Defending world champion Lewis Hamilton claimed his first win of 2018 on Sunday and took over as leader of the title race when he triumphed in a dramatic, crash and incident-strewn Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
The 33-year-old Briton managed to steer his Mercedes through a chaotic race and capitalize on his team-mate Valtteri Bottas’ misfortune when a late puncture scuppered the Finn’s chances.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel had looked set to turn pole position into a victory until a second Safety Car intervention left him lunging to pass Bottas and locking-up.
The German finished fourth behind the triumphant Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari and Mexican Sergio Perez of Force India.
The race was heavily punctuated by accidents which included one in which the two Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen collided while fighting for fourth place in the closing stages.
Hamilton leads the world championship on 70 points, four clear of Vettel.
Carlos Sainz finished fifth for Renault and Charles Leclerc sixth for Sauber, his first points finish.
Fernando Alonso finished seventh for McLaren ahead of Canadian Lance Stroll of Williams, Stoffel Vandoorne in the second McLaren and New Zealand’s Brendon Hartley of Toro Rosso.
Lewis Hamilton issued a one-line response to Bernie Ecclestone’s claim that he has lost his edge by telling Formula One’s former supremo to judge him at the end of the season.
Hamilton will line up behind Sebastian Vettel for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix after the Ferrari driver edged out his rival to secure a hat-trick of consecutive pole positions.
Hamilton’s return to the front row, his first appearance there since he took pole at the season-opening rubber in Australia, went some way to halting a below-par run for the defending champion which had seen him out-qualified by Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas at the last two races.
The British driver, 33, must beat Vettel on Sunday to prevent his losing streak from stretching to seven rounds, and in excess of 200 days.
Hamilton’s misfiring start to the new campaign led F1’s chairman emeritus Ecclestone, here in Baku this weekend, to proclaim that the four-time world champion is disillusioned.
“He doesn’t seem to be the Lewis that he was before,” said Ecclestone on Friday.
“When you talk to him, and see the way he acts, he’s not the racer he was. Maybe he is just getting a little bit tired of travelling and is fed up.”
Ecclestone’s remarks appeared to touch a nerve. Hamilton, who is yet to sign an extension to a Mercedes contract which expires at the end of the year, recorded a video on Instagram in the hours before qualifying to relay his mood.
The post was accompanied with the message: “In all honesty, I shy away from cameras and have never been super comfortable in front of a camera, but I woke up this morning wanting to grow and change that and try to communicate better with you.
“So much gets lost in translation and I refuse to believe that it’s just how it is.”
After finishing 0.179 seconds shy of Vettel, Hamilton, with the peak of his Mercedes cap as low on his forehead as his mood, then passed up the option to respond at length to Ecclestone.
In nine words, he simply said: “We will see [if Ecclestone is right] at the end of the year.” It was down to Vettel, sitting to Hamilton’s left, to surmise how his rival may be feeling.
“There are a lot of people that have an opinion every time I am in the car,” Vettel said. “Sometimes they are right and sometimes they are not.
“The most important thing is you know who you are, and then you can listen less and less to what is going on, not be distracted, and simply enjoy your racing.”
Vettel’s final words appeared to bring a nod of approval from his championship rival.
Hamilton is only nine points behind Vettel with 18 races still to go, but the Ferrari, in the German’s hands at least, is proving to be this year’s dominant force.
“They are the number one team to beat at the moment,” Hamilton said. “We knew they would be quick here. It is hard to overtake but we will give it everything we have got.”
Bottas will start behind Hamilton with the Red Bull duo of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen fourth and fifth.
McLaren’s Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne qualified a lowly 13th and 16th on yet another dismal weekend for the British team.
Ferrari‘s championship leader Sebastian Vettel smiled with relief Saturday after he had claimed pole for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix ahead of a revived Lewis Hamilton for Mercedes in a crash-strewn qualifying session.
The German, who leads the defending four-time champion by nine points after three races this season, clocked a best lap in one minute and 41.498 seconds to sweep to the prime starting spot.
It was an emphatic demonstration of his and Ferrari’s pace after he had struggled in practice on Friday. It was his third consecutive pole position and the 53rd of his career.
“In the end, I knew I had the car I wanted and it did what I wanted… The first lap was good and it was good enough in the end so I am happy,” said Vettel.
Hamilton was 0.179 seconds adrift after an improved showing that left him ahead of Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, Daniel Ricciardo and his Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen.
“That was close,” said Hamilton.
“We did the best job we could and I think I lost a little bit in the final sector, but Sebastian did a great job. We are in the mix and I am hoping to give him a hard time in the race.”
Bottas said: “We can fight them here and we are starting very close. This race can be crazy, but we have a good starting point.”
Kimi Raikkonen wound up sixth in the second Ferrari after an eventful session and a huge slide on his final flying lap.
Esteban Ocon was seventh ahead of his Force India team-mate Sergio Perez, Nico Hulkenberg who faces a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change, and his Renault team-mate Carlos Sainz.
In cool and overcast conditions, with a strong breeze, the opening Q1 session began briskly, but was soon interrupted when Romain Grosjean’s Haas car came to a halt in an escape road at Turn Three, his gearbox jammed.
He was unable to rejoin while the action was controlled by yellow flags. As a result, Ocon was briefly fastest ahead of Hulkenberg and Sergey Sirotkin, back in action after his crash in morning practice.
For Hulkenberg, it was encouraging despite knowing he faced a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change.
More drama followed in the final minutes of Q1 when Pierre Gasly almost clipped his Red Bull team-mate Brendon Hartley. Taking avoiding action, Gasly bounced over the kerbs at Turn 15 and into an escape road.
The Frenchman was furious, screaming at the New Zealander over the team radio. Told Hartley had a puncture he said: “Unacceptable”.
“Sorry guys,” said Hartley. “I was trying to get out of the way, but it was too late. I went the wrong way. I feel pretty stupid.”
This incident resulted in them both being eliminated in 17th and 19th positions along with the luckless Grosjean. Also out went Stoffel Vandoorne of McLaren and Marcus Ericsson of Sauber.
In Q2 more drama saw Raikkonen going straight on, at Turn 15, and Lance Stroll also left the track.
Bottas led the way ahead of Verstappen and Vettel before Raikkonen went off again and a persistent Hamilton topped the charts ahead of his team-mate by 0.003 seconds until Raikkonen, racing with fury on a set of ultra-softs, roared to the head of the lap-times in the final seconds.
All this left Stroll in 11th place ahead of Williams team-mate Sirotkin, Fernando Alonso of McLaren, Charles Leclerc of Sauber and Kevin Magnussen of Haas.
On their first flying runs, Vettel outpaced Hamilton by three-tenths ahead of Bottas and the Red Bulls with Raikkonen sixth, following a scary off-road excursion at Turn 16. “I was on the kerb and couldn’t steer,” said the Finn.