As the Formula One train rides into Baku this week there is the overwhelming sense that drama is not far behind. There’s a good reason for that. Azerbaijan has proven to be a blessing and a curse for F1. A blessing for fans; a curse for drivers and team bosses.
Every year there is a squabble, a collision, a retirement, or a malfunction that sets the F1 agenda for the days that follow.
Whether it was Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton’s safety car row in 2017, the Red Bull duo taking it too far in 2018, or Max Verstappen’s agonizing finale with victory in sight last year, it rarely ever fails on the entertainment front.
Sportsmail looks at some of the most memorable moments through the years at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Max Verstappen was absolutely livid with his car after a late puncture cost him a win in 2021
Vettel-Hamilton’s safety car squabble
Two world champions who were in no mood to give up an inch.
Behind a safety car, this should have been pretty rudimentary, truth be told. The reality? Far from it.
Nobody is allowed to overtake under a safety car and ahead of an anticipated restart, Vettel, then driving for Ferrari, was irritated with the pace race leader Lewis Hamilton was taking.
Heading into Turn 15, Vettel shunted into the back of his rival, convinced he had been ‘brake-tested’ – a big no-no for race marshals.
Vettel took both hands off the wheel and held them out asking what on earth Hamilton was playing at, before quickly plotting his counter-strike.
He dipped out to his Mercedes rival’s left, before jolting his car right to shunt Hamilton towards the wall. The grandstand was as stunned as those in the paddock.
Vettel’s front wing was trashed, and Hamilton was now carrying damage of his own. Vettel picked up a 10-second time penalty as a result, only to rally back to finish fourth, ahead of fifth-placed Hamilton to add salt to the Briton’s wounds.
Sebastian Vettel (left) clung to the back of Lewis Hamilton’s car behind a safety car in 2017
‘I think it kind of sets a precedent within Formula One,’ a seething Hamilton said in the press pen after.
‘They have seen today how a four-time world champion behaves and hopefully, that doesn’t ripple down into the younger categories. In terms of how things are penalized, how you can do something like that and then finish fourth? I don’t know.’
Hamilton was livid and many felt, rightly so. Not Vettel, no. He wanted to focus on the damage he believed Hamilton inflicted on him first.
‘The leader dictates the pace but we were exiting the corner and he was accelerating and then he braked so much that I was braking as soon as I saw, but I couldn’t stop in time and ran into the back of him and I think that was just not necessary,’ the German explained, also ticked off by the safety car spat.
‘I think Formula One is for grown-ups.
‘As I said the maneuver before was not necessary, he damaged my front wing and it damaged also his rear a little bit so I just think that was not the right way to do it.’
Vettel was then furious when he felt Hamilton brake-tested him close to the wall – before the Ferrari man pulled up alongside and gave his Mercedes a not-so-subtle shove as revenge
Monday morning brought a sense of calm – and an apology from Vettel that allowed the FIA to squash it and move on.
‘In the heat of the action I then overreacted, and therefore I want to apologize to Lewis directly, as well as to all the people who were watching the race. I realize that I was not setting a good example,’ Vettel wrote on his website.
It remains one of the great Baku flashpoints.
Chaos at Red Bull
Team orders are rubbish for fans but from a team perspective, they prevent epic wipeouts like the one suffered by Red Bull in 2018.
Depending on the gulf between the drivers, if there is no defined No 1 and No 2 then tensions are always close to boiling over – see Nico Rosberg and Hamilton at Mercedes. That is exactly how it was for a time between Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo.
In team meetings, the stress from boss Christian Horner would often be a keyword: space. Give each other space. Respect the space. Whatever you don’t steal each other’s space. You get it.
So, fast forward to Baku in 2018 and to Lap 40, specifically.
Having already clipped wheels twice in a frenetic race, there was a sense the crescendo was to come, and what a crescendo it was. A crash of maximum drama to take them both out of the race.
A 2018 nightmare for Red Bull as they lost Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo to retirement
Verstappen, running in fourth, and Ricciardo, running in fifth, was motoring down the main straight when the Australian felt confident of an overtake.
Ricciardo looks to dip to the left but leaves the move too late and as Verstappen attempts to defend, Ricciardo rams into the back of him, wiping them both out in double retirement.
‘They are both in the doghouse, you can see that in their body language and they will be in the factory to apologize to all the staff prior to the Barcelona race,’ Horner said, through gritted teeth.
Ricciardo left for Renault prior to the start of the 2019 season, citing the handling of the fall-out from Baku as one reason he packed it in with Red Bull.
‘[Baku] was one of the little pieces,’ Ricciardo said at the time. ‘I guess the way it was handled at the time didn’t sit too well with me, so that was like a little thing that bothered me.’
A cruel twist of fate for Bottas
If there was anger in the Red Bull garage – or ‘doghouse’ if you’d prefer – there was both agony and ecstasy over at Mercedes.
While there were cheers for Hamilton riding to victory, it came at the expense of a puncture for team-mate Bottas.
It was a cruel twist of fate for the Finn, who looked all set to claim victory in Baku.
With three laps to go and the taste of the victory champagne beginning to hit his taste buds, disaster struck when Bottas hit some flying debris, causing a puncture, and forcing a race retirement.
It was such a sorry sight to see Bottas’ Mercedes hobbling home, the tread on his tires destroyed and Hamilton cruising past him.
Agony for Bottas as Lewis Hamilton (middle) capitalized on his puncture to take the victory
‘Valtteri really deserved to win and drove an exceptional race,’ Hamilton conceded.
And he was right, Bottas did. But what looked like a routine finish was far from it for Mercedes, even if they did get the win.
Bottas got back to his Baku hotel room and couldn’t keep it together. Race wins are tough to come by, especially in an era with Hamilton’s dominance, and the emotion took hold.
‘When I got back to the hotel I crashed completely,’ he said at the time.
‘I dropped on my knees and I was crying like a small baby. But then I got up and decided one failure is not going to put me down.’
Most F1 hearts broke as much as Bottas’ that day.
He’s BEHIND you
Not a top three candidate for drama but up there for the bizarre nature of it all – and Ricciardo is back for his second feature.
An impatient Ricciardo had had enough of being behind Kvyat in the Toro Rosso and so the ambitious Aussie saw patience run out on Lap 31.
Again Ricciardo tries the overtake down the left side – we saw that a year earlier go spectacularly wrong with Verstappen.
This time it proved another unsuccessful effort. He got his front wing ahead but hit the brakes too late and needed to take evasive action by careering onto the escape road.
The move caught Kvyat by surprise and he slammed his brakes, coming to a stop, albeit without hitting Ricciardo or a wall.
As Kyvat tried to navigate a reverse back to the track, Ricciardo beat him too it, only to ram his new Renault into the Toro Rosso in a bizarre collision, almost as if he had not seen Kyvat’s car was blocking his path.
Both cars were damaged so badly thanks to the Aussie’s over-exuberance that a double retirement was necessary. Twice in two years that Ricciardo had been part of a double retirement.
‘It was a strange incident which forced the retirement, but it was my mistake and I’m sorry to the team and to Daniil,’ Ricciardo said after.
‘It was a bit of urgency on my behalf and I didn’t think straight for a few seconds, so I have to take that one on the chin.’
Kyvat, who had previously been a teammate of Ricciardo’s, was in no mood to drag out the incident or cause a big furor, even offering tongue-in-cheek to get the then-Renault man a new wing mirror.
‘He just needs to be more patient. Just a few hundred meters later he had a two-kilometer straight to try and overtake,’ Kvyat said.
‘That corner is very tight and he didn’t make it, so I had to go with him since he didn’t make it. I’ll buy him a rear-view mirror for the next race!’
Max feels Bottas’ pain
No race in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic left plenty of questions about whether more drama would be in store in Baku.
For a while it seemed the gap had disrupted the rhythm of this chaotic fixture on the calendar, only to be handed a finale that could rival any that has gone before.
Verstappen was cruising to victory when on Lap 47 of 51, the Dutchman saw his left-rear tyre give up, sending him into the wall down the main straight.
Out a furious Verstappen got, helmet still on as he kicked the defective tyre, retiring from the race.
‘I’m looking forward to returning to Baku, we have some unfinished business there after last year,’ he said this week.
There speaks a man ready to right some wrongs.
Verstappen saw victory snatched away from him when his left-rear tire packed in and failed
Then Lewis rues the curse of Baku!
So, Verstappen out, opportunity knocked for Hamilton. Plain and simple. Everyone knew it.
In a title race that proved so nip-and-tuck, every win and every point gain felt huge and was huge.
And so when Hamilton reflects back, Baku will feel like a huge chance wasted.
Verstappen’s crash led to a red flag while the track was cleared and when the grid realigned for the restart, smoke bellowed from Hamilton’s brakes.
As he looked to steal the lead from Sergio Perez on the first corner, Hamilton simply couldn’t stop, tunneling off into the escape road. It was a disaster.
Down he tumbled to 15th, where he eventually finished, ending his record run of 54 consecutive races with a points finishes.
The Baku curse struck again, much to the bemusement of Mercedes.
Hamilton then failed to capitalize on the restart as his brakes overheated and he rode off the track