Sergio Perez benefitted from a well-timed safety car intervention to beat Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen to victory in Formula 1’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Although both Red Bull drivers were beaten to pole position by Baku City Circuit specialist Charles Leclerc on Friday, the Ferrari and its improved set-up proved no match for Red Bull’s vastly superior race pace on Sunday.
Verstappen and Perez both overtook Leclerc comfortably using DRS in the early laps, turning this race into a straight fight between the Red Bull team-mates.
F1 championship leader Verstappen held an advantage of less than 1.5 seconds over Perez for the first 10 laps, before the race turned on a safety car intervention.
Nyck de Vries clipped the inside wall at the Turn 5 left-hander and broke his AlphaTauri’s front-left suspension. Verstappen was struggling for rear grip from his medium Pirelli tyres, so Red Bull called him into the pits just before the safety car was deployed to allow the stricken AlphaTauri to be recovered.
De Vries has ground to a halt. The Dutchman's out!
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 30, 2023
This meant Perez, Leclerc, the other Ferrari of Carlos Sainz and the Aston Martins of Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll were all able to gain time by stopping a lap later than Verstappen to fit the preferred hard-compound tyre.
Perez assumed the lead behind the safety car, while Verstappen shook out in third place behind Leclerc.
Verstappen made short work of re-passing Leclerc’s Ferrari when the race restarted on lap 14 of 51 and began trading fastest laps with Perez as the Red Bulls dropped Leclerc’s Ferrari at a rate of almost a second per lap.
Perez used that restart lap to build a crucial 1.5s lead and keep Verstappen out of DRS range.
The gap never dropped below the crucial 1s during the next phase of the race, before Verstappen began struggling with the balance of his RB19 and dropped back to over 2s behind Perez as the race entered its second half.
“The balance between the diff[erential] and the engine braking is not good,” Verstappen complained.
It didn’t take too long for Verstappen to get these problems under control and resume lapping on the pace, but couldn’t find a way to put Perez under any meaningful pressure.
The fact both Red Bulls clipped the Turn 15 wall – Verstappen on the exit and Perez in the entry – indicated this was a straight fight between the two and that both were pushing extremely hard.
Although Verstappen will rightly feel hard done by over the safety car timing, the truth is Perez was putting him under pressure before that pitstop – and he proved to be the quicker of the two on this circuit on race day.
Perez felt he gave away needless lap time in qualifying on Friday and clearly and impressively found a way to correct this despite not being permitted to make setup changes to his car.
A 2.1s victory – Perez’s second and most impressive of this season so far allowed him to reduce Verstappen’s championship lead to just eight points.
CHECO RULES THE STREETS IN BAKU!!! 🇦🇿💪
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 30, 2023
Leclerc completed the podium, a massive 19s behind the Red Bulls and less than a second clear of Alonso’s Aston Martin.
The Aston Martins were afflicted by an intermittent DRS issue earlier in the weekend, but looked relatively more competitive in the Grand Prix, particularly Alonso, who was giving brake balance advice to his team-mate over the radio.
Alonso spotted Hamilton’s Mercedes struggling with graining rear tyres in the early phase of the race and that it would only be a “matter of time” before the Aston could get ahead.
Hamilton needing to pit before the safety car appeared put Alonso up to fifth before the restart – and Alonso pulled off a brilliantly opportunistic pass on Carlos Sainz on the inside at Turn 4 to move into fourth, Alonso taking advantage of Sainz being slightly delayed behind Leclerc after Leclerc was passed by Verstappen at Turn 3.
Sainz struggled all weekend to feel comfortable in a Ferrari using basically the same setup Sainz had used to be so effective in the Australian Grand Prix before his late penalty.
Having qualified eight tenths off Leclerc, Sainz was never a factor in the podium fight, finished over 23s behind Alonso and actually came under late pressure from Hamilton’s recovering Mercedes.
Hamilton started fifth but was down to 10th by the time of the safety car restart, but the seven-time champion vaulted himself to eighth as the race got back underway and then overtook Mercedes team-mate George Russell for seventh on the next lap.
Hamilton then took advantage of a mistake at the final corner by Lance Stroll – his Aston Martin compromised by a huge snap of oversteer coming off the crucial left-hander at the end of lap 19 – to make a DRS-assisted pass for sixth at Turn 1.
Sainz, though, proved a challenge too far for Hamilton, who had to settle for rounding out the top six.
Stroll made a great start to pass Yuki Tsunoda’s AlphaTauri and the McLaren of Lando Norris on the first lap and rise to seventh – and that’s where he finished after being passed by Hamilton.
By his own admission Russell, who benefitted massively from the timing of the safety car – made a mess of the restart and wound up finishing eighth.
He wasn’t far behind Stroll before being called into the pits for soft tyres on the penultimate lap in order to steal fastest lap away from Alonso’s Aston.
Esteban Ocon and Nico Hulkenberg both made pitlane starts on the hardest tyre after deciding to break parc ferme rules and make set-up changes before the race.
They rose to the bottom of the top 10 having each not made a pitstop, until Norris took advantage of an error to sneak past Hulkenberg’s Haas exiting the Turn 5/6 complex.
Hulkenberg’s tyres were clearly giving up, and he lost further places to Tsunoda, Oscar Piastri’s McLaren, Alex Albon’s Williams and Haas team-mate Kevin Magnussen before eventually being called into the pits on the penultimate lap.
Alpine and Haas were clearly holding out for a second safety car intervention that never came, so having to make a mandatory pitstop under racing conditions before the chequered flag dropped Ocon out of the top 10, meaning Norris and Tsunoda rounded out the points scorers.
"This is a SHAMBLES, absolute shambles!!" 😮 pic.twitter.com/cKk0NuPJUv
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) April 30, 2023
Ocon made his pitstop so late that he had to dodge personnel getting ready to receive the finishing cars in parc ferme at the pitlane entry, something which will likely be investigated as a safety issue.