Lewis Hamilton stole Azerbaijan Grand Prix victory from Valtteri Bottas after a safety car caused by the Red Bull Formula 1 drivers colliding set up a dramatic Baku finish.
Sebastian Vettel was on course to score a comfortable win before the race was changed when Daniel Ricciardo rear-ended team-mate Max Verstappen at Turn 1 in a battle for fourth.
Bottas survived a lunge from Vettel into Turn 1 at the subsequent safety car restart and appeared to be heading for victory before a puncture handed Mercedes’ first win of the year to Hamilton, with Kimi Raikkonen second and Sergio Perez beating Vettel to a shock third.
The race started as frenetic as last year’s with several incidents in the opening few corners dictating the outcome of several drivers’ afternoons.
Battling for position, Raikkonen and Esteban Ocon made contact, neither giving the other room and they collided with Ocon retiring. Sergey Sirotkin joined him on the sideline as he ran into Sergio Perez, found himself stuck between Fernando Alonso and Nico Hulkenberg, and took a second hit.
Alonso suffered not one but two right side punctures, and had to pit for new rubber.
Perez, Kevin Magnussen and Marcus Ericsson, handed a 10-second time penalty for causing a collision, also pitted for repairs as the Safety Car was deployed to allow marshals to clear up the debris.
The race restarted on lap 6, this time in a much more orderly manner with Vettel pulling away ahead of the Mercedes drivers while Carlos Sainz attacked the Red Bulls, first Daniel Ricciardo and then Max Verstappen. The latter fought back.
As for Verstappen, he complained that his “battery is not charging” as he was overtaken by the Renaults of Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg.
Hulkenberg’s race ended at Turn 4 as he hit the wall and retired at the next corner. That meant Charles Leclerc continued his momentum and claimed yet another place as he overtook Lance Stroll to run P7, with Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean completing the top ten as the pit stops began.
Sainz was the first of the to pit while Vettel extended his lead to almost five seconds as Hamilton went off the track at Turn 16, caught out by a gust of wind.
Bottas in third was a further five seconds down with the Red Bulls almost half a minute behind the race leader. Raikkonen overtook Stroll and Leclerc to work his way up to sixth place, two seconds behind Ricciardo’s P5.
The proceedings took a strange turn as race control reported that DRS detection at point 1 was inactive and that manual operation was permitted. This would cause a headache for drivers as the race wore on.
Another mistake from Hamilton, this time at Turn 1, had the locking-up-running-wide Mercedes driver reporting that his tyres were finished and pitting on lap 22. He was 8.3s behind Vettel at the time with the German throwing down a personal best with Ferrari seemingly unworried about Mercedes doing the undercut.
With their race strategies dovetailing together, Verstappen found himself under attack from Ricciardo but the Dutchman refused to give an inch. Wheels almost touching, Verstappen pulled ahead of Ricciardo with the Aussie backing off to avoid a collision.
Vettel pitted on lap 31, 10 seconds up on Bottas, and emerged in second place, behind the Finn but eight seconds in front of Hamilton, who was told to up his pace to keep P2. Ricciardo finally passed Verstappen, putting in a fastest race lap, before slipstreaming his teammate and taking fourth into Turn 1 on lap 35.
Ricciardo, lap 38, Verstappen, lap 39, were two of the last three inside the top ten to pit with Verstappen overcutting his team-mate for fourth place. Ricciardo tried to fight back, and dummied his teammate. Verstappen responded with a double defensive move, and they crashed.
Mercedes immediately pitted race leader Bottas with Vettel and Hamilton also coming in behind the Safety Car.
The ensuing safety car was a lengthy affair, mainly because Romain Grosjean inexplicably lost the rear of his Haas warming his tyres on the straight from Turns 13 to 14 and slammed into the wall from sixth position.
The race restarted on lap 48 with Bottas going very early and pulling away, Hamilton used the tow to attack Vettel who responded by braking late to try and pass Bottas for the lead of the race. The move was too ambitious however, mainly due to cold brakes, and the German left the track at Turn 1 to rejoin down in P4.
Bottas bolted clear over the rest of the lap and was out of DRS range of Hamilton but ran over debris finishing the lap and cruelly picked up a right-rear puncture at the end of the start-finish straight.
That freed Hamilton into the lead with Raikkonen a comfortable second as Perez drafted Vettel, struggling with a flatspotted tyre, to score a shock podium despite Vettel’s efforts to retaliate. The result gives Hamilton a four-point championship lead.
Carlos Sainz Jr scored his best result with Renault in fifth after battling ahead of the Red Bulls early on with an excellent stint on ultrasofts. His team-mate Nico Hulkenberg had also been in this fight before an early crash.
Charles Leclerc scored the first points of his F1 career with a stunning drive to sixth for Sauber, picking his way through the chaos of the opening lap and crucially clearing the Williams of Lance Stroll early on.
Stroll fell to eighth at the finish behind Alonso, who recovered from his torrid opening lap that left him needing a new front wing and gave him floor damage.
Stoffel Vandoorne gave McLaren another double-points finish in ninth, while Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley took the final place in the top 10 to bag his first F1 point.