Sergio Pérez has won a Formula 1 race for the second time in his career. The Mexican took the win after his teammate Max Verstappen crashed in the final laps due to a flat tire. There was a standing restart with two laps to go: Lewis Hamilton braked completely and fell from second to fifteenth place. Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly took advantage of all the uproar and surprisingly took the podium.
After a year of absence due to the corona pandemic, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix also returned to the calendar. It was the fifth time that the street circuit in Baku was allowed to organize a race. The recent past taught us that it could go either way on this track: the first and last editions (in 2016 and 2019, ed.) offered little spectacle, while the 2017 and 2018 races produced some crazy scenes.
The topic of conversation over the weekend was, of course, the bubbling tension between Red Bull and Mercedes. The cause: the so-called flexi-wings. According to Mercedes, the rear wing of Red Bull is moving too much at high speed. Red Bull’s answer? “So does the front wing of Mercedes.” Or how the battle in Baku was not only fought on, but also off the track. Wait and see if that saga gets a tail after the weekend.
Qualifying on Saturday also provided a lot of entertainment on the track. The red flag had to be hung no less than 4 times after various incidents. Charles Leclerc surprisingly took pole position for the second consecutive time in his Ferrari. With Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) and Max Verstappen (Red Bull) he got the two big title contenders right behind him on the grid.
How did the start go?
On a street circuit, the start is always risky, but the drivers kept it very tidy in Baku. Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) had an excellent first round, beating both Carlos Sainz Jr. (Ferrari) as Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) and moved up to fourth place, just behind teammate Max Verstappen.
Charles Leclerc remained in the lead but was unable to hold off the chasing Lewis Hamilton for long. At the end of the second lap, the Ferrari driver had to give in. Hamilton took over first place, a few laps later Leclerc fell completely off the podium when Verstappen and Pérez were also able to overtake him with the help of DRS.
How did the victory come about?
The difference was initially made in the pit lane. Mercedes brought in leader Hamilton on lap 11 for a set of fresh tires. That pit stop was quite slow because Pierre Gasly entered the pits at the same time: Hamilton had to wait a few seconds before he could leave again.
Red Bull smelled an opportunity. Verstappen and Pérez both turned the throttle all the way open on their older tires. Verstappen came in for fresh tires on lap 12 and got back on track ahead of Hamilton. A lap later, Pérez followed: the Mexican managed to get ahead of Hamilton (but behind Verstappen, ed.) to stay.
After the tire changes of the top riders, the first place actually fell into the hands of Sebastian Vettel, who had started in eleventh place in the Aston Martin and finished a long first stint on his fresher tires. After Vettel’s pit stop, order was restored: Verstappen led ahead of Pérez and Hamilton.
On lap 31 the race was rocked by a heavy crash from the other Aston Martin. Lance Stroll, who had not yet made a pit stop and was fourth, suffered a blowout at the rear on the long straight. The Canadian went off hard, but escaped unscathed. The safety car then appeared on the track for a few laps so that the debris could be cleared.
At the restart at the end of lap 35, Verstappen remained in the lead ahead of Pérez and Hamilton. The Briton put Pérez under heavy pressure, but was unable to take second place. It was fun behind that too: Vettel, now sixth due to his alternative strategy, immediately outsmarted Leclerc and one lap later also passed Gasly to fourth place.
The race seemed to be slowly coming to an end, but nothing was further from the truth: with five laps to go, Max Verstappen had a tire blowout at a very high speed. The Dutchman’s race was over immediately and the red flag was hung shortly afterwards. A complete turnaround so close to the end, as the final two laps would see a standing restart.
At that restart, things went completely wrong for Lewis Hamilton: the world champion locked his brakes hard, went straight and tumbled from second to last place. Pérez held off Vettel for the win, while Gasly and Leclerc were still fighting for third place. Gasly eventually took that last podium spot for the Monegask. Lando Norris and Fernando Alonso finished fifth and sixth. The top ten was completed by Yuki Tsunoda, Carlos Sainz, Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Räikkönen.
Who distinguished himself?
Sergio perez drove his best race of the year in Baku and rewarded himself by shooting the lead bird. That he needed a crash from teammate Verstappen will be the worst for the Mexican: he took his second victory in F1 and already proved before Verstappen’s crash that Red Bull made the right choice by bringing him in. The Mexican is now third in the World Cup and is catching up with Verstappen and Hamilton.
Sebastian Vettel was overwhelmingly voted by the fans as Rider of the Day, and there is certainly something to be said for that. The four-time world champion could start from 11th place and had the tactical advantage of being allowed to start on fresh tires. He and Aston Martin capitalized on that advantage with a long first stint, Vettel then completed it himself by keeping cool in the chaos and moving from sixth to second place. Is the old Vettel all the way back?
Pierre Gasly already surprised on Saturday by qualifying fourth in the modest AlphaTauri. A podium finish seemed out of the question, but the Frenchman was in the right place to take advantage when both Verstappen and Hamilton dropped out. Gasly had to hold off an unleashed Charles Leclerc in the last two rounds and did so with verve: he certainly did not steal his third podium place ever.
Behind the logical top three also gets Fernando Alonso an honorable mention. The Alpine Spaniard has had a difficult comeback in Formula 1 so far, but in the last two rounds Alonso showed that he is not worn out yet. Started tenth at the restart, sixth at the finish two laps later: Alonso can pat himself on the chest.
Who didn’t have their day?
For the second consecutive race, things went horribly wrong at Mercedes. This time, however, it was the riders who were responsible. Valtteri Bottas only started tenth, was invisible the entire race and finished only twelfth. Lewis Hamilton threw away a second place, 18 points and the World Cup lead at the late restart. We are not used to that from the seven-time world champion, who eventually finished fifteenth.
Max Verstappen will also want to forget the race in Baku soon. The Dutchman was the deserved winner, but due to bad luck he disappeared from the race with 5 laps to go. Verstappen can take comfort in the fact that he cannot be blamed at all and that he does not lose any points on major competitor Hamilton. The fact that the latter was responsible for his zero score also tilts the mental advantage further towards Verstappen.
At Aston Martin, the party was due to Vettel’s second place, but it could have been so much nicer. Lance Stroll only started nineteenth after his crash in qualifying, but seemed well on his way with an alternative strategy to get some extra points for his team. A blowout decided otherwise, just like with Verstappen. A shame for the young Canadian.
How high was the spectacle value?
Earlier we had the crazy editions of 2017 and 2018, and we will also remember the Azerbaijan Grand Prix 2021 for a very long time. The neutral viewer already had a pretty pleasant afternoon due to the battle between Pérez and Hamilton for second place, Vettel’s great game and the now classic duels in midfield. And due to the chaos in the absolute final phase, the spectacle value was jacked up another level.
What do we remember from this race?
That this is a serious contender for race of the year. We can talk about this Grand Prix of Azerbaijan for a long time to come. In the World Cup, the status quo remains: Max Verstappen still leads by 4 points over Lewis Hamilton. Thanks to his victory, Sergio Pérez is third on 36 points from Verstappen. Will this spectacle be continued in two weeks during the Grand Prix of France?