Just your usual chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Sergio Pérez took a surprise win as both title contenders, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, failed to score points.
Charles Leclerc had made it back-to-back pole positions against the odds on Saturday. Hamilton was ecstatic to have recovered to second on the grid, after a very challenging start to the weekend for Mercedes, and Verstappen was just behind in third.
The order at the front remained the same as the lights went out, but it was always going to be a matter of time before the Ferrari succumbed to the faster cars behind. Hamilton used his extra straight-line speed to take the lead after two laps and Verstappen followed suit at the start of lap 7. Pérez had made good progress from sixth on the grid and was also able to dispatch the Ferrari a lap later.
Hamilton was just about able to hold the chasing Bulls at bay. His low-downforce setup meant that he had the top speed to keep out of reach on the straights but was unable to break away as he lacked his rivals’ grip in the middle sector. With Verstappen closer than ever and Hamilton’s tyres long past their best, Mercedes brought him in to the pits on lap 12. However, the World Champion had to be held in his box as Pierre Gasly trundled past and, with a pair of quick in-laps, the Red Bull drivers were both able to overcut him.
Over the next hour, Hamilton pressured Pérez but never looked close enough to truly challenge him. Even a safety car on lap 31, when Lance Stroll had a scary crash as his tyre exploded at over 300 kph on the main straight, didn’t change much at the front. It looked as though we had our finishing order wrapped up as Verstappen delivered a fastest lap with five laps remaining. But then…
Just as Stroll’s left-rear tyre had failed him, Verstappen’s decided it too was done for the day. The Red Bull speared into the barriers at an equally terrifying speed, leaving shrapnel scattered across the track. Verstappen was unhurt but understandably distraught to have had a win snatched away so late on.
With questions now very much being asked of the stability of the Pirelli tyres, Race Director Michael Masi deployed the red flag.
After a considerable wait, and with all the cars now on soft tyres, the field lined up on the grid for a two-lap sprint to the finish. As the lights went out for a second time, Hamilton got away well and was immediately alongside Pérez. But this race had one more significant twist in its tale.
As Pérez came over to defend the position, Hamilton swerved to the left. In doing so, he accidentally knocked a switch on his steering wheel which is designed to warm up the brakes. It brings the brake bias forward to around 90% and that meant, as Hamilton touched the brake pedal, he instantly locked up and went straight on at Turn 1, rejoining at the back of the field. A tiny mistake with massive consequences.
Pérez successfully held onto his lead to take the chequered flag and earn his second F1 victory. It would transpire that his car was minutes – if not metres – from failing him, as his team asked him to park the car seconds after he crossed the line.
An unusual podium was completed by Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly. Vettel drove an incredible race, from 11th on the grid to second at the line. Starting on fresh tyres, he pulled out the longest first stint of anyone to move up to fifth, before passing Gasly after the first safety car. A well-deserved Driver of the Day performance as the four-time champion continues to look more at ease in his new, green machine.
Gasly was also excellent, following up an impressive fourth in qualifying with genuine race pace. He then came out on top in an enthralling last lap battle between himself, Leclerc and Lando Norris to earn his third podium.
Fernando Alonso produced his best result since returning to the sport, snatching sixth from Yuki Tsunoda after the restart. Nonetheless, it was a much-improved weekend for the Japanese rookie, who has struggled since his impressive debut in Bahrain. Carlos Sainz – whose race was ruined early on when he took an unscheduled trip down an escape road – finished eighth, ahead of Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Räikkönen.
So, in the end, it was all a bit much-ado-about-nothing for Verstappen and Hamilton in terms of the title battle. After both drivers significant ups and downs over the weekend, they leave Baku with the same number of points as when they arrived.
As much as that costly slip of a finger will have hurt Hamilton, if you had offered him the opportunity to leave this weekend with as many points as Verstappen on Friday – when Mercedes were struggling to even break into the top 10 – he would likely have taken it…
Who Said the Second Red Bull Seat Was Cursed?
After a hit-and-miss start to his Red Bull career, Sergio Pérez thoroughly proved his worth this weekend.
On Friday, the Mexican said he now finally felt at home in the car, and he backed that up with his level of performance throughout the event. He was legitimately ahead of Verstappen on more than one ocCASion and then did exactly what he was brought into the team to do on Sunday. That is, provide support to Verstappen in the fight for the win and be there to capitalise should any unforeseen dramas befall the lead driver.
In Baku, the usual roles were reversed with Mercedes outnumbered two to one in the fight for the lead. And the difference that made in the strategic battle was clear to be seen.
Pérez is now only 30 or so points behind the leading pair. One more shock result like this – twinned with the consistency for which he is renowned – and he could even consider himself genuinely in the title battle.
Penalty Points and Late Calls
Along with the questions to be answered by Pirelli, Masi and the FIA will have a few of their own.
Leclerc described the delay in deploying the Safety Car for Verstappen’s incident as “a joke”. It took nearly 20 seconds for double-waved yellow flags to appear and almost a minute and a half for the Safety Car, just as Pérez was approaching the start-finish straight again.
This came after Lance Stroll had been heard on the radio, pleading for a red flag as he sat in his wrecked car, rightly terrified of the cars screaming past him at full speed.
There also remains the issue of the penalty points system. I have questioned the current method of distributing points before, and this weekend displayed those issues once again.
Norris was handed three penalty points after finding himself in a tricky situation, with the stewards even acknowledging that he had almost no time to react to a red flag. And Nicholas Latifi was then also handed three points after receiving a clearly misleading radio call from his engineer in which he was told repeatedly to “stay out” when the intended message had, in fact, been to come through the pit lane but not stop.
F1 is, of course, a team sport, but if Latifi were to amass the 12 points required for a race ban, Williams would still race – just with a different driver. If this situation happened four times and Latifi remained blameless in each one, how is that remotely fair on the driver?
And all this whilst a genuinely dangerous action by a driver – as Nikita Mazepin swerved into his team-mate’s path at full speed – goes unpunished…
Answering the Burning Questions
How will Hamilton and Mercedes respond after their tough weekend in Monaco? Not that well…
Will the ‘flexi-wings’ actually make a difference? People just kind of stopped talking about them amid the drama.
And will Toto Wolff follow through on his threat of a protest? Seemingly not.
Can McLaren’s straight-line speed help them challenge for a podium? They seemed to have untapped potential through the weekend but will be content with P5 and P9.
The Race in 60(ish) Seconds
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