Well Done Baku


The Red Bull of Max Verstappen was cruising to a dominating victory before a tire failure caused him to crash out with five laps to go (courtesy of Twitter)

The 2021 Formula 1 season just keeps getting better and better. Last week, F1 returned to the Baku street circuit for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Despite being introduced in 2016 as one of F1’s newest circuits, it has already served up countless great races. And once again, it delivered with a storyline that kept on changing by the minute.

During practice, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez were on fire with both Ferraris of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc close behind. The surprise results during practice were from the reigning champions Mercedes with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. During practice, they were off the pace and it seemed as if this race would be one of damage control.

When it came time for qualifying, Leclerc got provisional pole, largely due to receiving a slipstream from Hamilton. This meant that on the straights, Leclerc’s car benefited since Hamilton was essentially punching a hole that Leclerc could follow through. However, just like Monaco, qualifying was red flagged. But instead of Leclerc crashing, it was Sainz. 

This was Ferrari’s second pole in a row, solidifying their progress from last year. Hamilton qualified in second with Verstappen in third. Pierre Gasly’s Alpha Tauri qualified in fourth, showing once again his pace. Perez was in seventh and Bottas in a lowly 10th. However, due to a three place grid penalty to the McLaren of Lando Norris, Perez started in sixth.

It was time for the race. Both Red Bull and Mercedes knew that it was imperative for their rear cars — Perez and Bottas respectively — to catch up to Verstappen and Hamilton so that they could try and use them in a strategic plan. When the lights went out, the front three remained the same, with Sergio Perez quickly making his way up to fourth while Bottas remained stuck in 10th. However, after a few laps, Hamilton passed Leclerc and both Red Bulls to advance to 4th. 

On Lap 12, Hamilton entered the pits to cover off any undercut by either of the Red Bulls. However, Gasly had other plans. Mercedes could not release Hamilton because Gasly passed by their pit box. If they did, they could have faced an unsafe release and either incur a time penalty or a monetary fine. This put Verstappen in the lead followed by Perez in second.

Verstappen then entered the pits on the following lap and emerged ahead of Hamilton. Perez then pitted in the next lap and despite having a slower than usual stop, emerged ahead of Hamilton, effectively putting the Red Bulls in first and second after the pit stop phase. With Hamilton in third and Bottas in tenth, it could be a massive gain for both Red Bull and Verstappen in the standings. All three drivers switched onto the hard tires.

At this stage, Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel led the race. He qualified in 11th, meaning that he could choose whatever tire he wanted to start the race. He started on the softs, and because they were fresh, pushed longer and after his pit stop emerged in seventh. 

Meanwhile, Hamilton sat behind Verstappen and Perez. Verstappen held around a six second gap to Perez who was two seconds ahead of Hamilton. It seemed that it was an easy one-two for Red Bull but that changed on lap 31. Vettel’s teammate Lance Stroll crashed out on the main straight due to a tire failure, causing debris across the track which triggered a safety car. This bunched the pack all together. 

At this point, Verstappen was in the lead, followed by Perez, Hamilton, Gasly, Leclerc, and Vettel. When the safety car went back in on lap 36, the front three remained the same with Vettel immediately passing Leclerc on the restart. Vettel then passed Gasly on the main straight to get into fourth. The first retirement of the race was Alpine’s Esteban Ocon with a suspected engine issue.

The tire manufacturer, Pirelli, believed that the hard tires could easily go around 40 laps. Verstappen was in complete control of the race and cruising to an easy win. However with five laps to go, another tire blowout crashed out Verstappen on lap 47. This was a massive blow to Verstappen because, as it stood, Hamilton would earn a 14 point lead in the driver standings with a second-place finish. This triggered another safety car which then led to a red flag with three laps to go. Everyone was allowed to change their tires and did. Vettel was the only driver in the top eight that had a brand new set of soft tires, giving him a big advantage over the grid. 

Once the debris was swept away, the race resumed in a standing start. The remaining cars then went around in another lap and lined up on the grid, creating a two lap sprint. At the point of the standing start, Perez was ahead of Hamilton, followed by Vettel and Gasly. While the grid was lining up, Hamilton’s brakes were smoking. When the lights finally went out, Hamilton got the jump on Perez and it seemed as if he was going to win the race. However, as he went into the braking zone for the turn, Hamilton flew into the runoff area and immediately fell to last place. Mercedes and Hamilton later explained this was due to a setting being accidentally switched on during the restart, locking his brakes and effectively setting him out of the points.

After 51 dramatic laps, Perez won the race, ahead of Vettel in 2nd and Gasly in 3rd. This was Perez’s second ever win, but his first podium and win with his new team. This was also Vettel’s first podium since last year with Ferrari, and Aston Martin’s first ever podium.

After the race, Pirelli conducted an investigation into the tire failures that cost Verstappen the win, discovering that it was due to a break in the inner sidewall. This could have been related to the race conditions, despite the recommended parameters being followed.

The full race results as well as the standings for both championships can be found here. Verstappen’s lead is still four points ahead of Hamilton in the driver standings, but Red Bull now have a 26 point gap, due to neither Mercedes scoring points in Baku. For reference, over Monaco and Baku, Mercedes have only picked up seven points out of a possible 88. Since 2014’s turbo-hybrid era, this is the first time that Mercedes has failed to get a podium two races in a row. The next race is in France at the Paul Ricard circuit and you can bet on Mercedes fighting back in a close title race that is set to keep on surprising.