When it came to putting together this race analysis, I was left wracking my brain to think of a Formula 1 victory that had been as unlikely for Lewis Hamilton as his Baku success on Sunday.

Monaco 2008 was naturally a race where things fell his way. Turkey 2010 is another one where he relied on some divine intervention to get to the front. And naturally, last year’s Singapore Grand Prix was a big one Mercedes never expected to win.

But Hamilton’s win on Sunday in Baku was perhaps the most important of this clutch of races. Not only did it come at the end of a weekend where he had been off the boil for the most part, but it got him off the mark in a season that had been stuttering up to now.

With 20 laps to go, it looked like he may not even finish inside the top two. Sebastian Vettel had bolted into the distance through the opening stint of the race, with Hamilton sitting around four seconds back. The gap doubled when he made a mistake at Turn 1, forcing him to loop around as his tyres reached the end of their life.

Hamilton made the switch from Supersofts to Softs at the end of Lap 22, leaving Vettel and Valtteri Bottas in the sister Mercedes watching closely to see what pace advantage would be afforded by the undercut.

Yet it never arrived. The Supersofts were still holding up really well at the front - Bottas would go for another 18 laps on his set - and Hamilton couldn’t bridge the gap. In fact, he was losing time. The gap to Bottas stood at around 18 seconds when he came in for fresh tyres. It did not shrink at all, giving the Finn the possibility of pitting and coming out ahead of his ailing teammate, or, at worst, just behind with fresh Ultrasoft tyres. P2 was moving away from Hamilton.

The turning point was the dramatic clash between Red Bull drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo on Lap 39 which, frankly, looked inevitable. Verstappen had been putting some bold defensive moves on his teammate throughout the race, refusing to give Ricciardo an inch. To see them collide brought back memories of Vettel’s clash with Mark Webber at Turkey in 2010 (a race also won by Hamilton) - and for Mercedes, it put the race in its hands.

Bottas’ pace had not only been solid compared to Hamilton, but he’d also managed to stabilise the gap to Vettel to around 12 seconds. Rather than risk leaving Vettel vulnerable out front on old Softs, Ferrari bit the bullet and brought the German in for a fresh set of Ultrasofts too, meaning he could not recover the lead. Bottas held firm in P1.

Following Romain Grosjean’s rather embarrassing spin into the wall behind the Safety Car, we were left with the salivating prospect of a final four-lap shootout between Bottas, Vettel, Hamilton, and, somehow, Kimi Raikkonen in P4. Ferrari versus Mercedes on the same tyres. Winner takes all.

Off practice, a Hamilton win seemed the least likely result here. Ferrari appeared to have a pace advantage that, with a bit of help from DRS, could guide Vettel to victory. He immediately had a sniff, only to banzai up the inside, lock up, flat spot his tyre and drop back to fourth. A race that had been so easily his 10 laps earlier had slipped away.

Mercedes now looked ready to pounce on the most unlikely of results: a one-two finish. Hamilton had said the team looked third-fastest after Friday, and while Red Bull had its issues in the race, Ferrari still had an edge.

Lady Luck did not smile down on Valtteri Bottas, though. Had his rear-right tyre lasted just three more laps, he would have left Baku leading the drivers’ championship. Instead, it blew after hitting some debris, leaving him to cut a dejected figure on the sidelines.

But things had played out for Lewis Hamilton behind. He’d been the third-fastest driver in the race, arguably in the third-fastest car. But here he was, crossing the line for his first win of the season - and a crucial one at that.

When it comes to the crux of the title fight, there are certain races that rivals tend to write off. Mercedes had written off Singapore last year, for example, expecting Ferrari to dominate. Ferrari meanwhile did the same for Monza, such was the straight-line speed advantage of the Silver Arrows.

What decides championships is the results of races you aren’t expected to win, but do. Think Singapore last year. Think Malaysia and Suzuka. Ferrari had their problems, but at each hurdle, Mercedes snatched big results that weren’t expected. This has to go down as a similar race.

But the added significance of this result is that it broke a drought that was at risk of having a serious impact on both Hamilton’s and Mercedes’ title hopes. To go through the opening flyaways without a victory would have certainly planted seeds of doubts about their championship credentials. The drought is now over though - even if it was a fortuitous win.

Contrasting Mercedes’ own drought being broken is the significance of the loss for Ferrari. Feasibly, Vettel could have four wins from four races, and a decent lead at the head of the standings. Instead he’s four points back from Hamilton, having blown two decent chances in the last two races.

How decisive will these margins prove come the end of the season? If things continue to progress as they are, Hamilton’s underdog win in Baku could turn out to be priceless.



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