During pre-season testing Sergio Perez was asked how long it would take him to get to grips with the Red Bull RB16B.
On the face of it, his assessment was spot-on: Round six of the world championship fell to Red Bull’s newest driver.
But a lot of things had to go his way for that to happen. Including the disaster which befell his team mate Max Verstappen, and Lewis Hamilton spectacularly squandering his chance to retake the championship lead.
How Perez won ‘race two’
The cars took up their positions on the grid, the five lights illuminated, then extinguished, and as one the field moved away towards the first corner. The two-lap Azerbaijan Grand Prix was on.
Perez had led at the end of what turned out to be a 48-lap qualifying race, and therefore lined up on pole position. Hamilton started second, just as he had over two hours earlier when the original start was given.
Minutes earlier, he had reminded his team on the radio that “this is a marathon, not a sprint”, implying he wasn’t going to risk his chance to overturn Verstappen’s points lead. It soon seemed as if he had forgotten his own advice.
As the field formed up behind the pair on the front row, the Mercedes drivers’ hot brakes began to billow with smoke. The wait on the grid was prolonged as George Russell arrived at the rear of the field only to discover his gearbox wasn’t working properly.
Finally the lights went out. Hamilton’s smoky Mercedes got away from the line fractionally sooner than Perez’s Red Bull, and he made for the inside. A whopping 25-point championship dividend beckoned. But it got away from him.
From the outside it seemed Hamilton had either braked too late or those smouldering discs hadn’t provided the stopping power he needed. In fact, as Hamilton later revealed, he had accidentally re-engaged his ‘brake magic’ setting, used to prepare his brakes on formation laps, robbing him of stopping power.
While Hamilton motored straight on at turn one, as if he’d forgotten which way the track went, the rest of the field headed around two final tours of the six-kilometre Baku course. Perez led them home, the first of several drivers with a fine result to celebrate. But two others were relieved merely to still be standing after a pair of shocking crashes.
How Verstappen controlled ‘race one’
Some two hours and 10 minutes before the final restart, the drivers took up the grid positions they’d qualified in the day before. Charles Leclerc, Hamilton and Verstappen lined up at the head of the field and moved away in good order.
Perez, who had been enormously disappointed to qualify only sixth after showing fine pace in practice, immediately picked off Carlos Sainz Jnr and Gasly to claim fourth. This was vital for Red Bull: Both cars were now fully in play in the fight for victory.
From Friday’s running, Ferrari knew they didn’t have the long-run pace to challenge for the win. Hamilton tracked Leclerc around the opening laps with little difficulty.
Nearing the end of lap two, the leaders encountered a branch on the track at turn 15. Leclerc, who had crashed at the very corner in second practice, cut across the inside. Fearing he might be penalised, he backed off, allowing Hamilton within range. At the end of the long straight, the Mercedes slipped by into the lead.
Within five laps the Red Bull drivers had used DRS to demote Leclerc to fourth place. The two RB16Bs then sat on Hamilton’s tail with little difficulty.
Despite Pirelli bringing its softest tyre selection for the race, it was clear early on this would be a one-stop affair. Mercedes therefore wasted little time bringing Hamilton in for a set of hard tyres on lap 11, intending him to run them for the remaining 40 laps.
But Gasly followed him in, and Hamilton lost precious seconds as Mercedes held him in the pit box while the AlphaTauri passed by. Verstappen enjoyed a clean pit stop the next time around, and easily rejoined the track ahead of Hamilton.
Perez, who has a great affinity for the Baku circuit where he took podium finishes for Force India in 2016 and 2018, therefore inherited the lead, and was flying. He stayed out two laps longer than Verstappen, lighting up the timing screens, and looked set to give his team mate a close run after his pit stop.
Fortunately for Verstappen, Perez also lost time in the pits. According to team principal Christian Horner, this was because he had stopped late in the pit box. Perez returned to the track behind Verstappen but, vitally for Red Bull, with Hamilton in his mirrors.
The leaders’ pit stops temporarily put Vettel at the front of the field. The Aston Martin driver had qualified 11th, the first of the drivers on fresh tyres, and elected to run a long opening stint. For four laps the British racing green car circulated at the front of the field, before Verstappen reclaimed his lead.
Vettel pitted soon after. But Stroll, now fourth having started on the front row, was taking the hard tyres he had started on as far as he could. After Vettel’s stop Stroll held fourth behind the Red Bulls and Hamilton. But he was doomed to be the first driver of the day to suffer a shocking end to his race.
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The crashes that changed the outcome
Accelerating out of turn 20 to begin his 30th lap, Stroll’s car suddenly snaked to the side. A left-rear tyre had failed at around 300kph. It snapped sideways, struck the barrier hard and skidded to a halt.
On his radio Stroll urged race control to throw a red flag. Instead the crash scene was covered by double waved yellow flags initially, and a string of drivers passed by, some slowly noticeably less than others. Lando Norris, following Yuki Tsunoda, told his team: “Yuki didn’t even lift.”
After what must had felt like an eternity for Stroll, the Safety Car was deployed, and the pit lane entrance closed, as the approach was blocked by debris.
A red flag would have given the drivers a chance to fit fresh tyres, which may have prevented the further drama which followed. Particularly as several of them had to pass through the crash scene, potentially running over carbon fibre shards from Stroll’s smashed AMR21.
Three years earlier, Bottas had been denied victory at the track when he sustained a puncture due to debris. But FIA Formula 1 race director Michael Masi said he had high confidence in the track’s cleaning process.
“We’re quite fortunate with the cleaning equipment that we have at this event where, instead of using sweepers, there’s the FOD BOSS mats, which is another type of cleaning product that is used. We’ve seen that a number of circuits previously when we’ve had race suspensions we send track sweepers around to clean everything up and it was the same philosophy here during the race suspension.”
The restart was given on lap 35. Verstappen and Perez weaved in formation. Hamilton kept his Mercedes lined up straight in third, knowing he had a chance to slipstream Perez when they reacted together to Verstappen accelerating. Sure enough, he got close enough to force Perez to defend, but had to settle for third place.
Behind them Vettel made more gains. His tyres were 10 laps fresher due to his later stop, and he took Leclerc and Gasly in succession to grab fourth behind Hamilton.
“It was quite hairy into turn three,” said Vettel. “Charles was braver than I expected it because I initially braked later than him but he opened the brakes and I thought ‘okay for sure he’s going to hit the wall’. So I prepared to get to the inside but he made it. I don’t know how, but he did.”
Prior to Stroll’s crash, Verstappen’s lead had been around six seconds. Now he set about rebuilding it. By lap 45, half-a-dozen tours from home, he had a 4.4-second margin over Perez again.
In Monaco he’d taken the points lead from Hamilton; now he was going to tie the win count at three-all. But that wasn’t to be, either.
Verstappen’s crash was a near-copy of Stroll’s. He was on his 33rd lap compared to Stroll’s 30. Again it was the left-rear which failed, not far from the scene of the Aston Martin driver’s crash.
Mercifully, his car spun away from the barrier dividing the track from the pits – where the impact could have been enormous – though his hit with the barrier opposite the pit wall was heavy enough. Once again the incredible safety properties of modern F1 cars came to a driver’s rescue in a crash which seemingly shouldn’t have happened to begin with.
To avoid the risk of further damage to tyres, drivers were initially told to go through the pit lane. Nicholas Latifi failed to comply, and was hit with a severe penalty.
There was, therefore, no safety requirement to red flag the race. Masi later admitted it was only done because the race would otherwise have likely ended behind the Safety Car. It was this which created the bizarre situation of a standing start followed by a two-lap race to decide the final result.
Vettel puts Aston Martin on the podium
Verstappen was taken to the Medical Centre where he was checked and cleared. While his blood pressure was being taken, his phone suddenly received a flurry of messages: Hamilton, seemingly on course to regain the championship lead, had blown his chance. Verstappen returned to the paddock to join his team in celebration.
In a curious twist, Perez shared his moment of glory with the driver who, nearly 12 months early, threatened to end his F1 career. Perez was shown the door by Racing Point – now Aston Martin – in favour of Vettel.
The first races of the season had been hard on Vettel, but in Monaco he bounced back with a superb fifth place. In the carnage of Baku, he went three better.
“We had a very good first stint,” he explained. “I saved the tyres in the beginning and stayed out longer than most of the people in front of me, which I think helped us later on.”
The first safety car, brought out by Vettel’s Aston Martin team mate Lance Stroll crashing near the pit lane entrance after a left rear tyre failure, didn’t present much of an advantage to the majority of cars. Unable to pit due to the location of the crash, frontrunners chose to continue and Vettel’s younger tyres played to his advantage.
Vettel knows the pain of losing strong results due to tyre failures. It happened to him at Spa in 2015, Austria in 2016 and Silverstone in 2017. But the combined misfortunes of his team mate and Verstappen had played into his hands.
“With the red flag, obviously it’s a shame for Max to lose the lead like that,” he said. “I don’t know what happened. I think Lance had the same issue, the tyre just failing.
“But I think for us, obviously, then we found ourselves in a good spot in the podium ranks and just two laps to go. So you just try to keep it together.”
When Hamilton swerved off the track at turn one at the restart, Vettel took up second place behind Perez. For a moment it looked like he might even be closer enough to slipstream up to the Red Bull on the final lap.
“I tried to stay a bit closer with Sergio, maybe to do something after the first lap but I was too far away,” said Vettel.
He was even closer to winning than he realised. Perez had a hydraulic problem on his car, and in the garage Red Bull were anxiously eyeing the pressure gauges, fearing they might come away with nothing at all from a race they had been leading one-two with six laps to go.
Perez’s luck held, though after he took the chequered flag the team immediately told him to stop the car. For the first time since 2018 a Red Bull driven by someone other than Verstappen had won a race. Gasly, one of the drivers who’d tried and failed to do so in that time, joined him and Vettel on the podium.
Gasly jousted thrillingly with Leclerc around the final laps to secure the last spot on the rostrum. The other Ferrari of Carlos Sainz Jnr was eighth, and each finished with a McLaren close behind them, ensuring they bolstered their position in the very closer contest for third in the points. Between those two pairs were Fernando Alonso and Yuki Tsunoda, the twice-champion having brilliantly gained four places at the final restart.
Kimi Raikkonen took the final point, but his fellow Finn capped a miserable weekend by following both Alfa Romeos home in 12th. At no point in proceedings had he looked likely to score more than a couple of points.
When Verstappen hit the wall, it seemed he was going to pay a high price in the championship for a piece of extraordinary ill luck. Hamilton’s error ensured they left Azerbaijan still separated by just four points.
But Formula 1 had a far luckier escape in Azerbaijan after Verstappen and Stroll’s crashes. The successes of Perez and Vettel were juxtaposed with the fates of their team mates. Once again, F1 faces serious questions over why drivers suffered catastrophic tyre failures at high speed with no apparent warning.
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2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix
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