Max, Red Bull Overpower Stuttering Ferrari in Azerbaijan
Hamilton may not have turned, but the tide did
The ghost of Baku was exorcised over a hot afternoon in Azerbaijan as far as Max Verstappen was concerned. One former world champion though might have had visions of where it possibly all went wrong for him last year: Charles Leclerc might have a similarly excruciating story to corroborate by the end of the season unless Ferrari can find a way to stop sabotaging themselves in what was shaping up to be their best year on track in over a decade.
"Was it a good race, or was it a good race? You tell me!" Max Verstappen was ecstatic over the radio at the end of 51 laps, of which he drove the better part of half more or less unchallenged.
That was not among the popular predictions over the weekend after Leclerc was once again hot on the circuit in Baku over the practice sessions as well as in qualifying with the only other competition to be placed on pole on the track come Sunday being Max's team mate, Sergio Perez.
But the perils of looking a fool for underestimating Verstappen's determination came true for those predictions that went with the popular Saturday razzmatazz over the steady Sunday wins that the Dutchman had been garnering with mature, composed and opportunistic plans, which played to his strengths and also took advantage of moments on the track that offered him a slipstream back into ascendancy.
In the same Red Bull garage, Perez has been in the limelight not only after the Abu Dhabi hold off of Lewis Hamilton in that final race of the season that clinched Verstappen's first world drivers championship but also, after he overcame being overshadowed by his much younger team mate and other hiccups in his Formula 1 career by winning the Monaco Grand Prix a fortnight ago.
Not only did that win make him Mexico's most successful Formula 1 driver, it put him front and centre for the first time in his career as one of the legitimate world drivers championship challengers alongside Leclerc, putting put additional pressure on Verstappen to defend his title.
With Verstappen in the lead of the world drivers championship after Monaco but only by 9 points from Leclerc in second position, there was every reason to believe that Perez was making his strongest case yet as a potential champion, six points shy of Leclerc on 110. With little by way of points of separate the top three, it seemed this was Verstappen's greatest challenge since becoming the world champion, holding off a steaming Leclerc as well as the unexpected contest from within the Red Bull camp in the form of his team mate.
However, while Verstappen was typically subdued over the weekend and underplayed his chances in Baku, he and Perez were certainly encouraged on Sunday with the pressure easing up significantly as Ferrari's unreliability once again became a rather huge factor, just as it has been in the shifting of the tide in Red Bull's favour over the past month.
Baku has now become the fourth consecutive race that Leclerc qualified on pole but failed to win. It has put him in unenviable company, alongside Juan Carlos Montoya from 2022. Unfortunately it was not because Leclerc wasn't up to the task on the day. His mettle was yet to be tested before the lights went out on his engine.
The two Ferraris came undone within ten laps of each other. If the end of the race felt somewhat anticlimactic even though Verstappen put up a great race through the middle laps and towards the end, it was because drama unfolded on the first lap itself, to promise what could have been yet another wheel-to-wheel play between the Ferraris and the Red Bulls.
Although he started on pole, Leclerc was surprised by the second placed Perez who flew out of the gate into turn 1 when the Monegasque driver had no choice but to yield the position to the Mexican. While Verstappen was close on his heels on third, the defending champion had to play a cautious game as Carlos Sainz in the second Ferrari wasn't far behind him. But on the ninth lap, disaster struck as Sainz parked himself on turn 4, suffering what turned out to be a hydraulic failure, making it his third DNF (Did Not Finish) of the season.
If the subsequent deployment of the virtual safety car and Ferrari's strategy to pit Leclerc early backfired on them badly, when the front jack jammed under the chassis to make it a rather long 5 second pit stop, there was more heartbreak to come when Leclerc, leading after both Verstappen and Perez had pitted, had to retire his car as his engine blew up rather dramatically with smoke trails peeling behind him. The race was not even 20 laps old and Baku was already a little worse for wear.
The young Monegasque is now in danger of becoming too familiar with that sinking feeling. That he had no words yet again to explain what transpired or how he felt is becoming a chronically worrying tale from the prancing horse, whose developmental progress had really set up a rather exciting season at the start.
But the wheels are coming apart for Ferrari, between Sainz and his car blowing hot and cold and Leclerc's superlative Saturdays turning into disastrous Sundays over fumbling strategies and dodgy car setups and reliability issues.
Verstappen though drove a much saner race, awaiting his turn patiently like a leopard-in-hiding sighting his prey, biding his time to catch up with his own team mate, Sergio Perez, who was leading the race till the 15th lap. But it was at that point that Perez was instructed "No fighting," as Verstappen had paced himself well to now become the roadblock in his teammate's ambitions. With his DRS working fine on this occasion, it was, in the end, an easy Verstappen overtake.
Perez, who had his contract extended with Red Bull to make it quite a tricky proposition for Verstappen - and perhaps more so for his father, Jos Verstappen, in the pit garage - might have more questions after the race. The latter half of the race raised questions of how and why Perez fell away in the contest at the top, blaming it on tyre degradation for why the gap between him and Max built up significantly by the time the chequered flag was waved.
Still, as a result of finishing second, Checo Perez has now leapfrogged over Leclerc into second place in the world drivers standings, moving from a deficit of six points to a significant lead of 13, to be now situated on 129 points in comparison to the Monegasque driver's 116. He is now the frontrunner as far as threats to Max's title defence are concerned.
For Hamilton there was no winning even after finishing fourth, his highest finish place this season. Done in by porpoising and bounce, the near 40 year old clutched his back, barely making it out of the car. But it wouldn't be his only complaint, coming up yet again behind his much younger and inexperienced teammate at Mercedes, George Russell, and over 77 seconds behind the race leader, while also being done in by some botched pit stop strategy that put him further behind after starting seventh on the grid.
Like Verstappen though, Hamilton might look back in some relief to have finished the race as he did, unable to capitalize last year when Verstappen suffered a late tyre puncture that hurt his ambitions after a great start to the season to make it really tight in the end. Hamilton too might have looked at Azerbaijan as the place where he lost the eighth world drivers championship title, failing to turn at the restart and losing his way in his haste to make the most of Red Bull's ill fortune late in the day.
Hamilton may have failed to turn on that occasion, but the tide did. Has Baku now become the venue where Leclerc's dreams of a first world championship were punctured?
Verstappen meanwhile picked up a handy 25 point tally which puts him on 150 points, not far enough to shut out the competition, but certainly valuable points en route to doing just that, if he can keep up the momentum of the sublime Sunday races he has managed from Miami to Monaco to now Baku.
Leclerc might want to swap his Saturday's luck with Verstappen's Sunday gameplan come Canada this upcoming weekend, if only to get that podium feeling once again.