Max Verstappen opened a 21-point lead over team-mate Sergio Pérez in the Formula One World Championship as Red Bull finished 2-1 at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on a disastrous day for Ferrari.
Verstappen has had a difficult start in defending a title won in such dramatic fashion last year, suffering from reliability issues early in the season that are now a thorn in Ferrari’s side. Charles Leclerc, who had started from pole position at Baku and has done so in six of the season’s eight races so far, was leading the race until suffering engine failure after 19 of the race’s 51 laps.
“It really hurts,” said the Ferrari man, who has retired from the lead in two of the last three GPs. “It really doesn’t have to happen to us again. We didn’t have any major problems at the beginning of the season and we didn’t make any massive changes. It is difficult to understand and very disappointing.”
Leclerc’s teammate Carlos Sainz also retired early with hydraulic problems, the Italian team’s first double retirement since Monza 2020, which Red Bull handed the race to a plate.
Pérez, a Baku specialist and winner at Monaco two weeks ago, led the opening laps after beating Leclerc at the first corner but after beating Verstappen for the second straight race he suffered worse tire degradation and had to give the defending champion the best after 14 rounds, the Dutchman wins sovereignly. His 25th win put 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 made a cheap early pit stop under a VSC [virtual safety car] for Leclerc who gave him an advantage but would have meant a very long stint on those tires. We had good pace and would have been in better shape later. It would have been fascinating to see how it turned out.”
At one point, the Red Bull drivers were given a “No Fighting” order at a track notorious for its narrow walls and lack of run-off areas. However, Horner clarified: “Sergio was magic in qualifying yesterday but maybe we prioritized qualifying a little more on his side of the pits. He got into a rear graining a little faster than Max did today. All we asked of them was to give each other space, and they did. It was a very mature ride from Max and a redemption for last year.” At Baku in 2021, Verstappen was robbed by a flat tire with six laps to go while leading.
Behind the dominant Red Bulls, George Russell took 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 ‘porpoises’ or ‘hops’ due to this year’s new aerodynamic regulations was anything but a comfortable afternoon. “It was pretty brutal out there,” Russell confirmed. “I’ll sleep well tonight after racing at a track that isn’t normally that strenuous.”
Lewis Hamilton knew exactly how he felt as he struggled to get out of his car after finishing fourth – behind teammate Russell for the seventh time in eight races. “I gritted my teeth because of the pain,” said the seven-time world champion. “I can’t express it. Adrenaline got me through. You were just praying for it to stop.”
Once again, it hadn’t been an impressive performance from the reigning constructors’ champions, but Hamilton was still optimistic enough to offer some hope. “I’m guessing we’re losing 1 second per lap with this up and down and once we fix that we’ll be in the race,” he said.
However, that has been a familiar refrain since the opening round of the Championship, with Toto Wolff apologizing for what Hamilton had gone through. “We all know it’s quite a shitbox to drive at the moment and I’m sorry about the back but we’ll take care of it,” said the Mercedes team boss.
Almost as one, the drivers questioned the impact phenomenon, which is not exclusive to Mercedes and which they fear could cause long-term physical damage.
Pierre Gasly achieved his best result of the season with fifth place for the Italian AlphaTauri team, ahead of a pugnacious drive from Aston Martin’s four-time former world champion Sebastian Vettel, who might have finished fourth if he hadn’t quickly sped down an escape route with 12 laps in it.
Fernando Alonso, who now boasts the longest F1 career ever at 7,771 days, was seventh for Alpine, ahead of Daniel Ricciardo and Britain’s Lando Norris in the McLarens and his French team-mate Esteban Ocon.