Perez and Vettel triumph on day disaster struck their team mates

2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix review

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During pre-season testing Sergio Perez was asked how long it would take him to get to grips with the Red Bull RB16B.

“It’s hard to pick a number,” he said. “I think after five races.”

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.

Restart, Baku City Circuit, 2021
Hamilton had the points lead in sight, then blew his restart
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.

Start, Baku City Circuit, 2021
Despite a clean start, Leclerc only led one lap
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.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Baku City Circuit, 2021
Slow pit stop cost Perez chance to jump Verstappen
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.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Baku City Circuit, 2021
Report: Why the Azerbaijan GP was stopped for Verstappen’s crash but not Stroll’s
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.”

Mick Schumacher, Haas, Baku City Circuit, 2021
Pictures: 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix
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.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Baku City Circuit, 2021
Second huge crash, for Verstappen, stopped the race
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.

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin, Baku City Circuit, 2021
Aston Martin took their first F1 podium thanks to Vettel
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.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Baku City Circuit, 2021
Poll: Rate the Race – 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix
“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.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Baku City Circuit, 2021
Perez claimed second win of his career
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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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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39 comments on “Perez and Vettel triumph on day disaster struck their team mates”

  1. F1 has a bad cocktail made up of 2 entirely self-inflected ingredients:
    1) Its own race director, Michael Masi who is more than happy to create artificially contrived close racing situations for drivers
    2) Its own degrading tyres philosophy, which has caused tyres to be made out of softer material, and hence more susceptible to previously harmless pieces of debris.

    F1, as a sport, is never too far away from any accident. Add these 2 ingredients in the mix and we get perilously close to any of these accidents into a very nasty and potentially fatal accident.

    Hope F1 can fix at least one of these 2 things ASAP!

    1. Tyre degradation hasn’t really been part of Pirelli’s philosophy since 2016. Clearly the tyre failures aren’t acceptable, but this isn’t due to high degrading tyres like it was in 2013.
      I think some of the problem is that we have had these tyres for 3 seasons now.

      1. The tyres this year are the new design – The teams tried to veto them again but the FIA agreed with Pirelli’s case that the older-spec tyres were unsafe with the amount of downforce being generated so the change happened.

    2. When I saw Stroll’s tyre fail, my first thought was there must have been a wall, drain cover or ripple strip that damaged the tyre. I’ll hold my judgment of the tyre issue but I do feel a street circuit provides lots of extra chances to damage tyres that don’t exist on a modern track.

      I wonder if a split from a drain was enough to blow the tyre once the downforce got to a certain level? I’m guessing the aero load at that point of the track would be higher than the rest of the track, (and would have continued to increase until top speed was reached)?

      1. Yeah it’s my feeling that something on track cut those tyres. Whether it’s a drain cover a sharp kerb or some debris. If you watch the slowmo for Max’s crash just after his tyre deflates you can see a small piece of debris get kicked into the air. It’s possible he ran over some carbon fibre from an earlier accident.

      2. Coventry Climax
        7th June 2021, 12:25

        Even if that were the case, it’s not like Pirelli suddenly finds out: “Oh, this is a street circuit?”. They should provide tyres that are up to these situations, for the simple reason there’s lives involved.
        What’s happenend is not the first time they’re completely off with their predictions, and completely caught out by reality.
        To me it’s very simple, Pirelli lacks the knowledge, skills and professionality to come up with a decent tyre. The only thing they’re very professional about, is their ability to lay the blame elsewhere, although their brothers in the evil, the FIA, is quick to back them, covering their own behinds.

      3. Street circuits aren’t new to F1. I don’t think there are any new type of debris that are present on circuits in the Pirelli era (apart from Pirelli’s own degraded rubber which has fallen from the tyres).

        I have been following F1 for past 15-18 years and haven’t seen so many without warning tyre failures from the Michelins, Bridgestones. The only time it happened was 2005 Indianapolis.

        With Pirelli, it feels that every race once in a while is bordering on the edge of being a 2005 Indianapolis repeat.

    3. F1 has been doing this for years, like calling out a SC for a couple of debris on the track or to remove a car already in a safe place (i.e. Brazil 2019).
      People are going nuts after the first turn drama with Hamilton going straight; hence, the decision to restart the race is paying off. Like it or stop watching it.

  2. For me the duel between Gasly & Leclerc on the last 2 laps was the highlight. V close racing, position yo-yo between the 2 of them but without contact. Great credit to both drivers – safe & exciting racing.

    1. @gabf1 Don’t forget Norris was involved in that scrap as well. I mean he could have got another podium if he got a better exit out of T16 and a better tow!

  3. I still canť wrap my head around the time it took Masi to declare a safety car procedure after Max’s crash, I think even Leclrec was surprised how his team told him they are still racing, to what he answered something like “Are you crazy!, a car is crashed at the end of the main straight! stop the race!”, did Masi explained this mistake that could have ended in disaster?

    1. @kaiser Same. The SC indeed should’ve come out immediately, but what I was even more surprised about was the delay in restarting the race long after Max’s car had been retrieved.

    2. Agreed, total madness.
      Maybe Netflix was watching.

      1. Stroll and Verstappen crashes should have been instant safety cars. It took 1 min and 22 seconds after Verstappen’s car came to a stop to deploy the SC. Astonishingly bad.

        And as you say @Jere, why it took nearly 40 minutes to restart the race after Verstappen’s crash, with no barrier repairs required… it’s bizarre.

    3. @kaiser He was checking with Liberty and TV scheduling whether to throw a yellow or red. As is clear now, safety is not his primary concern.

  4. 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.

    Ok, didn’t know that. I only remember the Red Bulls cutting that corner. Only later I found out this was because of that branch. Anyway, it was an interesting way to lose a position (although Leclerc was always going to lose the lead sooner or later).

    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.

    To me it seemed Hamilton wasn’t delayed by Gasly. His stop was just slow.

    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.

    He pitted on the next lap.

    1. In the F1 post race there was even the suggestion redbull asked alfa tauri to pit as an obstacle for Lewis.
      I know Toto uses all of his drivers but such a action would be not only unprecedented but brilliant timing

      1. AlphaTauri aka Not Alfa. Too many ‘A’ names on the grid.

    2. To me it seemed Hamilton wasn’t delayed by Gasly. His stop was just slow.

      And he got held up, just watch the race. It didn’t matter cos he would’ve still come out where he did

      Reply moderated
  5. Another 2 tyre failures for Pirelli’s tally. I guess we can be thankful neither driver crashed into the pit lane divisor barriers that Rosberg pointed as the most dangerous of the season.

  6. I think we are all happy for PER.

    1. @amaran Not really. See how this site has “inherited the lead” several times in its articles? Now we read also “a lot of things had to go his way”. No mention also for his stellar 1st lap and other significant details.

      1. @f1-fan

        From the article: “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.”

        And… didn’t he inherit the lead?

        1. @warheart Obviously you didn’t understand what I say but this is my fault also because I didn’t make it more clear. When certain drivers do something, even if it is (let me use the word) simple, we get “WOW” type of sentences on articles here. For other drivers, when they do something that it can have a tiny “WOW” praise, the sentences are toned down to Earth.

      2. @f1-fan I understood what you tried to point out. Well, these are typical things that I’ve noticed in the past, as well.

  7. The outcasts strike back. Everybody liked that I guess. If it was either Max or Lewis failing to score there would be alot more bitterness and hate in the comment sections.

    It was great to see how genuine Perez and Vettel were happy for the other, Aston celebrating Perez and I think I also saw Norris and Alonso coming up to Vettel. What a wholesome experience.

    1. @d0senbrot I was listening to the driver’s radio messages at the end of the race and there was another nice detail: Sainz’s engineer was telling him how the race had ended, and instead of saying “Vettel” he said “Sebastian”.

    2. @d0senbrot

      It was great to see how genuine Perez and Vettel were happy for the other, Aston celebrating Perez and I think I also saw Norris and Alonso coming up to Vettel. What a wholesome experience.

      +1

  8. So if Yuki didn’t slow down for double yellow flags why didn’t he get a penalty?

    1. Masi told McLaren that everybody had been going too fast so he would have to penalize everyone. He was not going to just penalize Yuki for having been bad a little worse than Norris was bad.

      1. Coventry Climax
        7th June 2021, 12:33

        In any country that doesn’t qualify as banana republic, when a whole bunch of cars ignore a red light, the whole bunch gets to pay the associated fine.
        So this is beyond a lame excuse, mr Masi!

      2. Tommy Scragend
        7th June 2021, 13:02

        Masi basically told McLaren to stop being snitches.

  9. Lots of learnings this weekend for FIA and Liberty. Not their finest hours.

    1. Dismissal is calling!

  10. I’m glad of the outcome. Ultimately I want Hamilton to get his 8th but I wouldn’t have liked him to luck into the championship lead again. It’s also brought Perez closer to the battle. If he can find himself some consistency and qualify better he will soon find himself a regular thorn in Mercs side.

  11. I wonder what bottas’ excuse for not being able to overtake cars that are a second a lap slower than his car will be this time.

    He consistently under performs(no doubt people will bring up monaco as if 1 race in 40 makes him a good driver) in a car that is comfortably quicker than most of the field.

    He’s a bad driver that wouldn’t be where he is if his manager wasn’t a certain team manager…

    Reply moderated
  12. I think people would hate Hamilton a lot less if he could lose gracefully.

    But he doesn’t, he whines endlessly. Another weekend of whining cos he can’t handle the pressure

    Reply moderated
  13. Hamilton has made mistakes this season yeah but look at Max Vestappen his misake in Portimao does not get spoke about enough we just bring up Bahrain. Max has the downforce we all know that and made a huge mistake leading onto the straight so Hamilton overtook him and even then it was hard for all we know Ham does not make it through. People go on about Lewis losing a place on the restart instead lmao because that is the same as going around at full pace aint it lol. Clear as day how good RedBull is when Perez is beating Lewis Hamilton and only a few seconds behind either the 1 A driver or 1B driver. People say Ham as been lucky what about Imola aswell for Max another day he bins it under the safety car he got away with it big time.

    It was nice to see people saying that Leclerc is probably faster over a lap than Max. 1 pole position in that car is nowhere near good enough and even his biggest fans can admit that. Max is an unreal driver but 1 pole position shows he aint flawless like his fans believe. It will be interesting what happens in Austria with the wings Rbull may lost alot of performance. Bottas has not come close to winning a race this season even without his unfortunate look. Hamiltoin as been awful in terms of pace this season in 1 main session qually in Monaco. His race was not event that bad what can you do when you have a car that can not switch tyres on atall and you go for the undercut.

    Look at Baku Bottas was nowhere and every F1 fan with a brain knew if it was close Hamilton would make the difference. And you can clearly tell Merc is on a knifedge alot of the time. You would never see Hamilton trundling around getting down like Bottas on a track where you should be coming through the field. All the fools claiming he needed a tow and saying poor Bottas look abit sill now eh? He had a damn tow all race and could not go forward lol.

    Anyway lets see if Merc in France will be back on pace as so far and tracks like Portimao and Catalunya Merc probably have a tenth in the races. Max clearly has the car for it faster than Merc in Monaco and Baku. Hilarious seeing everyone rip Merc for saying they aint in the right window or not quick enough. Perez 5 races in was ahead and Max was faster now 2 races in a row. This year will be beutiful if Lewis wins the WDC and without the construtors.

    Reply moderated

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