Red Bull driver Sergio Perez “King of the Streets” crowned a perfect weekend to win the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Round 4 of the 2023 Formula 1 World Championship, at Baku City Circuit on Sunday after a tense race-long battle with teammate Max Verstappen.
Perez thus became the first driver to win two times in Baku, another masterful performance by the Mexcian veteran with the toughest teammate in the business, World Champion Verstappen had no answer to take victory, making it two Grand Prix wins each after four rounds.
A straight street-fight, peppered with a safety car, that will go down as one of Perez’s greatest races, Jeddah-like in magnitude. In the end, the day belonged to Perez who radio-ed as he crossed the Baku finish line for his sixth F1 victory: Well done guys, we dominated this weekend. We just have to sort out the issues, we cannot have the issues like Melbourne, we need to fight guys. Vamos!”
His second win, plus his Sprint Race victory on Saturday means Perez (87) has closed the gap to Verstappen (93) at the top of the 2023 F1 World Championship standings, by six points after five rounds.
Perez: Max and I pushed to the maximum
Later, in parc ferme after the race, a delighted Perez added: “It really worked out today for us. “We managed to stay in the DRS train and keep the pressure on Max. I think we had better degradation on that first stint. I think it was very close between us, we pushed to the maximum today, we both clipped the wall a few times. The was Max pushed me today was really hard but we managed to keep in control.
Surprisingly unflustered and humble, Verstappen was magnanimous in defeat, and took second place on the chin: “It is what it is. We wouldn’t know the Safety Car could come out there. Good team result.”
After his sparkling pole position winning lap, Lelerc simply had no ammunition to defend from the Bulls, but did enough to take his first podium of the season, denying Fernando Alonso who again provided numerous highlights during his race to fourth, his dive on Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari was of the highest order, as the younger Spaniard had a below-par and thought-provoking weekend to ponder; Carlos was comprehensively outclassed by Charles this weekend in Baku.
Leclerc: Red Bull are in another league when it comes to the race
The Ferrari driver said afterwards: “Red Bull are in another league when it comes to the race. A very good (qualy) lap managed to put us in front but over 51 laps it was just not possible, they have so much pace than us in race pace. They found something that we didn’t yet.
“The feeling is a little bit better but when I see the gap, we don’t really know how much we closed the gap. The Aston Martin was also really quick so we have some work to do. Fernando was pushing, I knew what his intentions were at the beginning. In the end, it was close but not enough for Fernando,” concluded Leclerc,
In the wake of the Sprint Race on Sunday, Perez winning over Leclerc and Verstappen in the other Red Bull, the #1 ‘wounded’ in battle after a clash with George Russell in the Mercedes, the pair rubbed paint, the Blue car ending with a double fist-seized hold in the side-pod.
For the race, lining up second beside pole winner, Verstappen’s car was repaired for the race. After a stunning rendition of the Azerbaijan national anthem, it was time for the real deal: the hallowed Grand Prix. And another ruthless Red Bull one-two with Perez delivering another stunning and unexpected victory, in the wake of his mastery in Jeddah.
A relatively tame Azerbaijan Grand Prix opening lap set the tone for the race
Hulkenberg and Ocon started from the pitlane, from the red light it was a surprisingly no-bent-metal-start for the majority of the field, the top six stayed in the same order they started the race; Stroll the biggest climber from ninth to seventh among the top ten.
At the front, Verstappen was on Leclerc’s tail, bobbing and weaving with Perez watching the action ahead a second or so adrift. On lap four using DRS and a huge slipstream as the #1 Red Bull cruised past the Ferrari with ease. No defence possible. Perez was in DRS range, big in Leclerc’s mirrors as Max disappeared ahead, and on lap six he got past, the RBR-PU on another level altogether.
The Ferrari cameo was over at that point, it was Verstappen versus Perez for victory. The one-second cap triggered Jeddah deja vu, with the roles reversed. Checo chasing Max this time and trading fastest laps, simply on another planet highlighting what a grand job the World Champs have done this year, and how bad the others have done. Embarrassing.
The inevitable Azerbaijan safety car was triggered when De Vries embarrassed himself
Albon pitted just before lap ten, at which point the top ten was: VER-PER-LEC-SAI-HAM-ALO-STR-NOR-RUS-MAG; the gap at the front pegged at around a second, notably Russell the top climber in seventh while teammate Hamilton, under attack from the Aston Martin duo of Alonso and Stroll, was first of the big guns to pit as a slew of stops began.
Then, De Vries’ weekend went from bad to very bad when he went off in Turn 6, another driver error for the Dutch rookie. Verstappen pitted at this point, just as a full safety car was deployed to remove the stricken AlphaTauri, Perez inherited the lead while the Dutchman was down in seventh, unlucky victim of timing.
The order before the Safety car peeled into the pits was: PER-LEC-SAI-ALO-RUS-STR-OCO-HUL-HAM; the pit lane started the only ones not to stop as they were on hards, and ou of sequence to the grid starters, thus the entire field bar them on fresh hards for the restart on lap 14 led by the Red Bull of Perez. Max chasing Checo. The gap on lap 16 between them was 1.6 seconds.
A Jeddah repeat took place with Max flinging everything at Checo but to no avail
Clean restart, soon Verstappen was past Leclerc and chasing Perez, proper Jeddah repeat, while Alonso ambushed Sainz to nip into fourth, a classic and masterful lesson from the Spanish elder to his younger countryman, the Ferrari was sandwiched by the bullet-proof Astons, with Stroll also feisty in what is clearly a strong Green race car. But the man on the move was Hamilton, in no time the #44 Mercedes was in fifth behind his Spanish nemesis.
At the front the Red Bulls were pulling away at their now traditional one or so seconds per lap, pretty much the same as it has been most of the year; the pecking order gap was around the same if not a tad bigger if today’s dominance is anything to go by.
On lap 20, Hamilton was up to six after Strooll, despite coaching from Alonso on his setup mid-race, made a mistake to allow the Mercedes into DRS range, and taking the position. At the front it was still a stalemate among the rampaging Red Bulls, Verstappen and Perez exchanging fastest laps. While Leclerc got the call to attack and reduce the 11 seconds deficit to the Bulls, and three up on Alonso in pursuit of the Ferrari. It was close across the field.
Notably, even in attack mode, the Ferrari still lacked a second on the pace setters!
At the halfway mark of the 51-lap race, the points-scoring positions were: PER-VER-LEC-ALO-SAI-HAM-STR-RUS-OCO-HULK. Again stale-mate, except Perez who was slowly but surely stretching the lead, on lap 50 the gap just over two seconds to his teammate in second, the Mexican working ultra-hard, scraping walls while frustrating Verstappen who radioed balance problems on his car. Leclerc was 13 seconds adrift with Alonso stalking with intent, with Sainz out of the picture, eight seconds down in fourth.
With 20 laps to go, everyone started to up the ante, tyres preserved and strategies finalised, it was hammer-time across the tight field and time to see who had what when it mattered with the order unchanged: PER-VER-LEC-ALO-SAI-HAM-STR-RUS-OCO-HULK.
At the front it was gloves off, the pair flying on another planet, the top step of the podium beckoning for either. Enthralling stuff between the teammates.
On lap 37, Hamilton was in DRS range of Sainz in fourth, but the Mercedes simply lacked the legs; ditto or the Merc-powered McLaren of Norris hunting a point that Hulkenberg was clinging to in tenth. At which point Zhuo’s Afla Romeo cried enough, the Chinese driver told to park the car, joining De Vries for an early shower.
Alonso only just missed out on a fourth consecutive podium
Meanwhile, relentless Perez found another second on Verstappen at the sharp end, Leclerc 16 seconds behind, and Alonso backing off from his claim for a fourth podium at that point four seconds down on the third-placed Ferrari. Only Hamilton was in DRS of range of a rival, Sainz ahead but uncatchable by the hapless Mercedes.
Lap 40, still a stalemate across the field, with Max chasing Checo hard, very hard, the pair way ahead when suddenly, on lap 44 Leclerc popped a flurry of fastest laps, 16 seconds adrift!
Hamilton was within DRS of Sainz’s Ferrari, the seven-time F1 World Champion asking for more power over the radio. Behind them Hulkenberg was defending with the same set of tyres he started with, with Norris still shadowing him before pressuring the Haas driver into a mistake, the McLaren up to tenth on lap 46.
And that is how it ended, Perez taking another fine win, Verstappen playing second fiddle, Ferrari and the rest outclassed, Leclerc 21 seconds down on the top two. At the same time, Russell cheekily stole the fastest lap, on his way to eighth, but overall not a good weekend for the Englishman, relative to what he is capable of and expected of delivering for Mercedes.
One stain, on an otherwise rare uncontroversial race, was the late-race incident when Ocon pitted his Alpine, only to be confronted by a melee of media and photographers swarming the pitlane perilously.
Onboard TV images show how close the Alpine was to photographers, several jumping out of harm’s way, with no reported injuries, but a close call F1 cannot afford a repeat of.
The FIA took action immediately after the race: “Representatives of the FIA responsible for the Parc Ferme area at pit entry are required to report to the Stewards at 17:30 (14:30BST), in relation to the incident: Personnel blocking the fast lane in the pit lane on the final lap of the 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix while the pit lane remained open.”
Red Bull boss Christian Horner commented on the incident: “That needs a review because Esteban’s within his right to pit on the last lap. That’s something the FIA need to police a little better before the end of the race.”