Robert Shwartzman produced a controlled performance around the streets of Baku for his first win of the year, bouncing back from a difficult start to the season to kickstart his title challenge, beating out Dan Ticktum by 5s, with Guanyu Zhou taking third place.
A title favourite heading into the campaign, Shwartzman’s sophomore season hadn’t gone to plan in the opening two rounds, with the Russian taking zero podiums and suffering from two retirements, but the PREMA man was always insistent that improvements were around the corner.
Starting from reverse grid pole, Shwartzman began to deliver on that promise, with the Russian’s victory never once looking in doubt, despite a commanding charge through the field from street circuit expert Dan Ticktum, who was on the back of a Sprint Race 2 victory in Monaco.
Lining up in sixth, the two-time Macau Grand Prix winner picked off the first four in front of him with relative ease, but came unstuck against Shwartzman and was unable to bridge a 5s gap to the leader.
Guanyu Zhou retained his place at the top of the Drivers’ Championship with a fourth podium of the year, while Jehan Daruvala clung onto fourth, despite late pressure from Théo Pourchaire, who had recovered from a tricky start to take fifth.
AS IT HAPPENED
After a disappointing Qualifying, Shwartzman said he was confident his team would find their pace overnight and they appeared to have achieved that when the lights went out, with the Russian bolting off the line and pulling off into the distance ahead of Jehan Daruvala and Guanyu Zhou.
Not that the PREMA driver was given a chance to build on his getaway, with drama at the back of the field. Neither HWA RACELAB made it through the second turn, with Jack Aitken spinning at the start and Alessio Deledda running wide.
Contact between Liam Lawson and Oscar Piastri, after a tap from Felipe Drugovich, resulted in a further two retirements and a Safety Car. Drugovich escaped unscathed but was handed a 10s-time penalty for causing the collision.
Taking the field right up to the start/finish line, Shwartzman aced the restart with Daruvala and Zhou in tow. The sole change to the top 10 coming from Jüri Vips, who took advantage of Pourchaire’s struggle to warm-up his tyres and snuck ahead for P7.
Ticktum had been building momentum since the restart and threw his Carlin ahead of Ralph Boschung for fifth at the first turn, before making a second move on Marcus Armstrong at the same place for fourth a lap later. A few places back, Pourchaire had gotten his tyres up to temperature and regained seventh from Vips.
Picking up the pace, Zhou attempted to evade the rapid clutches of Ticktum by making a move on Daruvala, the UNI-Virtuosi racer eking ahead for second. But Ticktum made light work of Daruvala and continued to harry down Zhou, who was lapping half a second slower than the Carlin and had been unable to bridge the gap to Shwartzman.
In the end, the British racer’s move on Zhou looked all too easy, the Carlin sliding ahead for his fourth overtake and almost instantly building up a gap of five-tenths. Despite Ticktum’s pace, Shwartzman proved to be an overtake too far for the Briton, with the PREMA having built up a sturdy 5s buffer.
There were still moves to be made further back, with Pourchaire’s confidence rapidly increasing. The ART Grand Prix driver first made a move on Boschung, before squeezing past Armstrong at Turn 1 to take fifth as well. Boschung responded by following the Frenchman through for sixth.
Finishing eighth, Vips retained the final points place at the line ahead of David Beckmann, while Bent Viscaal was promoted to tenth following Drugovich’s time penalty.
KEY QUOTE – ROBERT SHWARTZMAN (PREMA RACING)
“My first time in Baku and I’ve taken the top step, so I’m really happy. The pace was really good so a big thanks to the team. With this sort of pace, we just need to improve our results in the other two races. Let’s keep pushing and we will see where we end up.”
THE CHAMPIONSHIP VIEW
Zhou retains his place at the top of the Drivers’ Championship, extending his points’ tally to 78 points, with Pourchaire behind him on 55. Despite his DNF, Piastri is in third on 42 points, ahead of Tick on 50. Shwartzman is up to fifth with 45 points.
UNI-Virtuosi lead the Teams’ Championship on 207 points, 10 ahead of PREMA and 20 ahead of Carlin. ART Grand Prix are fourth on 71 points and Hitech Grand Prix fifth with 63 points.
Viscaal will be looking for his first points in Formula 2 when he starts from reverse grid pole in Sprint Race 2 later today at 5.40pm local time.