Daniel Ricciardo’s famous smile was at its widest on Sunday after he had picked his way through the debris and chaos of a wild afternoon’s racing to win Sunday’s maiden Azerbaijan Grand Prix after a perfectly-judged drive from 10th on the grid.
As all around him seemed to collide, puncture and posture, the Australian delivered consistency and precision to claim his fifth career victory for Red Bull on a tempestuous afternoon at the Baku City Circuit.
Beaming with pleasure, the 27-year-old Aussie admitted he could hardly believe he had won and had been giggling with joy in his Red Bull car after winning the race.
“I can’t really believe it – it was a crazy race,” he said. “I was honestly speechless after the race and, on the cool down lap, I was just giggling like a little schoolboy.
“Did I ever think I would win? Not for all my money, but this was the race we expected last year with all the Safety Cars and the chaos.
“I knew I had to stay our of trouble and do my own race and it certainly worked today.”
Ricciardo started the race from 10th on the grid and was 17th after six laps, but he worked his way forward to claim his fifth career win and first this year.
It was his first win since the 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix.
Making the most of a series of extraordinary incidents and interventions in an action-packed race, which included three Safety Car interventions and a red-flagged stoppage, Ricciardo roared home 3.904 seconds ahead of the rest to deliver his first win of the season.
Finn Valtteri Bottas, who crashed and pitted on the opening lap, came home second for Mercedes after passing Canadian rookie Lance Stroll, 18, of Williams, on the finishing straight.
That left Stroll third to claim his first podium ahead of fourth-placed championship leader four-time champion German Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari and fifth-placed three-time champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes, the dueling title rivals having suffered a rollercoaster race.
“It’s just a crazy race,” said Ricciardo. “I was giggling like a schoolboy!”
Frenchman Esteban Ocon of Force India was sixth ahead of Dane Kevin Magnussen of Haas, Spaniard Carlos Sainz of Toro Rosso, who also survived a first lap collision, compatriot two-time champion Fernando Alonso who scored McLaren Honda’s first points of the year in ninth and German Pascal Wehrlein of Sauber.
Vettel was handed a 10-seconds stop-go penalty during the race for ‘dangerous driving’ after he deliberately drove into Hamilton while both were following the Safety Car.
Hamilton, who had dominated after a strong start from his 66th pole position, was undone by a loose headrest, which caused him to pit for repairs, for safety reasons.
Vettel’s fortune in finishing ahead of Hamilton enabled him to extend his lead in the championship to 14 points.
“I’m just looking forwarding to getting home,” said Hamilton of his misfortunes. “I don’t know what to say, just look forward and move on.”
Asked about his clash with Vettel, he said: “It was dangerous driving… “
“He brake-checked me,” said Vettel.
As the lights went out, Hamilton led ahead of the incident in which the two Finns, Bottas and Raikkonen, clashed at Turn Two where the Ferrari glanced off the wall. Bottas’s Mercedes ran over a kerb.
As the field began to settle, further chaos unfolded when Kvyatt stopped, his Toro Rosso having lost all electrical power on lap eight. A Safety Car was deployed on lap 12, for the first time.
By then, after a great scrap with Perez, Verstappen was also forced to retire with an engine failure, his fourth retirement in six outings.
The first Safety Car came in after 16 laps, racing resuming with Perez making an attack on Vettel who resisted, before another Safety Car, the second, was deployed almost immediately due to debris.
Racing restarted, for a third time, on lap 19, but only after another incident in which Vettel hit the rear of Hamilton’s car, under braking as the leader tried to avoid the slow-moving Safety Car.
Hamilton had done nothing untoward, as the stewards’ report and evidence from the telemetry proved later, but the German was clearly irate and pulled alongside the Mercedes, waving an arm, before turning deliberately into his car.
It seemed a clear case of Vettel losing his temper and causing an accident, but both emerged unhurt as the serious racing action resumed. Raikkonen picked up debris and a puncture to trigger a third Safety Car intervention – after only 20 laps – while other cars and drivers were dealing with assorted problems.
The running order, at that stage, showed Hamilton leading the ill-tempered Vettel and Brazilian Felipe Massa of Williams as others repaired to the pits following a red flag, required to stop the action and allow debris to cleared.
Raikkonen, like Perez, was to be a beneficiary of the stoppage as all the cars were sent in to the pits and he rejoined when finally the race resumed with both men back.
The racing resumed, for a fifth time, behind a Safety Car and when it came in, after one lap, Hamilton pulled away and Ricciardo dived past Stroll to snatch third.
Nico Hulkenberg of Renault then followed team-mate Briton Jolyon Palmer into retirement after the German crashed into the wall while Massa slowed and retired with a broken damper.
Hamilton opened up a 2.7 seconds lead before he was told, by Mercedes, that his head-rest was loose. Behind him, team-mate Bottas was back up to eighth and Vettel was closing.
Hamilton was then ordered to pit, on safety grounds, and rejoined ninth with his head-rest secured but his well-earned leadership of the race snatched away.
If this was not enough action in a wild contest, Vettel was handed a 10-seconds stop-go penalty for ‘dangerous driving’, a sanction he challenged during a team radio exchange that ended with Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrivabene telling him they would discuss it afterwards.
A frustrated Hamilton, who was the innocent victim of Vettel’s road rage attack and then an unusual component failure, made his feelings clear in a broadcast radio remark.
“A 10-second penalty for driving like that is not enough, you know that Charlie,” said Hamilton, referring to the Race Director Charlie Whiting.
By lap 40 of the 51, it was Ricciardo leading ahead of Stroll with Bottas, remarkably, back up to third ahead of Ocon, Vettel and Hamilton.
Perez, his seat broken, finally retired on lap 42, bring his unbroken run of finished races to an end at 37, four short of the record run of German Nick Heidfeld on 41.
The title contenders both passed Ocon to set up a chase in the closing laps when Bottas heaped pressure on the Canadian teenager and, finally, passed him in a photo-finish at the line.