Sergio Perez won the first Formula 1 Sprint Race of the 2023 season around the Baku street circuit, beating polesitter Charles Leclerc, while Max Verstappen could not manage better than third.
Leclerc has been imperious in terms of qualifying pace over the Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend, but the Red Bull of Perez was the superior race car, the Mexican reeling the Monegasque in and taking the lead and keeping it.
The Ferrari ace had to settle for second at the end of the Sprint, that was interrupted by a Safety Car period caused by Yuki Tsunoda hitting the wall on Lap 1, while Verstappen could only manage third.
The double F1 Champion was racing with damage on the floor and bodywork of his RB19, sustained after a first lap clash with Mercedes’ George Russell, who leapt ahead of the #1 RB19 on the opening lap, only for the positions to be switched at the restart after the Safety Car.
The footage showed quite some damage on the RB19 of Verstappen, who wasn’t pleased and had a “not so friendly” discussion with Russell, who said he had no grip, but Max wasn’t having any of it.
A satisfied Sergio Perez said after the Sprint: “To get away with maximum points today was the objective, but we know tomorrow is the main race.
“The track conditions will be different. There is good learning today, I will give a go for the win,” the Mexican vowed.
Charles Leclerc revealed Ferrari knew they were going to struggle to match Red Bull on race pace; he said of the Sprint: “It confirms a little bit what we thought. The Red Bulls still have the upper hand in the race.
“We, again, must not forget how far we were behind in race pace two races ago. We did a step forward. We are still not where we want to be, but if winning is not possible then we just need to take the maximum points.
“Today there wasn’t anything more, so happy with the second place. We will try to go for the win tomorrow, even though the Red Bull seems a bit quicker.
“I didn’t fight Checo too much because I wanted to try to keep my tyres as I knew this was our weak point,” the Ferrari man revealed. “I tried to stay within the DRS of Checo so he could pull me on the straight, but that wasn’t enough. We were losing a little bit too much towards the end with the degradation.
“Let’s see what’s possible to improve tomorrow and we will give our all,” the five-time race winner concluded.
Third-placed Max Verstappen was clearly unhappy with how his race unraveled, and commented on George Russell’s “no grip” excuse for their lap 1 incident.
The Dutchman said: “I just don’t understand why you need to take so much risk in lap one, understeer into my sidepod, create a hole. We all have cold tyres, it’s easy to lock up.
“His beautiful way of explaining ‘ah mate, you know locked up, ah look at the onboard’. It doesn’t make sense. There’s a hole in the sidepod, it doesn’t look that great, it is what it is now and we’ll focus on tomorrow,” Verstappen concluded.
How the Sprint unraveled
Ahead of the race, Alpine announced that Esteban Ocon will start from the pitlane as his the team decided to break parc ferme conditions to apply some changes on the Frenchman’s car, while Williams decided to withdraw Logan Sargeant from the Sprint Race as the team could not fix the American’s car after his crash in the Sprint Shootout.
Aston Martin, on the other hand have struggled with their DRS on both cars, Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll, and it seems the problem might persist in the Sprint.
Charles Leclerc had a great start and the same applied to Sergio Perez as well, while Max Verstappen came under pressure from George Russell, the Briton overtaking the Dutchman on Lap 1.
Verstappen complained that Russell pushed him into the wall, and later the team informed him that there was floor damage on his R19, while insisting he kept calm and not to do anything rash trying to overtake the#63 Mercedes.
Lap 1 was not over yet when the Yellow Flags came out courtesy of AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda who banged the wall at Turn 15, his rear right tyre flying off the rim, which along with debris on the track prompted race control to deplot the Virtual Safety Car.
The Virtual Safety Car became a Safety Car, while AlphaTauri tried to send Tsunoda out on track again. However, there was something clearly wrong with his AT04, as he was driving around sideways “crab-walk style”. The suspension was really damaged on Tsunoda’s car and the team was under investigation for sending the car out in an “unsafe condition.”
The Safety Car was sent back to the pits with 12 of the 17 laps of racing remaining, and with Leclerc taking his time to put his foot down.
Verstappen retook third place from Russell, while Carlos Sainz and Fernando Alonso caught Lewis Hamilton napping at the restart, the seven-time Formula 1 Champion dropping two positions to seventh.
Up front Leclerc was under pressure from Perez, as Hamilton started to gain on Alonso in an attempt to retake sixth place from the Spaniard.
Perez made quick work of Leclerc, as by lap eight, the DRS deployed, the Mexican was able to overtake the Monegasque and take the lead of the Sprint Race, and soon Verstappen was also within DRS range of the #16 Ferrari.
The top three were busy with their own fight, as fourth placed Russell was over two seconds away from Verstappen who was edging closer to Leclerc, setting his sights on second place.
Lando Norris, one of three drivers to start on the Soft tyres, the rest all of Mediums, had to pit for the yellow-banded tyres and rejoined the in 18th, as Bottas, another driver on Softs started complaining about them as well.
In the meantime, the Aston Martin duo, both not able to use their DRS, were doing a decent job keeping the chasing pack behind them.
SPRINT LAP 16/17
Less than a second separates Leclerc and Verstappen!