MEDIA RELEASE/McLaren Formula 1 Team - Main Photo: Supplied The McLaren Formula 1 team have…
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix had gained a reputation for the unexpected. It was a race where patterns and trends defied the data and logic that dictates modern Formula One, with race winners that more often than not rubbed against the grain of the status quo.
Azerbaijan’s 2021 edition seemed to contradict that stereotype, with F1 TV warriors across the globe nodding off to sleep in the cosy comfort of their armchair, or snuggled up for a good night’s sleep well before the scheduled finish time.
That changed in the blink of an eye as Azerbaijan’s penchant for the unlikely broke from its slumber during those final laps of the race. Drama, pathos, controversy and a good old fashioned sprint to the finish showcased all the theatrics expected from Azerbaijan.
Sergio Perez scored his first win for Red Bull Honda in what had been an often difficult year for the Mexican driver, as many began to question his future at the team. In all fairness Perez was not alone in that regard as pundits slung similar barbs at the likes of Bottas, Vettel and even our own Daniel Ricciardo.
While Perez was the first to cross the line, it was Sebastian Vettel who had emerged as the people’s favourite on the day. After countless years with frontrunners Red Bull and Ferrari, Vettel’s move to the Aston Martin Cognizant Team in 2021 was seen as a step back for the German, with retirement suggested by some as a better option for the four times World Champion. Uninspiring results during the opening races of the season only added fuel to the intensifying fire of criticism that said Vettel had perhaps overstayed his time in F1. Then came Azerbaijan…
Vettel showed all the confidence and aggression that characterised his time with Red Bull in a charge from 11th on the grid to 2nd at the chequered flag, just marginally behind race winner Perez.
It was a feel good moment in a race that had turned to disaster for the two leading title contenders.
Max Verstappen had been at short odds to win in Baku after his previous victory in Monaco and the early pace of both Red Bull Hondas on Friday. A crash into the barriers during P3 did little to dissuade the perception that the race was Verstappen’s to win, or lose. A view made all that much easier by the comparative lack of pace shown by the Mercedes-AMG Petronas cars throughout much of the weekend. Indeed Verstappen held a comfortable 5 second lead over 3rd placed Hamilton as the race entered its 46th lap, only to suffer a high speed crash after a sudden puncture to his left rear Pirelli that pitched his Red Bull Honda into the pit straight wall.
The incident presented Lewis Hamilton with the World Championship lead on a silver platter. All he had to do was to maintain second place.
After a 35 minute stoppage to recover Verstappen’s car and remove scattered debris along the pit straight, the field trundled to the line for a final 3 lap sprint to the finish. Perez sat on pole with Hamilton alongside, his Mercedes billowing smoke from brakes that had been well heated during the formation lap. Inexplicably, Hamilton inadvertently altered the brake bias in his Mercedes F1 as he accelerated from second on the grid. The adjustment sent him sliding past the first corner apex and into the run-off area with smoke trailing from the left front tyre. He resumed in last place and finished outside the all-important top 10. In doing so it brought to an end Hamilton’’s run of 58 consecutive point scoring finishes.
The incident provided some degree of respite for Max Verstappen, who was still livid with his deflated left rear tyre which he had kicked in frustration as he walked away. At least he had maintained his advantage in the Driver’s Championship.
It was a most unexpected ending to what had been, to that point, a most predictable race.
Pole sitter Charles Leclerc held off Lewis Hamilton at the start of the race to lead into Turn 1 with Verstappen close behind. Perez followed his teammate after a decisive pass on Pierre Gasly for 4th during the opening lap, while Sebastian Vettel also gained places off the start. McLaren teammates Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris traded blows in the midfield battle before Norris eventually emerged ahead, while Lance Stroll, who had gambled by starting on the hard compound tyres, rubbed tyres with Mick Schumacher at the opening corner with neither car suffering any obvious damage.
A small piece of debris had fallen onto the track near Turn 15 which caused Leclerc and then Verstappen to swerve and short cut the corner. Lewis Hamilton profited from the moment, closed on Leclerc and then took the race lead on lap 2. Hamilton soon edged away from the Ferrari driver, who had his mirrors filled by Verstappen. It took another 5 laps for Verstappen to finally dispose of the Ferrari and set off after the #44 Mercedes-AMG Petronas entry.
An early stop for tyres on lap 12 saw Lewis Hamilton held for more than 4 seconds as Pierre Gasly moved down the pitlane for his stop. The delay ultimately cost Hamilton two places as Verstappen and then Perez made quicker stops and subsequently returned to the track in 1st and 2nd.
“How is he so far ahead of me?” asked a rather bewildered Hamilton in reference to Max Verstappen after the pitstops had been completed.
“We had a hold at the stop,” his engineer replied.
Temperatures also soon rose in the white walled hard compound tyres as the leaders continued to push their cars around the circuit. Pirelli had specified that the tyres would survive for around 40 laps and then instructed teams to increase the Psi after the practice debrief, but there were concerns after just 7 laps from Verstappen’s crew.
“Look after right rear Max,” came the call from his engineer. “That’s the peak temperature.”
By lap 31 those tyres concerns had materialised for Lance Stroll. The Aston Martin Cognizant driver had elected to start on the harder tyre after a qualifying accident consigned the Canadian to the rear of the grid. The left rear tyre then let go without warning as Stroll raced down the pit straight. The sudden loss of grip saw the car turn left and hit the wall in a significant impact. The car came to a halt on the edge of the pit entry road, which provided enough space to remove the car and clean the track while the Safety Car guided the field around the circuit.
The race resumed on lap 36 with Verstappen and Perez in control. The Dutch driver slowly edged away from his teammate to a 4.5 second lead, with Hamilton a further second behind in 3rd. Sebastian Vettel continued to climb towards the podium with a pass on Leclerc for 5th at the restart, while Valtteri Bottas was having a weekend to forget and struggled to remain in the points when Daniel Ricciardo snared 10th place from the Finn.
Max Verstappen looked to have won hand on the winner’s trophy as most of the field lumbered towards the finish on well worn hard compound tyres. Both Perez and Hamilton were reported to be running with around 10% remaining in the effective life of their rear tyres, even though they were well short of the predictive 41 lap tyre life cycle.
As Verstappen commenced his 47th lap the complexion of the race altered dramatically.
In much the same manner as Stroll before, Verstappen’s Red Bull Honda suddenly snapped as he reached top speed down the long front straight. The car careered into the wall on driver’s right with the now flat left rear tyre clearly visible. Verstappen climbed out, looked at the back of his car and then kicked the errant tyre.
“To retire from the lead of the race so close to the finish is pretty frustrating,” Verstappen said to Red Bull Racing Media. “I didn’t feel anything strange with the car and then suddenly the left rear went and I was in the wall quite hard. It’s not a nice place to crash and we don’t know the exact cause yet, I’m sure it will be fully investigated. Up until that point it was a great day, the car felt perfect and I was comfortable in the lead so it felt like it would be an easy 1-2 but there are no guarantees in this sport.”
Given the timing of the incident, the location of the car and debris on the main straight, the race was red flagged as the accident site was cleared. While that would have spelled an end to the race in times past, new regulations permitted a standing restart in what became a three lap dash to the chequered flag.
After a gap of just over half and hour, Sergio Perez and Lewis Hamilton lined up on the front row for the final sprint from Pierre Gasly and Sebastian Vettel on row 2.
Perez moved left to cover the Mercedes-AMG Petronas driver just after the start but it was already too late. Hamilton had moved alongside the Red Bull Honda and held the race line into Turn 1 as they began to brake and downshift for the fast approaching corner. Perez emerge as the leader on the run towards Turn 2, while Hamilton regrouped at the tail of the field.
“An unfortunate day, a humbling experience and I’m so sorry for the team,” Hamilton told Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Media. “We did a good job to be in the position we were in today, to be out of the top ten on Friday and come back was down to the hard work of the men and women in this team. When Checo came towards me after the restart, I turned the wheel and flicked a switch which shifts the brake balance and that caused me to lock up. It’s one of the toughest moments I’ve had for a while – one moment we had all the points and the next we had none.”
Daniel Ricciardo was also fortunate to continue after Antonio Giovinazzi ran deep under brakes and made contact with the rear of Ricciardo’s car at the second corner. The impact damaged the rear diffuser of the McLaren and hampered the Australian over the final laps.
Sergio Perez took the race win from Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly, who demoted Charles Leclerc to 4th in the final laps. Lando Norris was 5th while Fernando Alonso had staged a late charge for 6th, just ahead of Yuki Tsunoda, Carlos Sainz, Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen.
“We love Baku! It feels amazing to get my first win with Red Bull,” Sergio Perez exclaimed to Red Bull Racing Media. “The Team did a tremendous job and I want to thank Mr Mateschitz for this great opportunity and giving me the seat. I feel very sorry for Max because he deserved the win and a 1-2 for the Team would’ve been very enjoyable. It was a crazy rollercoaster of a race, we were basically flat out from the very first lap and I had Lewis behind pushing me so I couldn’t breathe, it was very challenging but we kept our focus. Everything worked perfectly today apart from the restart at the end where I just had no grip. I thought I cannot lose this race two laps from the flag so I broke as late as I could into Turn 1 and then I saw Lewis locking up and go straight on into the run off. It just shows how on the limit we are, the speeds we are doing are tremendous and I am sorry for Lewis because it’s very painful when these things happen but we are all vulnerable to mistakes.”
Second place was Sebastian Vettel’s best result since the 2019 Mexican Grand Prix and also represented the first podium for the renamed Aston Martin Cognizant Team.
“I am over the moon and P2 means a great deal to all of us. We did not expect to be on the podium, but we made great progress through the weekend, and the car had strong race pace,” Sebastian Vettel told Aston Martin Cognizant Media. “The key was being able to start with a free choice of tyres in P11. It meant we could use a new set of softs to make up two places at the start and then run longer to overcut Yuki. It gave us a platform for the second half of the race and put us in a position to take advantage. I felt good in the car, and combined with on-track events and strategy, we were able to get a really special result.”
After the Monaco result, Daniel Ricciardo had hit the McLaren simulator in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the McLaren MCL35M. The results in practice showed that the Australian had made progress, though a locked brake in Q2 saw him find the wall, a result shared amongst many of the front runners. A 9th place finish presented Ricciardo with a few more points to add to his 2021 tally.
“There were moments today in the race where I was thinking ‘I hope it becomes a bit more exciting’ and suddenly it did!” Daniel Ricciardo exclaimed to McLaren Media.“We had some positive moments, but also a few difficult periods. I flat-spotted the Hard a bit, so that became tricky for the last few laps before the red flag, but not too bad beforehand. The last start, I felt like I got a good launch, and had a good run on the outside but there wasn’t really much room with a couple of cars on the inside. It just all bottlenecked into Turn Two and I felt a hit from behind. I couldn’t really do much, but we’ll keep working on our plan and keep moving forward.”
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