Perez wins Baku shoot-out after Verstappen disaster

Sergio Perez claimed his second career win on Sunday in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, after a late tyre failure robbed his Red Bull team mate Max Verstappen of what had looked like certain victory.

A red flag for Verstappen’s accident meant the race finished with a two lap sprint shoot-out which produced a rare error for Lewis Hamilton, costing the Mercedes driver the opportunity to retake the lead of the drivers championship.

Instead it was Sebastian Vettel who picked up his first podium for Aston Martin in second place, with AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly out-duelling Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc for third.

  • 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Race results

For the second race in succession, Charles Leclerc had earned pole position for Ferrari. The difference this time round was that he was actually present on the grid for the start of the race, taking up his place ahead of Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly with four different teams on the first two rows of the grid in Baku.

When the lights went out, Hamilton got a strong start but not by enough to wrest the lead from the Monegasque. Instead the man on the move was Sergio Perez starting from sixth place, who immediately jumped Carlos Sainz for position after a lock-up for the second Ferrari, and then quickly dispatched Gasly to put the Red Bull up to fourth place right behind his team leader.

Others further back were also making quick gains, with Sebastian Vettel picking up two spots to go into ninth in the Aston Martin, and Antonio Giovinazzi climbing five places from his back row start due to the Alfa Romeo’s crash in qualifying. He’d been helped by Lance Stroll and Mick Schumacher getting distracted by banging wheels on the first lap, with no lasting ill effects to either car.

Hamilton continued to press Leclerc for the lead, and the superior straight line speed of the Mercedes enabled him to break the impasse to take the lead on lap 3 when Leclerc made a mistake at turn 15. However now the Mercedes was punching a hole through the air for the others to slipstream, Hamilton wasn’t able to really pull away from Leclerc despite the Ferrari now struggling to avoid being passed by Verstappen.

Once Hamilton did finally manage to move out of DRS activation range of the Ferrari, it left Leclerc unable to defend against the Red Bull, and on lap 7 Verstappen easily picked him off. Next lap by it was Perez’ turn to dispatch the pole sitter who was now down to fourth place, and at least Gasly was too far back in fifth to be an immediate threat. Now the main focus was what the leaders were going to do about pit stop strategies – when, and how many – with the Red Bull pit wall already telling Verstappen that Hamilton appeared to be struggling for balance. Sure enough, the Dutch driver was soon pulling within DRS range of the race leader and lining up his plan of attack.

Before that could happen, Leclerc became the first of the race leaders to pit on lap 9, initiating a global move to the hard compound and returning to the track in tenth place. Next time by it was Sainz’ turn to come in having flat spotted his initial set of softs with that lock-up at the start. However the new set of cold rubber did him no favours, and he went off at turn 8 on his outlap.

Hamilton then pitted on lap 12 but traffic on pit lane in the form of Gasly making his own stop delayed his release, with Valtteri Bottas forced to wait behind him as the team tried a double stack strategy. Red Bull seized the moment and summoned Verstappen in, and it was a perfectly executed stop which put him easily back out in front. Then it was Perez’ turn, and while it wasn’t as slick a stop as Verstappen’s it was still enough to put him back out narrowly ahead of Hamilton.

With 14 laps gone, it was now Vettel leading the race pending his pit stop, four seconds clear of Verstappen and Perez with Hamilton throwing everything he had into getting past the Mexican but being stymied at every turn. Stroll was up to fifth having started on the hard tyres and yet to make his stop, followed by Gasly, Leclerc and Yuki Tsunoda. Lando Norris was up to ninth after his own stop and coming out on top in an early to-and-fro battle with his team mate Daniel Ricciardo who had slipped to 12th place but then soon dispatched Alpine’s Fernando Alonso before lining up Bottas who was still mired in tenth place, where he had started the afternoon.

Despite continuing to show good pace, Vettel pitted on lap 19 and came back out in seventh between Leclerc and Tsunoda, formally handing the lead to Verstappen for the first time today. He now had a 3.5s lead over Perez, who was managing to pull out of DRS range from Hamilton who lamented over the team radio that “it’s impossible to keep up in the middle sector.” Just to hammer home the point, Perez promptly punched in the fastest lap of the race so far to pull even further away. The new benchmark was immediately bettered by Verstappen himself, almost as a point of principle, before the leaders started to hit traffic at the halfway point of the Grand Prix.

Given the mayhem in qualifying, there had been surprisingly few incidents in the race although Nikita Mazepin had gone off at turn 4 on lap 25 without inflicting significant damage to the Haas before getting back on track. There had been just one retirement, with Esteban Ocon exiting on lap 3 as a result of a sudden loss of power on the Alpine. But that comparative calm was shattered on lap 31 when Stroll – yet to make his first stop of the day – suffered a high speed left rear puncture on the main street that sent him into the wall. The wrecked Aston was left right on the racing line and lucky to avoid being hit by Gasly, forcing race control to scramble an immediate safety car to neutralise the race because of the debris strewn all over the track.

Pit entry was initially closed because of the location of Stroll’s accident. When there was a chance, Fernando Alonso came in to swap to softs with Antonio Giovinazzi, George Russell and Mick Schumacher also all taking advantage to stop, although a problem with the wheel nut on the Haas forced the team to push Schumacher back to the pit box to tidy up the botched tyre change. After that the window of opportunity for anyone else to stop was slammed shut by the resumption of the race on lap 36. Verstappen backed the field up before leaping away, leaving Perez with a fraught few minutes fending off Hamilton.

The only driver to actually pick up a place was Vettel on Leclerc thanks to his tyres being fresher than those of the others around him. He then picked off Gasly down the main straight on lap 37, which put the former world champion up to fourth place. But there was further dismay in the Mercedes camp over Bottas losing a place to fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen on lap 38 and then dropping a further position to Giovinazzi in the second Alfa Romeo. By lap 42, Bottas was well out of the points in 14th and facing a battle to stay ahead of the Williams duo of Russell and Nicholas Latifi.

It all looked as though Verstappen was comfortably sailing to his first career back-to-back Grand Prix victory when suddenly the Red Bull suffered what appeared to be a similar left rear tyre failure to that of Stroll. It sent him smashing into the wall on the main straight, showering debris over the scene of the accident and triggering another safety car, seemingly with no prospect of the clean-up being completed in time before the chequered flag. Race control then took the surprise decision to red flag the race allowing them to stage a two-lap sprint shootout to decide the result. The red flag also meant that the teams could change the tyres on their cars to the soft compound without penalty, removing any remaining safety concerns about more dangerous failures on the word hard tyres.

Instead of resuming behind the safety car, race control ordered a standing start with Perez starting from de facto pole for the first time in his f1 career. When the lights went out, it was Hamilton who got the best launch – but then he locked up and went too deep into turn 1 causing him to sail off the track and out of the points, leaving him to make his apologies to the Mercedes pit wall.

It meant that Perez kept the lead of the race and duly took his second F1 career victory, extending Red Bull’s margin in the constructors standings in the process. But it had been a close-run thing, with the team ordering him to stop the car immediately after crossing the line. With Hamilton’s error, Vettel took second while Gasly had got the jump on Leclerc for third as Norris tried in vain to get by both of them. After a fast and furious two laps, Alonso ended the race in sixth ahead of Tsunoda, Sainz and Ricciardo, with Raikkonen taking the final point ahead of his team mate Giovinazzi. Bottas could do no better than 12th ahead of Schumacher and Mazepin, while Hamilton was classified in 15th ahead of Latifi who had been handed a late penalty for a mix-up about pitting during the red flag stoppage. His team mate Russell was a late retirement and didn’t take part in the sprint showdown.

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