. On the 17th lap, as he had just lost another place to the McLaren of Floris, Flying_F1NN crashed his Toro Rosso coming into the castle section, ending his race on the spot as he was running 6th.
The rain started falling down as we reached Lap 18 and it did not take long for the drivers to be struggling for grip as it was visibly going out the window rapidly. The whole field raced to the pits on the next lap as the tarmac had transformed into an ice-like surface for slick tyres as quickly as the sun had left. Haas’ Dominik Hoffman once again was the biggest loser of the pit phase; he had damaged his front-wing by scraping the wall on his in-lap and therefore lost an additional five seconds in the box to replace it. DeagleKiller was still in charge exiting pit lane, leading the all Intermediates-shod field.
With the damp track rendering the racing terribly difficult, the inevitable happened as the castle of Baku collected more victims; Alex misjudged his entry coming into Turn Eight and clipped the barrier. Michael, following the Williams closely, had to swerve to the left but could not avoid contact in the tightest part of the circuit, sending Alex facing the wrong way in an impossible situation. Michael managed his way through but Curlywurly7 & Floris Wijers had no clean way across while Alex was maneuvering forwards & backwards and both hit the Williams car and suffered body work damage. It wasn’t the end of it for the two latest victims as they collided once more exiting Turn 12 but this time terminally for Floris, resulting in a retirement and leaving Curlywurly7 with a severely damaged front-wing and forcing him into another pit-stop.
No time to relax though as moments later Michael sent his McLaren inside the Haas of Blakeley into Turn One of the 21st lap to take P2 but he then got out of shape a couple of corners later and rammed into the wall, completely taking off his front-wing. Nevertheless, he opted to keep going despite his aerodynamics being severely affected in what was already a dire situation. Michael then gradually fell down the order in the remaining five laps of the race to finish seventh. Nevertheless, it was impressive how he dealt with his considerably crippled ride up until the end.
Opportunistic, DeagleKiller took advantage of his avoiding all the carnage and managed the gap to his closest pursuant comfortably until he eventually took the checkered flag for his maiden win of season 16. Blakeley had the win in his crosshairs, he had been closing in on DeagleKiller from the moment he had cleared Michael Romanidis, but it was too little too late in the end, finishing just over a second behind the Red Bull to grab P2, amazing recovery drive for the ace at Haas. The surprise of the day, however, belonged to the other Red Bull driver Tim_Palm who survived throughout the confusion to claim his first points of the season with a 3rd place podium, some 30 seconds behind Blakeley and one place up thanks to Williams’ Alex Hanses’ five-second penalty for track extending. Alex struggled to get to the finish and had to drive with the greatest of care, having damaged his front-wing in the castle section incident earlier. He’ll be grateful for the fourth place and the 12 points, all things considered.
A driver that most certainly deserved better is Dominik “NTG2011Freak” Hoffman at Mercedes. Hoffman had the pace to challenge for the win in both the dry & wet conditions, but one too many pit stops due to front-wing damage neutralized his hopes of a podium. He finished fifth, 10 seconds behind the podium finishers. Both the sixth and eighth positions were decided by less than 0.050s; BigC_019 failed to make up enough ground to overtake the smashed McLaren of Romanidis while OllieD and Curlywurly7 went side-by-side as well in a photo finish moment, favoring the Mercedes by just 0.004s. Reserve driver Aressi91 collected the final point on offer with 10th position after starting from 19th on the grid. A decent return to AOR PS4 F1 for the Finnish competitor.
Bottom line, we were treated with another classic in Baku for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix; a unique location delivering another unique race for the record books. We’ll be back Sunday for the Spanish Grand Prix at the legendary Circuit de Catalunya in a drastic change of scenery, stay tuned!