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MEXICAN makes hay as Hamilton finds a strange way to lose a Grand Prix, writes PETER COSTER: 

LEWIS Hamilton lost the Azerbaijan Grand Prix “by magic,” which is not the usual way such races are lost or even sometimes seemingly won.

The “magic button,” as it is known, is on the back of the steering yoke on an F1 car.

Most race fans have never heard of it, but it transfers the braking balance between front and rear wheels from about 50 per cent to 90 per cent at the front.

This generates more heat into the tyres for maximum grip at the race start.

“Did I leave the magic on? I could have sworn I turned that off,” Hamilton said to his engineers on the team radio after the race.

The Azerbaijan race had to be restarted when a sudden tyre failure on Max Verstappen’s Red Bull sent him into the wall on the main straight at more than 300 kph.

Verstappen was out of the race with less than five laps remaining, which meant that Hamilton, who was lying third behind the second Red Bull driven by Sergio Perez found himself second.

The debris and Verstappen’s destroyed Red Bull were removed from the circuit and  the cars lined up for a restart.

Hamilton hit the magic button on the formation lap and pulled up behind Perez with smoke billowing from the brakes. 

The red lights went out and Hamilton shot ahead of Perez in what was already a late braking manoeuvre.

That produced even more braking energy on the front wheels. They locked up and Hamilton shot straight ahead instead of taking the first corner.

How did it happen?

The seven-time world champion either made a rookie’s mistake in that he didn’t turn off the magic button as he pulled up on the grid for the restart or he turned it on again accidentally in the adrenaline rush for the first corner.

More likely he hit the magic button twice before the restart, turning it off then on again.

Perez turned through the corner behind the Mercedes, which went straight on as if on rails.

The steering yoke of an F1 car already carries more buttons, paddles and rotating switches than on an Airbus A380 and Mercedes is looking at how to make the system fail-safe.

Verstappen, devastated to see his lead in the world drivers’ championship disappear, found himself still in front as the Mercedes rejoined the race but finished out of the points.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was walking around the parts with a grin on his face and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff’s face was generating more heat than Hamilton’s front tyres.

Before the race, he startled the Sky Sport interviewers when he described Horner as a “windbag.” Horner said if he were Wolff, he would “keep my mouth shut.”

That was over “flexible” rear wings. Horner said the Red Bull’s rear wing complied with the FIA rules and Wolff should be careful what he wished for if the Mercedes front wing was then closely looked at.

But back to the tyre failure on the left rear of Verstappen’s car, which decided the outcome of the race around the medieval city of Baku on the Caspian Sea.

The Dutch driver was unhurt although hitting the wall on the main straight at 320 kmh. He kicked the offending tyre, but with more vigour than a potential buyer at a car yard on a Sunday.

Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll snapped into the wall on the same section of the main straight 15 laps earlier when his left rear tyre let go at the same speed. 

Now it is tyre supplier Pirelli that is under fire. The Italian tyre manufacturer is the sole supplier to F1 and can thank the construction of F1 cars that there was not a fatality. 

It seems too much of a coincidence for tyre failure on the same wheels on both cars rather than punctures not to be the cause.

Eventual winner “Checo” Perez was flawless throughout the race after only six races for the Honda-powered team.

Embed from Getty Images

His victory on Sunday was the first win by a Mexican driver since the great Pedro Rodriquez won the Belgian Grand Prix in 1970.

Perez has found the way to drive the Red Bull in a handful of races whereas Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo has had a miserable record since joining McLaren from Renault last year.

Driving the “Macca” has proved to be an embarrassment and even a humiliating experience for Ricciardo.

He finished ninth at Baku behind sixth-finishing teammate Lando Norris. That was after running into the barriers in qualifying and being lapped by 

Norris in the previous race at Monaco.

Ricciardo won at Monaco in 2018 for Red Bull and would have won in 2016 had a pitstop bungle not ruined his race.

The Australian, who lives in Monaco, has won seven GPs, but has lost his way. He says the car does not suit his style of driving, but Norris has put it on the podium in only his third season in F1.

Should Ricciardo have stayed at Red Bull rather than switch to Renault and now McLaren?

Yes, it was hard for Ricciardo to accept that Verstappen was preferred by the team as its No. 1 driver.

But Renault was not ready to contest a slot at the front of the grid and at McLaren Ricciardo has found himself being consistently out performed by another young driver.

The problem seems to be the way the Macca wants to be driven and the way the Honey Badger wants to drive it.

Ricciardo says he has been working hard in the “sim” and that was proving to be productive, but that was said before the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. 

Some commentators are of the opinion the Australian is better suited by fast, flowing circuits.

The next Grand Prix is at the Paul Ricard circuit in France, which is exactly that.


Author: Peter Coster

PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games.



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