Azerbaijan GP: 'F1 in 2017 just got nasty - and it's Sebastian Vettel's fault'
The Formula 1 title fight just got nasty. And, despite his claims to the contrary, that is Sebastian Vettel's fault.
A madly chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix provided talking points aplenty but there was no doubt about the biggest - the clash between the Ferrari driver and Lewis Hamilton.
Vettel slammed into the back of Hamilton's car as they prepared for one of three restarts, damaging his front wing and the Mercedes' floor. Then Vettel pulled his Ferrari alongside Hamilton's car, gesticulated, and swerved at him, banging wheels.
It was a shocking moment. Formula 1 cars collide all the time - it's just what happens sometimes in racing, and it happened an awful lot in Baku on Sunday. But this was different. This was one driver making a conscious decision, apparently in anger, to turn his steering wheel to collide with another.
- Hamilton calls Vettel a 'disgrace' after collision
- When drivers attack - road rage in F1
- Relive Ricciardo's win & 'chaos' in Baku
- Listen: 'It's disgusting driving from a four-time world champ'
Yes, it was at slow speed, but, no, it was not acceptable, whatever Vettel thought Hamilton may have done. And the available evidence says Hamilton did nothing wrong.
Vettel did not deny he had deliberately driven into Hamilton in the second impact, although despite repeated questions, he also did not address it directly.
"F1 is for grown-ups," he said. "I drove alongside and we had a little contact. I wasn't happy with the brake-testing. I drove alongside him and raised my hand to say that is not the way to do it."
Hamilton was not amused. "If he wants to prove he's a man, we should do it out of the car face to face," he said, adding that he felt the German had "disgraced himself". "I don't fancy seeing him," Hamilton concluded. "It might turn into something else."
It was already developing into a thrilling season, with two greats of the sport locked in combat in evenly matched cars, set to duel it out through a marathon 20-race season. But this has added an extra dimension to the battle, which Vettel now leads by 14 points after finishing a place ahead of his rival in fourth.
Vettel said after the race that he would seek Hamilton out once they had left Baku to talk the incident through.
"It is still respectful," he said. "I don't have a problem with him. It is just one action today that was wrong. I am willing to sort it out with him. I don't think there is much to sort out. I will talk to him when you (the media) are not there and then we move on."
Had things got dirty, Hamilton was asked by Channel 4? "Not for me," he said. "I am going to keep going. We had the upper hand this weekend. We can continue to move forwards in the future. Through difficult times true colours show, so it is a good day for me."
Did Vettel have a point?
Vettel's anger was triggered because he felt Hamilton had committed an offence known in F1 as "brake-testing" - when the driver in front deliberately slows down to cause problems for the one behind. It is a risky tactic, because contact in such an incident can damage either or both cars, but it is not unknown for drivers to do it.
Vettel said: "I think it was quite obvious. I don't run into the back of him on purpose. I damaged my wing. He had a little damage as well. It's just not the way to do it. He did something similar a couple of years ago in China at the restart. It is not the way to do it."
Hamilton denied he had done any such thing. "I didn't," he said. "I controlled the pace. All the restarts I slowed down in the same spot. He was obviously sleeping. That for me isn't the issue. Driving alongside and deliberately driving into a driver and coming away scot-free is a disgrace. He disgraced himself today."
He added in his news conference with the written media: "I basically didn't accelerate out of the corner because I was having to get the gap to the car ahead.
"The stewards looked at my data and the reason I didn't get a penalty was clearly I didn't, and I don't have any intention to brake-test anyone. I am leading; why brake-test him? I was leading by a good gap before the safety car. I had no reason to brake-test him. There is zero benefit."
The rules say that at a restart behind a safety car, "drivers must proceed at a pace which involves no erratic acceleration or braking, nor any other manoeuvre which is likely to endanger other drivers or impede the restart".
The stewards analysed the incident and concluded from Hamilton's data that he had not transgressed this rule and governing body the FIA backed Hamilton's version of events.
The data showed he did nothing abnormal, maintained a more or less constant speed, a spokesman said, neither braking nor lifting off completely, and behaved as he had at all the other restarts.
What are the consequences for Vettel?
Hamilton told race director Charlie Whiting over the radio during the race that he felt a 10-second stop-and-go penalty was not harsh enough for Vettel's behaviour.
"If that is the only result you can get from such disgusting driving," he said, "it means we can all drive like that and you can still score fourth place, you can still get away with it.
"I don't know what the penalty should be. I can't remember coming across that, particularly not in F1. It is not sportsman's conduct."
The problem for the stewards was that the next level of penalty was disqualification, and they demurred from that. But two experienced senior figures from teams not involved in the incident told this reporter after the race they felt that is exactly what should have happened.
Vettel has both a short-term problem and a longer-term concern arising from this situation.
The short-term problem is that three penalty points he received in addition to the penalty mean he now has nine on his licence for driving offences. Twelve in a calendar year triggers an automatic race ban.
The tally started at the British Grand Prix last year, when Vettel was given two points for driving Felipe Massa's Williams off the track. He received two more for causing a collision with Nico Rosberg's Mercedes in Malaysia and another two for driving dangerously in Mexico, the same race he told Whiting over the radio where to go using a four-letter word.
So Vettel will have to watch himself at the next race in Austria on 9 July or he risks missing the subsequent race in Silverstone seven days later.
The longer-term issue is his anger management - or lack of it - in the car. This is not the first time Vettel has lost control of his emotions behind the wheel, although it is the first time the result has been him deliberately driving into another car in this manner.
Hamilton said: "It's been kind of obvious for some time now (he is not always composed). Look at some of the things he said on the radio last year. We know how he can be.
"I would never have thought that would have happened today but we can only look at it as a positive for us. We have put a lot of pressure on Ferrari. It shows pressure can get to even the best guys."
Afterwards, Vettel insisted: "I don't have a problem with him. I respect him a lot for the driver he is." It was far from clear that Hamilton felt the same way.
"They are warriors," said Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff. They are at war at that moment. They are fighting for the race wins and the championship.
"Now the gloves are off. The sport needs the rivalry. What we have seen today is the ingredient of a great championship."
A few words for Lance Stroll
There were so many stories arising from the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Crash-wise, there were collisions between team-mates at Force India and Sauber - both adding tension to already awkward situations within those teams - and the latest in a long line of incidents between Finns Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen.
Daniel Ricciardo's victory was almost a side-show in the Hamilton-Vettel shenanigans but he pulled off some stunning moves to make it happen - including passing three cars at once into Turn One.
There was Bottas' excellent fightback from lapped and last after the first-lap collision with Raikkonen to second; and a well-deserved first couple of points for McLaren and Fernando Alonso, who has driven his heart out all year for very little reward.
But, most of all, Lance Stroll deserves some words for his composed and mature drive to third place, pipped on the line by Bottas.
The 18-year-old Canadian has had the red carpet rolled out for him through his career so far, his billionaire father's wealth buying him not only the best equipment on the way up, but now a place at Williams and more testing than any rookie has had since Hamilton entered the sport in 2007.
That's a lot of advantages, which together smoothed and accelerated his path to F1. But the question of whether his talent justified his chance can be put to bed.
Stroll had a difficult start to his F1 career, lagging well off the pace of team-mate Massa for the first seven races and getting embroiled in a number of incidents, not all his fault. Williams and Stroll himself have insisted all he needed was time, and the last fortnight has been a turning point.
He took his first points with a solid race to ninth in Canada, sorted out some of his problems with the car with a private test in Austin the following week, and was impressive from the get-go in Baku.
He out-qualified Massa - by 0.045 seconds - and drove a mature, controlled race.
He had dropped four seconds to Massa in the first 11 laps before the first safety car but picked his way through the subsequent chaos impressively, and hung on well to Ricciardo for the first 10 laps after the red flag period before the Red Bull driver stretched his legs.
As Stroll put it: "We stayed out of trouble. We let some of the other drivers make mistakes."
He is a self-confident man, Stroll, as is probably inevitable after such a privileged upbringing - at 18, he has his own private jet.
Afterwards he described the criticism he had received this year as "just noise", and said all the obvious things about the "amazing result", "being over the moon" and "lost for words".
"I don't think I proved a point," he said. But he was absolutely wrong about that - that's exactly what he did.
"I've really improved my driving style," Stroll said, "adapting to Formula 1, and I need to keep working on little things moving forward. It's not finished yet - I still can improve a lot."
Exactly how good he can be remains an unknown, but one thing is certain - in Baku Stroll finally looked like the grand prix driver he always believed he could be.