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F1 Review: Sergio Perez Prevails in Bizarre Azerbaijan Grand Prix

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix looked like it might be another Lewis Hamilton romp after he took the lead on lap 3.  For a few circuits, that narrative stayed true and it would have been easy to consider finding something else to do rather than watch Hamilton add to his ridiculous win total.

But the way he got up front, with Charles Leclerc hitting a fallen tree branch, provided an omen of what was to come Sunday (June 6).

By lap 14, Hamilton found himself in third and Max Verstappen seemed ready to cruise to the win.

Yet by lap 49, Verstappen had crashed out and the drivers prepared for a standing restart.  Hamilton, sitting in second, moved into first, then overshot the first turn and gave the race away.  Sergio Perez, who had been hanging out in second for much of the day, watched Hamilton bail into a run-off area, then drove off and established a lead that no one could touch.

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Sergio Perez Steals Azerbaijan Victory as Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton Suffer Bad Luck

Sebastian Vettel drove his best race of the year and claimed second place.  Pierre Gasly made the best of everyone else’s mistakes while putting together a solid effort to earn his third career podium finish.

Charles Leclerc started first, faded, then rebounded to take fourth.  Lando Norris suffered through a qualifying penalty that put him in ninth, dropped as low as 13th in the running order, then made his way steadily forward to fifth.

Fernando Alonso scored his best result since returning to F1 with sixth while young Yuki Tsunoda turned in a career-best seventh.  Carlos Sainz drove a quiet race to wind up eighth and was followed by Daniel Ricciardo in ninth.  Kimi Raikkonen scored the last points position by crossing the line 10th.

With Verstappen and Hamilton both finishing out of the points, the standings remain the same, 105-104 in Verstappen’s favor.  Red Bull extended their lead over Mercedes, gapping the latter 174-148.

The Race

Leclerc started P1 and made a clean getaway to start the race.  His lead didn’t last long, however, because by lap 3, Hamilton moved to the point.

Esteban Ocon suffered an engine failure on lap 4 but was able to make his way to the pits and avoid affecting the race.

By lap 7, Verstappen had moved past Leclerc into second and began closing the margin to Hamilton.

On lap 12, Mercedes botched Hamilton’s pit stop, putting together one that was about two seconds off the norm at 4.5.  At the time, Hamilton held a one-second gap on Verstappen.

Red Bull brought Verstappen in on lap 13, gave him a 1.9-second stop and sent him out in front of Hamilton.  Then, Red Bull brought Perez in on lap 14, put together a similar effort in the pits and placed him out second.

Within two laps, Hamilton had lost two places owed to his slow stop.  For a change, Mercedes looks vulnerable in the pits, both with strategy but also execution. Remember the stripped wheel nut on Valtteri Bottas’ car at Monaco?

On lap 31, Lance Stroll suffered a punctured left rear tire and destroyed his car.  The sudden failure sent Stroll straight into the wall and brought out a safety car that began to shuffle how teams considered race strategy.

Most of those in the back half of the field pitted. Other than Mick Schumacher enduring an unsafe release, everyone else got cleanly back onto the track and set up for the return to green.

While most drivers resumed in fine fashion, Leclerc fell backward, or rather Vettel surged forward and moved into fourth.  From there, the race took on the orderly procession that one might expect, with Hamilton nipping at the rear of Perez every so often, attempting to get by.  Otherwise, Hamilton looked like he would be settling for third on the day.

On lap 46, Verstappen crashed out in an accident that mirrored Stroll’s.  This time, in a strange move, the officials threw the red flag so the race would be settled in a three-lap shootout from a standing start.

Perez moved into the pole position after following Verstappen for much of the race and Hamilton sat in second.  As the lights went out, Hamilton made a brilliant getaway and looked like he would score the win but he failed to slow for turn 1, giving Perez the lead.  Vettel jumped into second while Gasly made the most of his opportunity to hold off Leclerc.

The Good

Vettel’s second-place finish typifies his excellence at Baku.  His lowest finishing position is fourth and he now has three podiums in five career starts.  It might be too early to claim that Aston Martin is starting to find its groove, but there is reason to believe Vettel may be regaining some of the form that made him a top-tier driver.

His fifth-place finish at Monaco was his first in the points for 2021.  By backing that result with a runner-up tally, Vettel moved into ninth in the standings.  Confidence is thought to give a driver an added element, something that makes up for lacking horsepower or handling.  With 10 laps to go, Vettel was matching the lap times of Verstappen and Hamilton, providing some evidence to back up those beliefs.  If Vettel is settling in with his new team, he should be set for a solid run of good performances.

– Also figuring in the “former champions show their form” category is Fernando Alonso.  With a spotlight on him thanks to his return to F1 at age 39, Alonso’s every move is sports-tabloid fodder.  When he says his teammate is out-driving him, or that he is struggling to unlock the car, or that he had eggs for breakfast, every move faces scrutiny.

His team has been mediocre this year which brings further consternation and Alonso has failed to do anything that warrants special consideration.  Walking away with a sixth-place finish might be enough to settle some of the criticism and curiosity.

Yes, Alonso can still drive.  Yes, his car is not great.  Yes, he is going to endure an up-and-down year.  For one race, at least, Alonso gets to enjoy one of the up moments.

The Bad

Two tire failures are a bit bizarre for F1 races.  While it may not be uncommon to see a failure here and there, Pirelli puts a focus on ensuring their compounds last for a prescribed amount of time, giving teams guidelines to work regarding longevity.

The Baku circuit seems to bring out these failures for one reason or another.  In 2018, while leading the race, Bottas watched everything go wrong as his Pirelli gave out on the final lap and Hamilton scooted away for the win.

Watching both Stroll and then the leader bounce out of the race with failures will surely give Pirelli fits and challenge the company to bring back something better with the new car for next year.

Hamilton botching the restart on lap 49 is one of the most peculiar moments of the past few years.  He has not had such poor results in back-to-back races since 2012, when he finished 19th at the European Grand Prix and eighth at the British Grand Prix, which was then followed by a retirement.

The result ended a remarkable 54 points-scoring finishes in a row for Hamilton. It was par for the course for Mercedes, who mismanaged Baku, much like it did at Monaco. Bottas finished in 12th Sunday, three spots ahead of Hamilton, meaning the team earned no points for their effort.  Something seems amiss with the Arrows and no doubt the off week will be one when everyone tries to regain focus.

The Questionable

– Should the race have been red-flagged and returned to green after Verstappen’s accident?  The red came out with three laps to go.  In one respect, having the race end under a safety car is a tame way to close but F1 has never had a problem with choosing this option.

Of course, should the race have ended under yellow, Hamilton would have finished second and the strange error would be something of fiction.  But the question of whether it was worth it to hold the race for another 20 minutes of dead time to run three laps is worth examining.

A final question that arises from the end of this race is what made race control choose a red-flag period for Verstappen’s wreck but not for Stroll’s similar incident?

Azerbaijan Grand Prix Notable Driver

Yuki Tsunoda earns recognition for his efforts in Azerbaijan.  His seventh-place run is the second points-paying finish of the season for the rookie after snagging ninth in the season opener in Bahrain.  The young Japanese driver’s speed in the car has never been debated – it is all a matter of corralling it.  The Azerbaijan GP suggests that Tsunoda can be reined in to deliver those expected results.  (How about Alpha Tauri scoring third and seventh?!)

The Quotable

Mansour Ojjeh, a long-time shareholder in McLaren (since 1983) passed away on Sunday.  He was an influential and widely-respected person in the sport yet one who rarely attracted or sought the spotlight.  Former McLaren driver Hamilton offered words that seem to echo those from everyone in the sport.

The Results – Azerbaijan Grand Prix (Sunday, June 6, 2021)

Pos No Driver Car Laps Time/Retired PTS
1 11 Sergio Perez Red Bull Racing Honda 51 2:13:36.410 25
2 5 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin Mercedes 51 +1.385s 18
3 10 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri Honda 51 +2.762s 15
4 16 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 51 +3.828s 12
5 4 Lando Norris McLaren Mercedes 51 +4.754s 10
6 14 Fernando Alonso Alpine Renault 51 +6.382s 8
7 22 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda 51 +6.624s 6
8 55 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 51 +7.709s 4
9 3 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes 51 +8.874s 2
10 7 Kimi Räikkönen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari 51 +9.576s 1
11 99 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari 51 +10.254s 0
12 77 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 51 +11.264s 0
13 47 Mick Schumacher Haas Ferrari 51 +14.241s 0
14 9 Nikita Mazepin Haas Ferrari 51 +14.315s 0
15 44 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 51 +17.668s 0
16 6 Nicholas Latifi Williams Mercedes 51 +42.379s 0
17 63 George Russell Williams Mercedes 48 DNF 0
18 33 Max Verstappen Red Bull Racing Honda 45 DNF 0
NC 18 Lance Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes 29 DNF 0
NC 31 Esteban Ocon Alpine Renault 3 DNF 0

 

 

 

 

 

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