Azerbaijan Grand Prix: Baku Predictably Unpredictable
Last weekend’s 51-lap showdown filled with WOW moments
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku has a history of being anyone’s race to win – in the five years of hosting the event it’s delivered five different winners. With this season’s ongoing flux of car and driver reliability, the air of unpredictability was strong heading into last weekend’s races.
After a fierce competition between Ferrari’s boys in red and Red Bull’s men in blue for pole position in qualifying, Charles Leclerc secured the top spot in P1 with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, hot off his win in Monaco, in number two – ahead of his World Champion teammate Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz in P4.
Baku has suited Perez in the past – last year securing his first-ever win under the Red Bull banner and, by over-performing his usually over-performing teammate, it was surely his place to give it a go to get back-to-back wins – but Baku held its own drama between the two drivers of Red Bull Racing.
Drama Between the Red Bulls
So far this season Perez has been ordered to take backseat to his World Champion teammate, but coming off last weekend’s win, team principal of Red Bull Racing Christian Horner went public in support of Sergio stepping out of Verstappen’s shadow: “He’s in this championship as much as Max is.” These powerful words of support from the big boss came to mind when, in the formation lap of the race, Horner had a powerful message for Perez over the team’s radio broadcast live during the race: “Elbows out into Turn 1” – signaling in no uncertain terms importance for the driver to defend his P2 position against his P3 teammate Verstappen.
And defend he did – at lights out Perez immediately challenged Leclerc and overtook into P1, maintaining a strong lead ahead of Leclerc up until a virtual safety car offered the chance to pit without losing a strong position – an opportunity team Red Bull did not take and proved to be a fault in maintaining their lead.
Perez later vocalized the fault as being the cause of him losing the chance at the race. “Unfortunately, we missed the virtual safety car stop; there was a miscommunication, and what we wanted, it was a bit too late. We were a bit unlucky there because I would have made up my race when we were leading.” Important to note, however: with the retirement of both Ferraris, it wasn’t as much about Perez coming out ahead as it was about getting ahead of his teammate Verstappen who, as everyone knows, came out number one at the race.
Heartbreak for Ferrari
Leclerc fought back into P1 but unfortunately team Ferrari had much bigger troubles ahead than a one position loss – teammate Sainz suffered a hydraulic DNF within 9 laps of the race – given the goal of placing P4 and securing points toward the overall Constructor’s Championship, this was a big loss as the gap closed between team Ferrari and Red Bull – and it wasn’t the only loss the team suffered during the race.
By lap 20 Sainz was joined in the pits by Leclerc – the clear front runner in the day’s race and leader in points in the Driver’s Championship. "It hurts," Leclerc said, "we need to look into it so it doesn't happen again. I don't have the right words to describe.”
Mixed Messages of Mercedes
Separately, rookie driver of Mercedes George Russell continues to shine this season ahead of his 7-time World Champion teammate Lewis Hamilton – something no one could have predicted. When signing the junior driver, team principal Toto Wolff said to the driver, “The bad news is you're racing against Lewis Hamilton, the good news is you're doing it in a Mercedes.”
Wolff’s advice appears to have flipped -- the bad news is his former shining star Hamilton has had trouble adjusting to the new car, but the good news is he has brought on Russell, who is young, hungry and making up for lost points while currently sitting 4th in the overall driver standings, ahead of his teammate Hamilton in 6th, validating the potential of Russell, who maintained an impressive P5 standing before both Ferrari cars’ retirement landed him a place on the podium in 3rd.
Hamilton however faced nothing but hurt this weekend – literally. The porpoising on the cars has been a consistent issue since the start of the season, bringing real back pain to the former World Champion. "I was just holding and biting down on my teeth due to the pain… I cannot express the pain that you experience, particularly on the straight here,” Hamilton lamented, (rightly we might add).
That said, the majority of F1’s fans, from Mercedes and beyond, are coming together in support of Hamilton, who has created a culture and experience beyond merely delivering incredible racing over the years. We’ll all be watching this season with fingers-crossed Hamilton makes a comeback alongside his rookie teammate Russell.