Sauber sensation Charles Leclerc made the most of a chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Sunday to clinch sixth place and his first points in Formula One.
The Monaco native started his race from P13 on the grid, but skillfully pulled his way up to eighth early on before fending off Fernando Alonso to take a stunning sixth.
It was a emotional finish for the 20-year-old as 12 months ago he secured a GP2 victory around the same streets – just four days after his father Herve passed away.
Despite the emotional turmoil that would have ensued that day and even at the weekend when returning to Azerbaijan, Leclerc showcased the class that has been associated with his name since clinching the GP2 title last October.
The Monaco native grew up in a home steeped in motorsport and was even the godson of the late F1 driver Jules Bianchi who died after crashing in Suzuka in 2014.
Leclerc had first driven a kart at Bianchi’s track near Nice and the Frenchman had been both a mentor and close friend of the young Sauber driver.
The former GP2 and GP3 champion has demonstrated maturity beyond his years in dealing with the loss of Herve and Jules at such a young age and has gone on to develop remarkably as a driver and man.
In Baku on Sunday, the youngster drove smart in the treacherous conditions to bring Sauber its best race finish since Felipe Nasr at the Russia Grand Prix in 2015.
Remarkably, he drove more laps in the top-10 in Baku than his teammate Marcus Ericsson did for Sauber in the entire 2017 season.
Leclerc had started the race in P13, which in itself was a personal best grid slot having started from 18th, 19th and 19th in the first three races.
In fact his best finishes prior to Baku were 13th, 14th and 19th respectively – with Ericsson retiring in Australia and notching 9th and 16th places in Bahrain and China.
With Leclerc’s eight points added to the two that Ericsson netted in Bahrain, Sauber now have 10 points in the constructors’ championship – twice as many as they scored in the whole of 2017.
It may be a serious boost for a team lacking in ambition, but Leclerc’s biggest competition this season will be to overshadow 27-year-old Ericsson, who has spent four more years in the sport.
Whilst doing that it will open a shop window – as such – for a more experienced team to give Leclerc a better opportunity in a faster car when his contract expires in 2019.
Although he may struggle with a team who finished last in the drivers’ standings in 2017, he has to start from somewhere and this season is the perfect building block to his future development.
Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull will all be needing replacement drivers over the next three seasons so now is the perfect time for Leclerc to step up and continue to show his mettle as a rising star and future champion.
Baku may prove to be the start of something special for Leclerc.
Lewis Hamilton ended his Formula One winning drought in spectacular fashion after his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas suffered a 220mph tyre blow-out in the closing stages of a dramatic Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Sebastian Vettel had appeared on course to secure a commanding and well-deserved victory only for the race to turn on its head when Red Bull team-mates Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo collided.
That crash allowed Bottas to take the lead by virtue of pitting under the safety car, but his chances of victory were sensationally scuppered when he ran over debris and suffered a high-speed puncture with only three laps remaining.
Hamilton has now taken control of the championship by four points, with Vettel finishing only fourth after he ran off the road at turn one in his attempt to retake the lead from Bottas.
Here’s our main takeaways from Baku.
Lewis low on confidence (not anymore)
The Brit capitalised on some serious luck to take his first win since the US Grand Prix last October. The Stevenage native is not a four-time world champion for nothing, and of course, like any job or sport, there is bound to be bad days along the way. He looked to be off the pace early in the race but with Sebastian Vettel locking up and Valtteri Bottas suffering a puncture, the 33-year-old stormed ahead to snatch a remarkable victory and now leads the title race by four points. It is impossible for anyone to perform at a consistently high level across the entire season, and with the Ferraris gaining solid ground, this season is set up to be a thriller as Hamilton and Vettel go in search of that illustrious fifth world title. Advantage may be in the reigning champion’s favour now, but expect Vettel to fight back in Barcelona.
More frustration for Vettel
It looked like it would be a facile victory for the German, but two safety cars resulted in Valtteri Bottas taking the lead and Vettel’s frustration growing. But the German attempted to re-take the lead with three laps remaining and locked up, resulting in Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen taking his place. The 29-year-old could only manage fourth – and now trails Hamilton in the title race. Despite the disappointment, Vettel looks heads and shoulder above Hamilton based on his driving ability and searing confidence so far this season. Off the track, the key difference is he looks happier than his rival, and is enjoying driving a faster Ferrari car that looks a serious threat to Mercedes’ dominance in the constructors’ championship. A minor blip again, but the German will romp back stronger in Spain.
Verstappen v Ricciardo
The Red Bull duel was bubbling throughout the race from the initial contact caused by Verstappen to the left side of Ricciardo’s car on lap 12, to the Australian overtaking his teammate on lap 35. But four laps later after both cars pitted, the Dutchman emerged ahead on his ultra softs. Ricciardo attempted to get past Verstappen but the youngster defended reasonably well, resulting in the 28-year-old slamming into the back of his teammate. The Perth native may have committed too soon and it was utter bad luck, but Verstappen is a dangerous driver to be on the track with and needs to pull his head on if he is to ever fulfill his potential as a future world champion.
Bottas may have been unlucky in suffering a puncture late in the race, but Perez drove his Force India car like a peach around the sweeping track in Baku. He looked composed all day as he held off the challenges of Vettel and Sainz to take his first podium since Azerbaijan in 2016. After finishing fourth in the constructors championship last season, this year has proven to be a tougher affair for Force India but a first podium in two years makes it all the sweeter as they attempt to get back to their consistent form of old.
The Monaco native produced a stunning drive on Sunday to seal sixth place in a largely uncompetitive Sauber car. The former GP2 champion passed Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz en route to taking his team’s first points of the season. Remarkably, he raced more laps in the top ten in Baku than his teammate Marcus Ericsson did for the entire 2017 season.
Ocon lacking form of 2017
The Frenchman has yet to scale the heights of last season when he sealed 18 top-10 finishes. With 10th, 11th and 12th place finishes in his first three races respectively, the Force India driver would have surely come into Sunday’s race full of confidence having qualified seventh. But a crash on the first lap now sees Ocon fall further behind his teammate Perez who looked sublime all afternoon. In a 21-race season, Ocon has plenty of time to turn around his form but, in truth, many expected Ocon to step up a gear in his second season. The Evreux native has been highly impressive in terms of consistency and genuine speed, but needs to show his class of last season if he is to be considered for a potential Mercedes seat in the future.
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.