Coronation for ‘King of Baku’ as Perez puts Melbourne misery behind him

2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix review

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Over four agonising weeks, Sergio Perez could do little but sit and stew over his “really bad, very bad” Australian Grand Prix weekend.

The 11 points he salvaged from the pit lane in the preceding round were of little comfort when his team mate Max Verstappen – practically the only obstacle that sits between him and the chance of a Formula 1 world championship title in 2023 – gained 14 on him with his second win of the season.

But the fates could have offered Perez no better venue to make a statement of intent for the rest of the season than Baku. Of all the stops F1 makes on its annual world tour, nowhere else has Perez enjoyed as much success.

Dubbed “King of Baku” by race engineer Hugh Bird back at the end of that tough day in Melbourne, Perez had laid claim to his throne on Saturday, gliding past Charles Leclerc to win the sprint race. He would have more work to do in the main event, starting behind both pole winner Leclerc and Verstappen. But with Red Bull’s unparalleled race pace and extreme DRS advantage, it was a matter of when Verstappen and Perez would dispatch the Ferrari driver, not if.

Race start, Baku City Circuit, 2023
Leclerc kept the Red Bulls behind temporarily at the start
For the second time in fewer than 24 hours, Leclerc held both Red Bulls behind him as the field launched off the line and around the left-hander of turn one for the first time. As the field snaked through the city streets for the first time that afternoon, Leclerc led the two Red Bulls with Carlos Sainz Jnr in fourth ahead of Lewis Hamilton in fifth and the two Aston Martins of Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll.

The first lap was an ominous one for Ferrari. Leclerc was simply unable to shake Verstappen from his tail, the world champion never more than eight tenths away from his gearbox over the first six kilometres. Verstappen could simply bide his time, knowing that the moment he crossed the DRS activation line on the pit straight and reached up with his left hand to flick the switch, he would be through.

It happened the first moment it realistically could, as the pair flew down the main straight on the first occasion the device was active on lap three. Verstappen has enjoyed many an easy pass for the lead over the last 18 months, but this had to have been one of the simplest he’d ever pulled off. With 20kph of extra speed for Verstappen, Leclerc just had no option but to surrender the lead to a Red Bull for a second successive day.

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Perez now had to urgently follow his team mate through past the Ferrari if he was to have any hope of challenging Verstappen for the 25 points. “Once Max got by I knew that it was really important not to lose too much time with Charles,” Perez later explained, “because if I were to lose too much time with Max then it will be really difficult to catch him.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Baku City Circuit, 2023
The Red Bull pair made light work of Leclerc
Despite an 18kph speed advantage, Perez was not close enough to pull alongside Leclerc the first time he was granted DRS on lap four. But though he failed to clear the Ferrari, having DRS also kept Perez within two seconds of his team mate out front. The next time by, however, Leclerc ceased to be a problem for Perez, the Red Bull slipping up the inside into turn one and establishing a one-two for the team at the head of the field for the first time across the entire Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend.

Freed from the Ferrari, Perez focused his sights on his team mate. So often, Verstappen has simply slipped off into the horizon as Perez watches on, powerless. But in these early laps, on the same tyres as his double world champion team mate, Perez began to reel in the leader, little by little, sector by sector.

Perez gained two tenths on Verstappen through the first corner alone at the start of lap nine, suddenly bringing him inside of DRS range of the leader. With Red Bull’s huge DRS advantage as effective against its own car as any of its rivals, Perez was now sitting within genuine striking distance of the lead of the race.

On lap ten, Perez was almost within half a second of the leader, certainly sizing up Verstappen for a pass along the main straight. But just then, the yellow flags flew. Nyck de Vries, of Red Bull’s sister outfit AlphaTauri, was stranded at turn six, his front left wheel pointing the wrong way in protest at being bashed against the inside wall of the previous left-hander.

At this point, the Red Bulls were dropping down the hill towards turn 16. It took exactly 20 seconds from the moment the yellow flag warning first appeared on the FIA’s race control messaging system for Red Bull race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase to pass along the team’s decision for Verstappen to pit at the end of the very lap he was about to complete. The leader duly obliged, switching to the hard tyres.

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But at the exact moment Verstappen flicked off the pit limiter to rejoin the track, the Safety Car was scrambled. With much of his rivals still yet to pit, and now able to do so losing significantly less time than him, this was a major blow to his victory hopes.

The Safety Car appeared moments after Verstappen headed for the pits
His team’s decision to bring him in despite De Vries’ stoppage making a Safety Car deployment likely prompted questions after the race. “You’ve always got a split second to make a decision and it’s very easy to sit here with 20-20 hindsight,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said of the team’s crucial decision after the race, “but when you’re looking at a car with some skid marks that hasn’t hit a barrier, you think that’s going to hook the gear and the yellow will clear. Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve…”

No words were exchanged between Verstappen and Lambiase over the radio at this point – both instantly understood what the intervention meant for their track position. Perez, however, had been effectively handed the lead that he had been setting up to challenge for moments earlier. Leclerc too had gained second place back with the Safety Car’s deployment, becoming a potentially vital buffer for Perez at the restart.

With the vast majority of the field now having pitted for the hard tyres that they intended to take to the chequered flag, the race had effectively been reduced to a 38-lap run to the finish. That meant Verstappen would have to pick off Leclerc a second time, then chase down and pass Perez on-track to take victory.

The race resumed on lap 14. Perez failed to pull clear at the green flag and even had to go defensive into the first corner as Leclerc sniffed around the rear of his car, mulling in his mind whether it was worth having a go at the leader. But the Ferrari quickly faced far greater pressure from behind as Verstappen cut back on the exit of turn two to draw alongside and out drag Leclerc along the back straight to complete his move up to second place before the end of the first sector.

Behind, Alonso muscled his way by Sainz to steal fourth place with a gutsy lunge into turn four. But the overtaking had not yet finished as soon Hamilton was in the slipstream of his team mate down the main straight. Hamilton cut to the inside to take seventh place from his team mate, re-establishing himself as the leading Mercedes driver after losing that honour thanks to the ill-timed Safety Car.

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Hamilton soon set his sights on Stroll ahead. The Aston Martin driver felt the pressure of the seven-times world champion building up on him and a mistake at turn 16 on lap 19 left Stroll completely exposed along the main straight. Hamilton needed no further invitation and breezed by in the DRS zone to gain sixth place. With 32 laps remaining, the top eight drivers were now in the positions that they would ultimately finish.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Baku City Circuit, 2023
Verstappen quickly passed Leclerc at the restart but couldn’t catch Perez
Before the Safety Car, Perez had closed the gap to Verstappen as soon as he’d cleared Leclerc. On the hard tyres, however, Perez’s lead over his team mate remained static over those first 15 laps of green flag racing. The Red Bulls stamped their authority over the field, lapping consistently in the 1’45s – something their rivals behind were unable to manage even once. Between lap 20 to 25, Verstappen flirted with DRS range of his race leading team mate, but just could not find that final last tenth he needed to open his rear wing.

“I tried to put the pressure on Checo, to try and get into that DRS,” Verstappen explained after the race. “I think, one time, I was pretty close to getting it – but it was just hanging in there, really close. Trying to really catch up probably damaged my tyres a bit too much early on for such a long stint.”

Verstappen knew he had time. With his tyres seeing him to the end of the race and no need for any further pit stops outside of a sudden late Safety Car, it was easy to assume Verstappen was content to pace himself through the bulk of the race before turning up the wick and attacking Perez later on. But once he fell more than two seconds adrift of Perez on lap 29, he never got as close to the leader again for the rest of the race.

“I just settled in, tried to do a little bit my own thing, to not damage the tyres completely to the end,” Verstappen said. “But it was just very difficult to have a good balance, entry to mid-corner. So, the whole race, I was just trying a lot of things on my steering wheel to try and get a bit of a better feeling and balance in the car.”

Already 13 seconds clear of Leclerc behind, the two Red Bulls could afford to back off if they wanted. But Perez and Verstappen were very much engaged in battle, with neither willing to sacrifice any millimetre of the circuit available to them as they sought to out-pace the other. On the 33rd lap, Perez briefly ran out of millimetres on the way into turn 15, triggering an alert in his car’s data that his engineer Hugh Bird quickly came over the radio to check up about.

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“What happened at 15?,” Bird enquired. “I clipped the wall on the entry,” Perez confessed, luckily avoiding any notable damage from. But it was not just Perez who was taking risks with the barriers, as team principal Christian Horner later described.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Baku City Circuit, 2023
Horner said his drivers touched the walls six times
“Looking at the amount of marks on the tyres and the way the drivers were comparing scars where they brushed the barriers,” said Horner, “I counted four with Max and at least two with Checo. So they were pushing flat-out all the way through.”

But despite Verstappen giving it everything he had through the lifespan of his hard tyres, Perez coaxed out a lead of over three-and-a-half seconds by the time the race was in its closing laps. After playing around with various settings, Verstappen managed to strike a happier balance with his car, but by that time it was already too late for him to make the difference.

In his first season with Red Bull in 2021, Perez took just a single race win in Azerbaijan. In 2022, it took until round 17 in Singapore for him to record his second win of that season. But in 2023, directly after a miserable round in Australia, Perez had rebounded in the perfect way in Baku and was on his way to his second victory of the year in just four races. As he checked off the last of the 51 laps, Perez crossed the line and was anointed a new title by engineer Bird.

“King of the Streets,” Bird proclaimed him. “King of the Streets.”

“Well done guys!” a satisfied Perez replied. “We dominated this weekend. We are in the fight, guys.”

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Verstappen could easily have used the badly-timed Safety Car around his pit stop as an excuse for being beaten to second place, but the championship leader was keeping the big picture in perspective.

(L to R): Sergio Perez, Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Baku City Circuit, 2023
Perez became the first driver to win twice in Baku
“I think all in all, I can be quite pleased with second,” he said. “I mean, of course you always want to win, right? But I think sometimes you need these kinds of weekends to learn and have a better understanding of the car, of what the car needs to go faster. And sometimes on the street circuit like this, it really comes out.”

Just over 20 seconds after Perez, Leclerc came over the line to take the final podium position – his first of the season and a much-needed shot in the arm after his dismal start to 2023. It had not been easy, however, as he had faced a late attack from Alonso’s Aston Martin in the closing laps, and held onto third by less than a second.

“Today, we’ve optimised absolutely everything,” Leclerc claimed. “The thing we should be happy about after a weekend like this is that we’ve maximised every session. I don’t think we could have done anything better in any of those sessions.”

Sainz was a distant fifth place, further away from his team mate than Leclerc had been to Perez, with Hamilton right behind him. Stroll came home seventh ahead of Russell, who snatched the fastest lap point with a penultimate lap switch to softs. Lando Norris and Yuki Tsunoda secured both ‘best of the rest’ honours as well as the final points in ninth and tenth, leading home a train of closely-packed midfield cars.

After all those weeks of waiting to get back on the track and make amends for his costly Melbourne weekend, Perez had succeeded by taking maximum points at his strongest venue. And for over 30 laps of almost flat-out green flag racing, he had kept Verstappen behind him to show that, in year three with his team, he is determined to offer some kind of competition to his team mate for this year’s championship.

“I wouldn’t say this is my best ever race,” surmised the race winner. “I think it was just a very, very good race where I pushed from the start to the end without mistakes and I think always when you do that, you believe that you can beat anyone. So it’s just about keeping it up throughout the season.”

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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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7 comments on “Coronation for ‘King of Baku’ as Perez puts Melbourne misery behind him”

  1. couldntstopmyself
    1st May 2023, 8:47

    Thank you for the post race write-up; I find these one of the best pieces on this site.

    And some feedback to all the grumpy fans on this site: F1 always had races with less overtakes, and eras with dominant teams and drivers.
    This wasn’t even close to the worst; just the triple overtake by the World Champions made this race worthwhile to watch. Let’s also be grateful that Perez has found an extra gear. also no need for Sky commentary, as you can now listen to Alonso’s board radio analyses and advice.
    And the Sprint race might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but the quali for the Sprint this weekend was very exciting.

    I enjoyed the weekend, and relived part of it reading this article.

    1. +1
      also to my surprise I liked the sprint qualy because everybody stayed on track it was more entertaining.
      In my opinion DRS ruined the race it could have been a proper fight for the lead but still a decent weekend

    2. Yes, I mean, it was terrible but there’s been races I voted less, there was a french gp where absolutely nothing happened except the last couple laps which I voted 4 or something and I think also the average rating was possibly lower.

      As for dominant seasons, I was thinking that going back to at least 1984, there’s never been a single season where a team\driver combo won the title where it didn’t happen at least twice in a row: the brawn gp season in 2009, apart from that, for example, 1984-1985 you had mclaren, 1986-1987 williams, 1988-1991 mclaren, 1992-1993 williams, 1994-1995 benetton (they didn’t win the constructor’s championship but their main driver won both), 1996-1997 williams, 1998-1999 mclaren, 2000-2004 ferrari, 2005-2006 renault, 2007-2008 ferrari (hamilton ofc won 2008 but ferrari had the overall best car in both years and won the constructor’s), 2010-2013 red bull, 2014-2020 mercedes, 2021-2023 red bull (mercedes won the constructor’s in 2021, but whether you consider that a red bull or merc year, it doesn’t change the fact that it extends either one or the other streak), I know it’s not completely exact due to occasionally a team winning the championship but its driver losing the driver’s championship, but those are rarities, so generally speaking, if a team starts winning, it won’t stop for at least another full year, and these are only the years I thought about, I wouldn’t be surprised if this trend continued further back too.

  2. PMccarthy_is_a_legend (@pmccarthy_is_a_legend)
    1st May 2023, 11:06

    I also enjoyed the weekend and the new format. I thought the last 10 laps in particular were quite nerve wracking as I was rooting for Perez this weekend, I was worried about a safety car or some sort of incident that could derailed Perez win. I was really impressed with the driving from both RB drivers, so consistent and fast.
    Keep it coming!

    1. Tbh, perez had it under control all the time, I don’t think he’d have lost it even if a SC came and brought verstappen on his tail.

  3. Please, less of the coronation puns! I’ll be watching the Miami qualifying and race precisely to drown out events back in the UK where another fake king is set to be crowned…
    Perez drove well and it’s a pity we missed him passing Verstappen for the lead and win. But, as Horner – apparently still his team boss – pointed out, he won’t be taken seriously until he wins a race on equal terms at a ‘proper racing track.’

  4. King? Rather lucky this time around. Firstly the damage for Max in the Sprint, then the SC in the race. Not yet fully on merit but the car carries him fwd.

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