Analysis: How Ricciardo navigated Baku chaos to win from 17th

A lowly grid position and early-race issues should have ruined Daniel Ricciardo's Azerbaijan GP, but he and Red Bull persevered anyway. Adam Cooper analyses one of the most remarkable comebacks in recent Formula 1 history.

Analysis: How Ricciardo navigated Baku chaos to win from 17th
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Daniel Ricciardo wasn’t supposed to win the Azerbaijan GP.

A crash in Q3 demoted him to the bottom of the top 10 on the grid, and then just five laps into the race debris caught in a brake duct forced him into a premature pitstop.

He emerged on the lesser-fancied soft tyres in 17th place, with 46 laps to run. Things were looking pretty dire.

And yet, when the chequered flag fell at the end of an astonishing and unpredictable race, the Australian was in front, logging the fifth victory of his career – and as the man himself admitted, the fifth to be achieved with a little good fortune smiling on him.

"Effectively out of contention"

Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing

Photo by: Sutton Images

On Saturday evening, Ricciardo was hugely frustrated after that qualifying error. Teammate Max Verstappen was fifth, but had the pace to be third – and Ricciardo, 10th on the grid, was pretty sure that he should also have been on the second row, or at the very least mixing with the Ferraris.

His only real hope was that the race itself would contain rather more drama than the inaugural event in 2016, and that he might be able to benefit.

“I find it hard to believe that there will be no incidents tomorrow,” he mused after qualifying. “And a race is a race, you’ve got pressure, you’re putting pressure.

"After everything that’s happened in practice and qualifying, there has to be something, but we thought that last year and it didn’t happen.

“I think the fact that the grip’s higher this year as well, you can push harder, and pushing harder doesn’t mean it’s easier. Naturally, when you’re on the edge of the grip and the track more, it is easier to make mistakes. As long as it’s not me tomorrow, I’m all good.”

As the race kicked off, Ricciardo gained a place as early as exit of Turn 2, as he passed the stricken Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas. However, the Mercedes driver’s clash with Kimi Raikkonen was to have more direct consequences for the Aussie, for some debris had gone into the right front brake duct – according to Helmut Matko, it wasn't possible to tell which car dropped the offending piece – and his brake temperatures were going through the roof.

There was no option but to head into the pits for a very early change to soft tyres. The debris was cleared away, and he emerged in 17th, ahead of only Stoffel Vandoorne and Romain Grosjean, who had also both pitted, and the delayed Bottas.

"Did I think then that I would the race today? Absolutely not," Ricciardo recalled.

“We had to make a call to box him, get rid of the debris and change the tyres,” said Christian Horner. “Which put him at the back of the field and effectively out of contention. It was skyrocketing out of control, he wouldn't have done another lap.

“We called him in, and then there was a big bit of Mercedes or Ferrari bodywork that appeared out of the brake ducts, it was a big ol' piece of bodywork that was causing the blockage.”

The comeback begins

Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB13, Fernando Alonso, McLaren MCL32
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB13, Fernando Alonso, McLaren MCL32

Photo by: Charles Coates / LAT Images

Ricciardo spent only Lap 6 in 17th place, as on the next one he passed Pascal Wehrlein, and then gained a spot for free when Jolyon Palmer slowed and retired.

He remained 15th for three laps, before getting by Marcus Ericsson, Carlos Sainz and Fernando Alonso all on Lap 10, which put him 11th and already on the fringe of the points.

Given that Ricciardo could run the softs to the end and all those ahead would have to stop at some point things were now looking up, and it was evident that he could get a few more places and a decent helping of points.

Then the race took the first of several twists when the safety car was dispatched on Lap 12 after Dany Kvyat stopped. Everyone ahead took the opportunity to pit.

Ricciardo didn’t have to stop – he’d made his compulsory change – and it made no sense to bring him again straight away as Max Verstappen was already on his way into the Red Bull pit, with what turned out to be a terminal engine problem.

But RBR brought him in next time around. And not only did he not lose what was now 10th place, having gained a spot from his teammate’s demise, but he was also now back on the supersofts.

At the restart at the end of Lap 16, Ricciardo instantly gained a place from Kevin Magnussen to go ninth, only for the full course yellows to wave once more, due to debris, most notably on the pit straight.

The green flew again at the end of Lap 19, and this time he passed Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault, the colliding Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, and Kimi Raikkonen’s crippled Ferrari – and suddenly he was fifth.

The safety car immediately emerged for a third time, followed swiftly by a red-flag stoppage. As the cars filed into the pits, Ricciardo was now behind only Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll.

“You know, despair [at the beginning] and then suddenly Daniel's hovering around the Top 10,” said Horner.

“A couple of restarts, he's picking off more cars with each restart, and he's on the right tyre compared to everybody else that was on the soft, he was on the supersoft, looking to go to the end of the race.

“Then the red flag came out, when he was in P5, behind Hamilton, Vettel and the two Williams.

“He knew he needed to get on with it. I think one of the restarts he judged by three hundredths of a second on one of the Saubers, where he'd been lifting and backing off to time it right over the line.

"He made some great restarts today, he was very assertive in his passing, particularly where it was one passing manoeuvre where he passed three cars. And that was classic Daniel.”

The leaders falter

 Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF70H
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF70H

Photo by: Andrew Hone / LAT Images

During the unexpected break, everyone caught up with the TV replays of the Vettel/Hamilton incident.
It was obvious then that the German would get some sort of punishment for his lunge towards the Mercedes, and the possibility of Hamilton being penalised was there as well, if he were deemed to have braked irresponsibly.

As Ricciardo prepared to get into his car, he could justifiably think that, if he could deal with the two Williams drivers, he would finish second at the very worst.

When the race resumed and the safety car pulled in at Lap 23, Ricciardo actually briefly dropped a spot to Hulkenberg as they crossed the line, but he was soon ahead of the German and – crucially – both Stroll and Massa, the latter slowing with what turned out to be a damper issue.

Now, some 18 laps after he was down in 17th, Ricciardo was in third – with only Hamilton and Vettel up ahead.

But there was more to come. The first TV images of Hamilton’s loose headrest came around Lap 28, and it was obvious that the FIA would tell his team to call him in. That indeed happened, and almost in parallel, the 10-second stop-and go-penalty for Vettel was flashed on the timing screens.

Hamilton came in on Lap 31, and Vettel two laps later. With 18 laps still to run, Ricciardo was in the lead.

Now it was a question of bringing it home. Stroll was still close enough to keep him on his toes, and Bottas, Vettel and Hamilton were all catching the Canadian, so there was no margin for error.

“Again, another mega restart, up to third,” said Horner. “And then obviously he benefitted from the incident between Sebastian and Lewis, and then Lewis's headrest issue, and he had a little bit of luck today to get himself track position in the lead.

“And then the last 15 or 20 laps did a perfect way to round out a grand prix. So, really happy for him to have won the race, our 53rd grand prix victory.

"Obviously hugely disappointed for Max and keen to understand what the cause of the failure was.”

"Risk and reward"

Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB13, Lance Stroll, Williams FW40, Felipe Massa, Williams FW40, at the restart
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB13, Lance Stroll, Williams FW40, Felipe Massa, Williams FW40, at the restart

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / LAT Images

“Today was just crazy,” said Ricciardo, sporting an inevitable smile.

“We haven’t been necessarily the quickest car on track or all weekend. I said it yesterday after my crash in qualifying, I said, ‘be there and capitalise on opportunities’.

"And I certainly capitalised on all the restarts where I was able to gain at least one position, if not more. Then we had some fortune.

“It was crazy, there was so much going on, but it was fun. It was fun to be in the battle for the most part. Towards the end, obviously once I got the lead, it was just trying to keep the laps [as fast as] I could.

“We knew we weren’t setting probably the quickest times on track, but I knew, if I kept that rhythm, it was enough to win.”

In the end, RIcciardo got the eventful race that he had hoped for when lining up 10th - but even he couldn’t have imagined how things would fall his way.

“I think this was the race that we expected last year,” he noted. “Last year there were no safety cars or anything but we were really surprised, and this year we got it. To be honest, I’ve enjoyed the two years that we’ve come here.

“Even after my crash yesterday I wasn’t bitter with anything that the circuit provided. Part of me actually enjoys that risk and reward with the street circuits. You make a mistake, you pay the price.

"I thought it was a lot of fun this weekend. It’s a challenging circuit, it’s not easy and the racing is intense.”

Race winner Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing
Race winner Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing

Photo by: Zak Mauger / LAT Images

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