(L to R): Charles Leclerc, Ferrari; Sergio Perez, Max Verstappen, Red Bull; Baku City Circuit, 2023

Sprint race shows why pole position offers Leclerc little advantage in Red Bull fight

2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix pre-race analysis

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In the far, distant past of the 1990s, when digital satellite television was in its infancy, service providers would regularly offer pay-per-view events for viewers to purchase at the press of a remote.

Whether it was a Robbie Williams concert, live boxing, Wrestlemania or some other special event, they would always be accompanied by a short preview show of around 30 minutes – a last minute pitch to encourage viewers to cough up the cash to watch the main event.

In many ways, the Azerbaijan sprint race felt a lot like an extended preview to Sunday’s grand prix – same pole winner, same two cars lining up behind him albeit in a different order. By the time it had ended, everyone – teams, drivers and fans alike – were left with a clear idea about what kind of grand prix is likely to unfold on Sunday. And likely few of them will be expecting a blockbuster race on the strength of those 17 laps.

Even though Charles Leclerc had boosted the confidence of his Ferrari team again on Saturday, backing up his grand prix pole position by topping the grid in sprint race qualifying, he clearly never expected to be able to keep the Red Bulls behind him over the course of the sprint race. As valiant as Leclerc’s effort was, Sergio Perez only had to wait for his opportunity to present himself to challenge for the lead.

When that chance came, almost immediately after DRS was activated, Perez had virtually sealed the eight points the moment his nose edged in front of the Ferrari’s.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Baku City Circuit, 2023
Gallery: 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix sprint race in pictures
“I had to push quite hard initially to get past Charles, especially at the restart because on the first lap I could see he had good pace and very good mechanical grip,” Perez said after the race. “In the end I think it was a really nicely executed race and it’s been a great weekend from the whole team so far.”

The sprint race revealed that, despite the four-week gap between Australia and Azerbaijan, little has truly changed when it comes to the core performance of Red Bull and Ferrari in race trim.

Leclerc enjoyed a great launch off the line to be comfortably leading into the first corner. Race starts have not exactly been Red Bull’s greatest strength in the early part of 2023, as demonstrated by how George Russell managed to challenge Max Verstappen on the short run to the first corner, before going on to elbow his way past in a manner the world champion took great exception to.

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Even if Leclerc manages to emulate his start tomorrow, keeping ahead of Red Bulls will be an almost Herculean challenge. Both Verstappen, second on the grid, and Perez in third have the luxury of an extremely powerful DRS.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull and George Russell, Mercedes, Baku City Circuit, 2023
First-lap damaged delayed Verstappen
The sprint race demonstrated the ample benefit this confers on the RB19s. On lap seven, when DRS was first activated, Perez exited turn 16 onto the long back straight six tenths of a second behind the Ferrari. With Red Bull’s natural straight-line speed and the benefit of slipstream, Perez gained just over a tenth to sit 7kph faster than the Ferrari by the time he hit the DRS activation point. Soon after pressing the button, Perez gained 20kph over the Ferrari to charge through into the lead. At this circuit, against these Red Bulls, it is near impossible for Ferrari to offer any kind of defence to such an overwhelming speed advantage.

There was initially some hope for Ferrari once Leclerc had lost the lead in how he remained in touch with Perez, bringing himself back into DRS range not long after he fell out of it on lap nine. But then, Ferrari’s tyre wear troubles began to rear their head. While Perez maintained a steady pace in the high 1’43s in the lead on tyres were four laps older than Leclerc’s, the Ferrari driver began to lose ground, pushing Verstappen’s damaged car back with him as well.

Leclerc admitted he didn’t try to fight Perez too hard to try in order to keep life in his tyres for as long as he could. “I knew this was our weak point,” he accepted, “I tried to stay within the DRS of Checo, so he could pull me along the straight but that wasn’t enough, we were losing a little bit too much to the end with the degradation, so let’s see what’s possible to improve tomorrow.”

Even beating Verstappen to the flag is not as encouraging for Ferrari as it would have seemed before the sprint race, due to the shark bite-sized hole torn out of Verstappen’s sidepod that likely cost the championship leader a fair amount of speed over the course of the race.

“It was a bit weird,” Verstappen described his car’s handling after the sprint race. “You expect a balance [change], but the way the car was jumping around a lot and sliding in some weird places, vibrations – it’s not great.”

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Ferrari do have Carlos Sainz Jnr starting from the second row of the grid on Sunday behind the two Red Bulls, but from the evidence of Friday and Saturday, it’s foolish to expect him to become a factor in the race – something the driver himself openly admits.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Baku City Circuit, 2023
Perez is hopeful he’ll have pace to contend for victory
“It’s proving to be a very challenging weekend and at this point, knowing what the pace is this weekend, is more a damage limitation weekend for me than anything else,” Sainz confessed after coming home fifth in the sprint race behind Russell. “I’m really struggling out there with confidence, always feeling really, really on the limit of the rear axle and it’s not a nice feeling to have around Baku.”

As Sunday’s grand prix will take place with the afternoon sun directly over the circuit, track temperatures should be significantly warmer than during the sprint race. Even for just 17 laps of the sprint race, the soft tyres were “melting”, according to Valtteri Bottas. Therefore it’s little surprise that Pirelli expect teams will lean heavily on the hard tyres during the grand prix, likely starting on the mediums once again before making a single stop for the harder compound.

But Baku is no ordinary circuit and the risk of Safety Cars and even red flag stoppages are as high as they are at almost any other track on the calendar. Fortunately for the vast majority of drivers, most have two unused sets of hard tyres available. If the race is suspended for any reason, even after they have completed a scheduled stop, they will be able to bolt on a fresh set of the hard tyres for free.

However, this circuit has produced uneventful races before too – including its first ever race back in 2016. But whether the race is calm or chaotic, Perez is confident that the best is still to come from him and his team mate.

“I think I had more pace than what I’ve shown today,” he said. “I think tomorrow it’s again a new day and a new challenge.”

Qualifying times in full

PositionNumberDriverTeamQ1 timeQ2 time (vs Q1)Q3 time (vs Q2)
116Charles LeclercFerrari1’41.2691’41.037 (-0.232s)1’40.203 (-0.834s)
21Max VerstappenRed Bull1’41.3981’40.822 (-0.576s)1’40.391 (-0.431s)
311Sergio PerezRed Bull1’41.7561’41.131 (-0.625s)1’40.495 (-0.636s)
455Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’42.1971’41.369 (-0.828s)1’41.016 (-0.353s)
544Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’42.1131’41.650 (-0.463s)1’41.177 (-0.473s)
614Fernando AlonsoAston Martin-Mercedes1’41.7201’41.370 (-0.350s)1’41.253 (-0.117s)
74Lando NorrisMcLaren-Mercedes1’42.1541’41.485 (-0.669s)1’41.281 (-0.204s)
822Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri-Red Bull1’42.2341’41.569 (-0.665s)1’41.581 (+0.012s)
918Lance StrollAston Martin-Mercedes1’42.5241’41.576 (-0.948s)1’41.611 (+0.035s)
1081Oscar PiastriMcLaren-Mercedes1’42.4551’41.636 (-0.819s)1’41.611 (-0.025s)
1163George RussellMercedes1’42.0731’41.654 (-0.419s)Missed by 0.004s
1231Esteban OconAlpine-Renault1’42.6221’41.798 (-0.824s)Missed by 0.148s
1323Alexander AlbonWilliams-Mercedes1’42.1711’41.818 (-0.353s)Missed by 0.168s
1477Valtteri BottasAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’42.5821’42.259 (-0.323s)Missed by 0.609s
152Logan SargeantWilliams-Mercedes1’42.2421’42.395 (+0.153s)Missed by 0.745s
1624Zhou GuanyuAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’42.642Missed by 0.020s
1727Nico HulkenbergHaas-Ferrari1’42.755Missed by 0.133s
1820Kevin MagnussenHaas-Ferrari1’43.417Missed by 0.795s
1910Pierre GaslyAlpine-Renault1’44.853Missed by 2.231s
2021Nyck de VriesAlphaTauri-Red Bull1’45.282Missed by 2.660s

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Sector times

PositionNumberDriverSector oneSector twoSector threeUltimate lapDeficit to ultimate lap
116Charles Leclerc35.224 (2)40.191 (1)24.788 (6)1’40.203
21Max Verstappen35.277 (3)40.335 (2)24.667 (1)1’40.2790.112
311Sergio Perez35.177 (1)40.365 (3)24.764 (2)1’40.3060.189
414Fernando Alonso35.526 (6)40.645 (4)24.769 (4)1’40.9400.313
555Carlos Sainz Jnr35.512 (5)40.689 (6)24.789 (7)1’40.9900.026
644Lewis Hamilton35.702 (9)40.678 (5)24.767 (3)1’41.1470.030
74Lando Norris35.461 (4)40.71 (7)25.006 (16)1’41.1770.104
818Lance Stroll35.813 (12)40.77 (8)24.778 (5)1’41.3610.215
922Yuki Tsunoda35.717 (10)40.835 (9)24.883 (9)1’41.4350.134
1081Oscar Piastri35.636 (7)40.903 (10)24.925 (12)1’41.4640.147
1163George Russell35.731 (11)40.933 (11)24.927 (13)1’41.5910.063
1231Esteban Ocon35.7 (8)41.037 (13)24.893 (10)1’41.6300.168
1323Alexander Albon35.84 (14)40.976 (12)24.988 (14)1’41.8040.014
142Logan Sargeant35.858 (15)41.47 (16)24.825 (8)1’42.1530.089
1577Valtteri Bottas35.825 (13)41.257 (15)25.079 (17)1’42.1610.098
1627Nico Hulkenberg36.249 (17)41.152 (14)24.908 (11)1’42.3090.446
1724Zhou Guanyu36.052 (16)41.578 (18)25.002 (15)1’42.6320.010
1820Kevin Magnussen36.39 (18)41.541 (17)25.178 (19)1’43.1090.308
1910Pierre Gasly36.504 (19)42.427 (19)25.115 (18)1’44.0460.807
2021Nyck de Vries41.203 (20)47.497 (20)26.582 (20)1’55.282

Speed trap

PositionNumberDriverCarEngineModelMax kph (mph)
118Lance StrollAston MartinMercedesAMR23324.4 (201.6)
255Carlos Sainz JnrFerrariFerrariSF-23321.7 (199.9)
314Fernando AlonsoAston MartinMercedesAMR23321.3 (199.6)
416Charles LeclercFerrariFerrariSF-23321 (199.5)
52Logan SargeantWilliamsMercedesFW45320.9 (199.4)
627Nico HulkenbergHaasFerrariVF-23319.6 (198.6)
711Sergio PerezRed BullRed BullRB19319.5 (198.5)
81Max VerstappenRed BullRed BullRB19319.2 (198.3)
931Esteban OconAlpineRenaultA523318.6 (198.0)
1022Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauriRed BullAT04318.4 (197.8)
1181Oscar PiastriMcLarenMercedesMCL60317.5 (197.3)
1224Zhou GuanyuAlfa RomeoFerrariC43317.4 (197.2)
1323Alexander AlbonWilliamsMercedesFW45317.2 (197.1)
1444Lewis HamiltonMercedesMercedesW14317.2 (197.1)
1520Kevin MagnussenHaasFerrariVF-23315.5 (196.0)
164Lando NorrisMcLarenMercedesMCL60315.4 (196.0)
1763George RussellMercedesMercedesW14315.3 (195.9)
1810Pierre GaslyAlpineRenaultA523315.2 (195.9)
1977Valtteri BottasAlfa RomeoFerrariC43314.8 (195.6)
2021Nyck de VriesAlphaTauriRed BullAT04301 (187.0)

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Over to you

Share your views on the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in the comments.

2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

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    Author information

    Will Wood
    Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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    11 comments on “Sprint race shows why pole position offers Leclerc little advantage in Red Bull fight”

    1. This is one of the biggest drawbacks of the sprint format and why i maintain that it devalues the GP.

      We have now seen a full race build-up, Race start and basically the opening stint of a race which has answered many of the unknowns we usually go into a Sunday with.

      We know everyone’s race pace, We know how the tires are going to act, We know how likely overtaking will be and how the race is likely going to play out because we saw the patterns today that help you see that.

      The argument that the sprint takes nothing away from the GP as the Liberty apologists like to claim ignores all of those things.

      I think the best thing to do on these sprint weekends is just ignore them. Maybe just tune in for the GP and skip the rest of it. Although some of the most dedicated fans feeling like they want to skip weekends should surely be seen as a negative for any sensible owners of any sport.

      1. We have now seen a full race build-up, Race start and basically the opening stint of a race which has answered many of the unknowns we usually go into a Sunday with.

        What unknowns? Have you not been watching F1 at all for the last year?
        Red Bull are way faster over a distance than everyone else.

        The sprint does take nothing away from the GP. The GP is the GP no matter what other sessions there are. Each team has already absolutely optimised their entire weekend by the time they get on the plane to fly to the circuit, and completely set it in concrete by Friday afternoon.
        The only thing that changes is your expectations – which are entirely in your own head.

        If anything – having sprints before the GP has shown team that that they have to fight harder at the start. Thaty’s been the case with most sprint weekends in the past.

        1. I have watched last year and I believe the first third of 2022 was quite close between Ferrari and RB. So I agree that a sprint took away from the ‘mystery’ of knowing how strong a team would be in the race compared to qualifying. Sure the teams already know, but we don’t know for sure.

          1. That was last year – and, yes, the first part of last year was indeed closer. But then Red Bull dominated thereafter and now it is this year….
            We don’t know for sure – nobody does – but there have been plenty of firm indications which play out at every event and are evident here yet again.

            Let’s just be sensible and honest with ourselves – this is extremely unlikely to be a classic at the front of the pack.
            The sprint doesn’t change that.

      2. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
        30th April 2023, 8:44

        Totally agree with the above. Verstappen is bang on. The FIA and Liberty should be putting their effort into making the GP itself better.

        The root issue is the races can become processional and predictable. Changing the sporting rules such as Standing Restarts and Sprint Races doesn’t really address this.

        Technical rule changes are required. DRS was supposed to be temporary, it needs to go. The new ground effect regs are a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done.

        Make the racing closer and all of the other problems will seem minor.

        1. The racing is MotoGP is ‘closer’ and that has a LOT of problems right now. It’s not an easy balance to strike.

          1. Biskit Boy (@sean-p-newmanlive-co-uk)
            30th April 2023, 9:12

            Ah now we are talking about something a bit different. This is an area where Liberty have excelled and I praise them for it. Yes we are talking… swallow… that word… “Marketing”.

            MotoGP is a great product badly marketed. F1’s marketing is amazing and its a great product too. I’m criticising it because I love it. I want it to be better. it can be.

            1. It’s hard to market MotoGP because the narrative right now is chaotic. There’s a reason Rossi and MotoGP were such a potent force. In MotoGP right now you have a guy whose won the last race now trundling around near the back of the field. From a marketing perspective that produces a complex set of problems. MotoGP isn’t marketed well, I agree, but right now it feels a bit like a random results generator. That’s the risk when the competition is so close. Whether people like it or not we do need heroes and villains and titanic battles between quite a small number of competitors. Otherwise there’s nothing cohesive from a narrative point of view.

              it’s a careful balancing act.

      3. Here’s how my ideal weekend would look like:

        Friday Practice 1: a one hour session with Reserve/Third/Rookie drivers only
        Friday Practice 2: a one hour session with Reserve/Third/Rookie drivers only
        Saturday Qualifying at noon
        Saturday Sprint Race in the late afternoon, with a reversed grid from the Saturday Qualifying
        Sunday Practice: a one hour session with Reserve/Third/Rookie drivers only
        Sunday Grand Prix

        Using Reserve/Third/Rookie drivers for the practice sessions is a variable that helps create mystery as their performance differ from the actual drivers. And using a reversed grid for the sprint race offers back marker teams the chance to fight for points in the short sprint race.

        1. *To be clear: The start order for the Sunday race would be determined by the Saturday Qualifying. And not by the Sprint race.

    2. I can’t see Leclerc winning unless RBR gets a double-DNF or issues/damage.
      Even if he keeps P1 at the beginning, like yesterday, he’d most likely get passed the first time DRS becomes activatable on the S/F straight, assuming both RBs are still behind without damage.

    Comments are closed.