Max Verstappen opened up a 21-point advantage over team-mate Sergio Pérez in the Formula 1 world championship as Red Bull finished 1-2 at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on a disastrous day for Ferrari.
Verstappen had a rocky start to defending a title won so spectacularly last year, suffering from early-season reliability issues that have now become a thorn in Ferrari’s side. Charles Leclerc, who started from pole position in Baku and has done so in six of the season’s eight races so far, led the race until engine failure after 19 of the race’s 51 laps.
“It really hurts,” said the Ferrari man, who has relinquished the lead in two of the last three GPs. “We really need this not to happen again. We didn’t have any big problems at the start of the season and we didn’t change much. It is difficult to understand and very disappointing.
Leclerc’s teammate Carlos Sainz also retired early due to hydraulic problems, the Italian team’s first double retirement since Monza 2020 giving Red Bull the race on a plate.
Pérez, a Baku specialist and winner at Monaco a fortnight ago, led the opening laps after beating Leclerc on the first corner but, after outclassing Verstappen for the second race in a row, suffered more tire degradation and had to give the defending champion the best after 14 rounds, with the Dutchman continuing to win comfortably. His 25th win puts him level with former sports legends Jim Clark and Niki Lauda.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said: “It was bad luck for Ferrari today. They did a cheap pitstop under a VSC [virtual safety car] for Leclerc, which gave him a lead but would have meant a very long stint on these tyres. We had good pace and would have been in better shape later. It would have been fascinating to see how that turned out.
At one point, Red Bull riders were given a ‘no fight’ instruction at a track notorious for the danger of closed walls and a lack of run-off zones. Horner, however, clarified: “Yesterday Sergio was magic in qualifying, but maybe we prioritized qualifying a bit more on his side of the garage. He got into the rear tire grit a bit quicker than Max today. All we asked them was to give themselves a room, and they did. It was a very mature ride from Max and redemption for the last year. In Baku in 2021, Verstappen was robbed by a tire puncture six laps from the end, when he was leading.
Behind the dominating Red Bulls, George Russell clinched his third podium of the year and maintained his record as the only driver to score in every race. But driving a Mercedes that still suffers from ‘porpoising’ or bouncing, a result of this year’s new aero regulations, it was far from a comfortable afternoon. “It was pretty brutal there,” confirmed Russell. “I will sleep well tonight after a race on a track that is usually not so physical.”
Lewis Hamilton knew exactly how he felt, struggling to get out of his car after finishing fourth – behind team-mate Russell for the seventh time in eight races. “I was biting my teeth in pain,” said the seven-time world champion. “I can’t express it. Adrenaline got me through. You were just praying for it to end.
Once again the performance of the reigning constructors’ champions had not been impressive, but Hamilton was still optimistic enough to offer some hope. “I think we’re losing 1 second per lap with that rebound and once we fix it we’ll be right there in the race,” he said.
That, however, has been a familiar refrain since round one of the Championship, with Toto Wolff apologizing for what Hamilton had been through. “We all know it’s a bit of a shit box to drive at the moment, and sorry for the back, but we’ll manage,” said the Mercedes team principal.
Almost to a man, drivers wondered about the bouncing phenomenon which is not exclusive to Mercedes and which they fear could cause long-term physical damage.
Pierre Gasly posted his best result of the season with Italian team AlphaTauri’s fifth place, ahead of a combative drive from four-time former Aston Martin world champion Sebastian Vettel, who potentially could have finished fourth had it not been for a quick trip over an escape route. 12 rounds.
Fernando Alonso, who at 7,771 days can now boast the longest F1 career in terms of duration, finished seventh for Alpine, ahead of Daniel Ricciardo and Briton Lando Norris in the McLaren, and his French teammate Esteban Ocon.