Sergio Perez confirmed his arrival for Red Bull Racing for his first win in navy overalls in a dramatic ending to the Azerbaijan Grand Prix that saw title protagonists Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton fail to score.
Verstappen had led most of the race comfortably from Perez and Hamilton until a dramatic tyre failure with five laps to go cruelly ended his hitherto flawless race.
A standing restart ensued after the red flag to clear the debris, and though Hamilton got the better start, finger trouble with some brake settings ensured he missed the apex by a mile and dropped down the field.
Perez’s path was clear to claim his second career win, but that isn’t to make it sound as though the Mexican simply had the race handed to him — he had been arguably the form man of the afternoon, recovering from sixth on the grid with such pace that he threatened to overcut even teammate Verstappen before Red Bull Racing brought him into pit lane, where a slow stop ensured he rejoined second.
He also revealed afterwards that he had been managing a loss of hydraulic pressure throughout the grand prix, and him stopping the car almost immediately after taking the flag demonstrated how close Red Bull Racing came to a devastating retirement.
The result means the championship picture remains unchanged at the front, with four points separating Verstappen from Hamilton. Perez, though not yet within striking distance, is markedly closer in third with a 36-point deficit.
The Baku City Circuit is a dramatically different street track to last round’s Monte Carlo, but it is arguably an outlier to a similar degree. A combination of superspeedway in the first and last sector and a more traditional slow-speed urban circuit in the middle, finding the set-up compromise that delivers performance is difficult.
A low-downforce set-up is preferred to enable overtaking and defence down the long start-finish straight, but that doesn’t always give a driver the confidence to push, particularly with the circuit temperature variable in the shaded sections of the track, the high gusts in the self-styled City of Winds and the relatively smooth asphalt.
But get it right and you can fly beyond your station. Ferrari nailed its approach to this track, its chassis — as demonstrated in Monaco — absolutely content with clumsy slow-speed corners no matter the downforce levels, allowing Charles Leclerc to take pole with a very skinny rear wing, owing also to a huge slipstream from Hamilton in the top-10 shootout.
Mercedes, however, struggled. Similar to Monte Carlo, where the same tyre compounds were used, Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas couldn’t generate tyre temperature for a single-lap push throughout practice. It took some “extreme” set-up changes on Friday night — perhaps with Hamilton’s ignored Monaco suggestions in mind — to turn the car somewhat competitive.
Hamilton second on the grid was part hard work and part good fortune — it was his week to choose the intrateam qualifying order and naturally chose for Bottas to give him a slipstream for his first lap in Q3, worth in the vicinity of 0.6 seconds.
Bottas got no slipstream at all on his first lap, and the red flagging of the session meant he never stood chance. He qualified 10th and 1.2 seconds slower than Hamilton.
Verstappen qualified third, the Dutchman lamenting the red flag that stopped him from improving. But practice suggested he had the quickest race car of the top three, and with Leclerc likely to sink back, it would be a straight fight between him and Hamilton for control.
THE RACE-DEFINING MOVE
Depending on which ending of the race you prefer, the race-defining move came on either lap 11 or lap 49.
Hamilton and Verstappen made relatively quick work of pole-getter Leclerc to run second and third by lap six, and Hamilton clearly didn’t have the pace to generate a gap — though Verstappen didn’t appear to have the pace to make a move either.
The Briton had tyres slightly older for setting extra exploratory laps on the soft compound during Q2, and on lap 11 he was brought in to remove the ageing set for fresh hards that would take him to the end of the race.
The tyre change was quick but the stop wasn’t. Pierre Gasly had entered pit lane behind him and was passing his box just as he was set to be released, forcing the team to stretch to a total of 4.6 seconds.
Already with tyre warm-up issues, especially on the hard tyre, which the team undertook no practice running with, Verstappen job covering him was easy on the following tour, and with a 1.9-second stop he emerged with the net lead of approximately four seconds on the following lap.
Hamilton’s delayed stop, therefore, can’t be said to be integral to his loss of the lead.
But while the top two were preparing to stop Sergio Perez was setting fastest laps, having made up two places on the first lap and passed Leclerc for third at the end of lap seven. So fast was the Mexican travelling that he was at risk of jumping not just Hamilton but Verstappen by running long.
Red Bull Racing brought him at the end of lap 13 for new hards, but his stop was also delayed, in this case with trouble at the rear of the car. His stop was 4.3 seconds, and he rejoined the race second, just two seconds behind Verstappen and a second ahead of Hamilton.
In other words, Hamilton’s slow stop had cost him at least a place to Perez, while Perez’s own tardy tyre change cost him a short at challenging Verstappen for the lead on pit exit.
THE RACE-DEFINING MISTAKE
That seemed the race decided, with no further stops scheduled, until of course Verstappen’s tyre failure with five laps to go. The hard compound was well within its life expectancy, and Pirelli suspects debris caused both his and Lance Stroll’s identical failure on lap 29, citing deep cuts in Hamilton’s hard tyres as supporting evidence.
The race was red flagged and the drivers had a standing restart for a two-lap sprint, with Perez on pole and Hamilton beside him.
The Briton got a substantially better launch to lead at the first turn, he mistakenly activated ‘brake magic’ — a setting for warming the brakes on formation laps that biases the brakes fully forward — and was forced into the run-off area, tyres smoking and victory hopes dashed.
His race was done, and with Perez managing his hydraulics problem beautifully, the race was his.
VETTEL BACK ON THE PODIUM
Not since the 2019 Mexican Grand Prix has Sebastian Vettel finished a race as high as second, and his Azerbaijan Grand Prix was every bit old-Vettel vintage.
The German was gutted to qualify 11th after Daniel Ricciardo’s Q2 lap prevented him from setting his own final flyer, but the advantage of using fresh soft tyres from just outside the top 10 proved key to his superb recovery.
He made up two places — Bottas and Lando Norris — on the first lap and rose all the way into the lead of the race before making his first stop on lap 18. Other than teammate Stroll’s ill-fated opening stint on the hards, his was the longest opening stanza of any driver, including three who started on mediums.
He rejoined the track seventh and took the safety car restart after Stroll’s crash in sixth. A sizzling first lap saw him pass former Ferrari teammate Leclerc and Pierre Gasly for fourth, he was bumped up to third after Verstappen’s crash and then inherited second from Hamilton at the standing restart, needing only to manage the final two laps to secure (technically) Aston Martin’s first podium.
GASLY BEATS LECLERC TO THE PODIUM
Leclerc sunk helplessly backwards from pole on his used soft tyres and into the clutches of Pierre Gasly in the battle for fourth when Ferrari decided to pre-empty the Frenchman’s undercut with a stop on lap nine. It got Leclerc caught temporarily behind Stroll, however, and when Gasly covered two laps later he emerged ahead of the Monegasque.
Their duel reached its crescendo in the final two-lap dash. Gasly was suffering power unit problems that left him struggling to defend down the straight, and Leclerc got him briefly as they sped over the line to start the final lap, but the AlphaTauri driver nailed perfectly the brakes to resume the final podium place at the first corner and defended steadfastly thereafter.
ALONSO WINS BIG LATE
Fernando Alonso finished a superb sixth after spending most of the race outside the points as one of the few drivers to make a tyre change behind the Stroll safety car. Dropping from 12th to 14th for the tyre change, he made great progress when the race got going again, passing Nicholas Latifi, Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen to sit 10th after Verstappen crash.
His standing restart was even better. In a single lap he passed Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz and Yuki Tsunoda and gained a place from the mistaken Hamilton to end the race challenging Lando Norris for fifth, taking the flag sixth.
Only one other points-contending driver opted to stop during the stroll safety car, which lacked any time advantage for the fact the pit lane was closed for several laps, was Antonio Giovinazzi, and though he ultimately finished 11th, the grip boost late in the race enabled him to jump the hapless Bottas, demoting the Finn to 14th at the time.