The 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix turned into a sensational race whatever angle you look at it from. Daniel Ricciardo coming from an early pit-stop, near retirement due to brake issues and leaving him second last, to have a complete reversal of fortunes to win comfortably. Valtteri Bottas, like Ricciardo having to come from the back of the field after a Lap 1 collision with Kimi Raikkonen, stole 2nd place on the line from…Lance Stroll of all people, benefiting from the chaos to claim a simply incredible debut podium finish, becoming the youngest podium finisher in Formula One history at 18 years and 239 days old in the process. Lower down the field, the Force India pairing of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon once again having dramas between each other for the second race in succession, and a McLaren-Honda scored points. Huzzah! (#HondaOut)
But this race won’t be remembered for Ricciardo’s brilliant comeback. Nor will it be for Stroll’s moment to shine. It will be remembered for the incident between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, two perennial rivals that have seemingly finally been able to battle head-to-head despite them both being in their 11th full season in the sport. When Vettel collided with Hamilton as the safety car was coming back into the pits, there was a sense of provocation, a belief that mind-games were being played with a ‘brake-test’ from Hamilton’s part, and an incensed fury from Vettel’s part that resulted in him gesticulating beside Hamilton’s car before bumping wheels, inadvertently or not is up to personal opinion.
But this wasn’t the case at all. The FIA decided Vettel was entirely at fault for the collision, deeming it to be ‘dangerous driving’ and resulted in a 10-second Stop and Go penalty for the Ferrari driver, ending any chance of a crucial victory that would’ve bolstered his championship hopes. Not only that, but the FIA after the race released telemetry of Hamilton’s speed at the time of the incident, showing there was no reduction in speed, no ‘brake-test’, that Vettel was adamant about. A damning justification that left Vettel with what looked like the entire F1 community at odds with him.
But we’ve seen this before, also involving Hamilton. When Nico Rosberg made contact with Hamilton at the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix, not only did it end Hamilton’s race but it also made Rosberg a scapegoat. It made a friendly rivalry between team-mates turn into “war”, as if it became a no-holds barred street fight where it was every man for himself, or at least that’s what the British media made it out to be. Despite Rosberg being his normal charming self for the remainder of his career, there was always a small minority that branded him a cheat, still not forgiven for that moment despite it having zero bearing on the final championship standing.
You can’t help but get the same feeling from the Hamilton-Vettel collision that we just saw in Azerbaijan. Two seemingly friendly rivals turned into bitter enemies on the brink of breaking point despite it being nothing more than an error of judgement from Vettel. We’re also seeing the same characteristics from the British media, desperate to create a narrative from this moment and paint Vettel as the heel, and fuelled by Hamilton’s post-race comments where he claimed Vettel “disgraced himself”.
The reaction from fans has only reflected this portrayal. Many during the race were calling for a disqualification for his actions, although the reluctance by race stewards to issue drivers with the black flag (We haven’t seen one for dangerous driving since 2005) suggests this was more complicated than many people think, while many more were demanding Vettel receive a race ban for these actions. While the FIA have further issued Vettel with 3 penalty points, risking a ban from the British Grand Prix should he commit similar actions at the next Grand Prix in Austria, this still hasn’t been well-received by the die-hard Hamilton fans, perhaps reminiscing over the rivalry between Hamilton and Rosberg in the previous 3 years.
Vettel deserved his penalty at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, as well as the 3 penalty points applied to his licence. It may have been an error of judgement, but it was a massive over-reaction to what he believed was a misdemeanor by Lewis Hamilton. But if you are still wishing for a friendly rivalry between the pair, like the one that Hamilton himself was hoping for earlier in the season, it’s fair to say that is very much gone away. Even if the two are together in a positive atmosphere, the media spin will always relate back to that moment in Azerbaijan, where the ‘boiling point’ was at its peak temperature and when it got ugly. We’ve got our narrative for the rest of the season, perhaps longer.