The defining moment of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was undoubtedly Red Bull’s decision to bring Max Verstappen in for his sole pitstop moments after Nyck de Vries’s AlphaTauri ground to a halt.
Unbeknown to Red Bull, De Vries’s halted AlphaTauri wasn’t going anywhere.
What first appeared to Red Bull as an innocuous outbraking manoeuvre that would be recoverable turned out to be a terminal problem.
De Vries had clipped the inside wall at the Turn 5 left-hander and broken his AlphaTauri’s front-left suspension, damage that left him stranded on the exit of Turn 6.
It first led to double-waved yellow flags moments before Red Bull called then-race leader Verstappen into the pits, only for the safety car to be deployed after Verstappen completed his one and only pitstop in the race.
This allowed Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez – who had been pressuring Verstappen for the lead prior to De Vries’s crash – to make his pitstop under the safety car and re-join the track at the head of the field while Verstappen fell to third behind polesitter Charles Leclerc.
Verstappen soon cleared Leclerc but he couldn’t get close enough to Perez despite a relentless push for the remainder of the race.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner immediately acknowledged that Perez “got a little bit lucky” with the timing of the safety car but praised the drive Perez put in thereafter to maintain his lead.
“He used his opportunity and converted it into a great win,” Horner said of Perez. “They were pushing each other hard and were comparing times they touched the wall under the podium [after the race].”
Horner accepted that “with 20/20 hindsight” pitting Verstappen right before the safety car was an error but the team believed De Vries’ car was recoverable.
“Unfortunate thing was the safety car, 20/20 hindsight you’d have left them another lap,” Horner admitted.
“At the time from what we could see we decided to pit Max, who was starting to struggle a little bit with the rear of his car and Checo was obviously right up behind him.
“So we decided from a strategy point of view it was the optimum time to take the stop.
“Then De Vries, from the glimpse that we got, all four wheels are on the car, he hadn’t hit the barrier and the engine was running. It looked like he’d reverse and carry on.
“Never expected that to go to a safety car. With 20/20 vision we’d have done one more lap and gone from there.
“You just don’t know at that point if Charles is going to pit then suddenly he jumps both of them.
“The problem is we didn’t have the visibility of De Vries, [we got a] quick shot of him, black set of lines made it looked like he’d outbraked himself and gone straight on and hadn’t hit the barrier.
De Vries has ground to a halt. The Dutchman's out!
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 30, 2023
“So usually if you see a car in the barriers it’s a safety car but there was no sign of him having hit the barrier so… yeah, it was only subsequently on the replays that you saw the track rod was broken [from an earlier contact].”
Verstappen appeared fairly undisturbed by the misfortune of the safety car after the race, telling Perez in the cool down room that “it happens sometimes, you had it in Jeddah” – where Perez lost a victory shot last year due to safety car timing.
“I saw that there was a car stopped, I thought he maybe just locked up,” Verstappen said of De Vries’ crash.
“In hindsight – I mean, I can’t see that [at the time] – but yeah, it’s something to review, clearly you could see there was one wheel damaged and it looked like he was not going to drive that anyway back to the pits even if he would’ve reversed.
“So, something to look at because of course that then did hurt my race after that.”
Verstappen saw the AlphaTauri on the TV screens but explained that“you cannot look into detail if every wheel is connected to the car properly”.
He continued: “Of course the team has a bit more overview to that. But… like I said, we’ll look into that, if there was anything we could’ve done different.
“But I also don’t know when the exact call came to pit [relative to De Vries’ crash], right? So, it’s a bit difficult to say at the moment.”
Red Bull called Verstappen into the pits one corner away from the pit entry and right after broadcast images of De Vries’s car appeared.
As Horner outlined part of the team’s logic for pitting Verstappen was based on his balance struggles during the opening part of the race that allowed Perez to pressure him.
“I was not entirely happy with the balance [in the first stint] but also in hindsight I was probably not pushing it enough initially, in some corners,” Verstappen said.
“But I mean, that should never be the indication – if there’s a car stopped – to just pit, because you know that if there is a safety car then you lose even more time than staying out.
“So… like I said, there are a few things to look at. But again, I always know that the team tries to do the best thing and maybe just today we got unlucky.”
Perez had no problem acknowledging the fortune of the safety car and believes it’s too difficult to say whether he could have beaten Verstappen on Sunday without it.