Sergio Perez claimed his second victory of the 2023 Formula 1 season in Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix after taking the lead from Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen during a Safety Car period.
Perez’s sixth career win, following his triumph in Saturday’s sprint race, has put the Mexican just six points behind Verstappen in the Drivers’ standings. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc had to settle for the third step of the podium, having been unable to carry his stunning qualifying pace into the race.
Here are our conclusions from Baku…
As Perez wins another straight fight, does Verstappen struggle with F1’s sprint format?
It was Saudi Arabia all over again.
Once the Safety Car had pulled in and the Ferrari car of Leclerc between them had been quickly dispatched, the Red Bulls were clear out front, on identical tyres and with more than half the race still to run.
Only one winner from there, right?
Correct – but not the one you would have thought.
For the second time in four races in F1 2023, Perez stood head to head, eye to eye, toe to toe with Verstappen… and won.
There was an element of fortune to the way the win came his way, of course, Perez inheriting the lead after Verstappen pitted shortly before the yellow flag for Nyck de Vries’ stranded AlphaTauri was upgraded to a Safety Car.
But the way, as in Jeddah, he consolidated his advantage and contained the Verstappen threat – even clipping the wall at the entry of Turn 15 at one point having earlier managed to just catch a slide on exit – had the feel of a serious statement.
The signs were there on Saturday as Perez, the recognised street circuit specialist, rebounded from a slightly disappointing showing on Friday to outqualify Verstappen for the sprint before taking a measured win in the race.
Verstappen’s failure to overcome Leclerc, never mind his team-mate, was easily explained away by the gaping hole in his sidepod following his first-lap collision with George Russell, but did that damage potentially mask the true issue at play on his side of the garage?
Much of the focus ahead of the Baku weekend centred on how this year’s Red Bull package – and the team as a whole – would react to the return of the sprint format following their struggles in 2022.
The team’s failure to find a workable setup in the limited practice time available on a sprint weekend, with cars entering parc ferme conditions after FP1, was cited as the reason behind Verstappen’s poor race pace in Brazil late last year.
That came after another sprint event in Austria, where he suffered an extreme level of tyre degradation in the grand prix and only salvaged second place after Carlos Sainz’s fiery DNF.
The fact that Verstappen has qualified at the front at each of the last three sprint weekends – P2 in Brazil and pole in Austria and now Baku – confirms that he can quite easily coax a competitive time out of a sprint-spec Red Bull over a single lap.
But could it be that the nature of this format – that shortened period to get the car in the perfect window before the setup is locked in – hurts him more than other drivers when it comes to the longer runs?
Perez, after all, was already catching him even before the Safety Car as Verstappen complained of sliding over team radio.
As he celebrated his sixth career victory, Perez could not resist making a reference to the disappointment that followed his last win in Saudi Arabia, insisting over the radio that “we cannot have the issues like Melbourne” where he inexplicably fell in Q1.
The use of the royal ‘we’ was a bit rich considering it was acknowledged by Red Bull that Perez’s downfall in Australia was of his own making, but pointed to a certain truth.
If history is to recall him as more of a Nico Rosberg than a Valtteri Bottas, he will use this win as a platform for more and not just brief respite from the wingman life.
Just six points behind Verstappen in the Championship and with two of the next three races at street tracks, he cannot now waste the opportunity he has created for himself.
Ferrari cannot afford to lose Leclerc
Is Leclerc really the fastest driver in Formula 1 right now, or simply the greatest risk taker?
The change in approach seen in Verstappen since being presented with a dominant Red Bull – allowing Russell and Lewis Hamilton to pass him at the start in Australia, for instance, safe in the knowledge that he would get them both later – would suggest that the risks a driver is prepared to take correlates directly with the quality of their car.
If he is to achieve anything of significance in a Ferrari currently short of F1’s frontrunners, Leclerc has to go places others either can’t or just don’t need to tread.
It is a huge element of his appeal – there have been more successful drivers in the modern history of Ferrari, but not since the days of Gilles Villeneuve has someone captured the very essence of what it means to race with that shield on one’s chest – but also symptomatic of a wider problem.
In an ideal world, no doubt, Leclerc would not need to drive in such a fury, with a willingness to end up in the wall for the sake of forcing a major result – and sometimes, as in the Sprint Shootout on Saturday morning, doing both.
Which brings us to Leclerc’s future at Ferrari – and those growing Mercedes links.
Having seen the team implode around him last year, Leclerc is said to have not taken Ferrari’s limp start to the season well with reports of him seeking assurances and questioning his place at Maranello.
The appointment of Fred Vasseur – a long-term ally of Leclerc and the man who gave him his F1 debut at Sauber in 2018 – as Ferrari’s new team principal over the winter was widely interpreted as a move to appease the lead driver, but again the success of a team boss is only ever dictated by the car’s competitiveness.
It has been rumoured since last year that Mercedes had identified Leclerc as the eventual successor to Hamilton – a usually impeccable source made reference to a pre-contract agreement of some description already being in place – with both parties increasingly open about their fondness for each other in Baku.
Toto Wolff admitted Leclerc was a driver who had to register on the eight-time Constructors Champions’ long-term radar, while Leclerc’s response when asked if he had held discussions with Mercedes – “no, not yet” – was hardly a glowing endorsement of the current state of play at Ferrari.
Increasingly, this saga has a similar feel to Sebastian Vettel’s long-rumoured switch to Ferrari in 2015 – a move with its works already common knowledge and its execution only a question of timing.
On a weekend where Sainz was once again nowhere to be seen, almost 25 seconds behind his team-mate at the chequered flag, two explosive pole laps and a first podium of 2023 underlined the importance of Leclerc to Ferrari.
They simply cannot afford to lose him.
Alonso is charming the pants off Aston Martin
For a driver with quite a history of falling out with team-mates and team bosses, Alonso’s move to Aston Martin over the winter brought with it a potentially fascinating dynamic.
How would Alonso get along with Lance Stroll? If the two-time World Champion came in and destroyed the boss’s son on track, how might team owner Lawrence respond? And just who would be brave enough to mention Austin 2022, when Stroll’s sudden move on the back straight sent his future team-mate flying through the air at speed?
The potential for friction in this unique scenario, with two such strong personalities, was obvious – particularly if the car did not meet expectations.
But if the AMR23 has surprised so far this season, so too has Alonso in his willingness to integrate himself within the team.
Alonso has made a very clever and clearly conscious effort to paint himself as a friend to Stroll rather than a foe, hailing his team-mate as “my hero” following his recovery from a pre-season bike accident to finish sixth in Bahrain and being restrained in his reaction to contact between the Aston Martins on the opening laps in Sakhir and Australia.
During the race in Baku came more signs of this surprisingly productive partnership, Stroll radioing the team to reassure Alonso that he would not attack as they entered tyre-saving mode.
Not long after, Alonso himself was on the airwaves with a brake balance suggestion for Stroll.
With drag one of the few obvious weaknesses of the 2023 Aston Martin package, Azerbaijan was always likely to be a struggle for the green cars with an intermittent DRS problem across the weekend only exacerbating their straight-line deficit.
Even on this off weekend, however, Alonso still managed to finish within a second of third-placed Leclerc.
Alonso is taking this team to heights they have rarely seen and, even better, he has come in peace.
De Vries will struggle to last the season at this rate
Winner of the Formula 2 and Formula E titles over recent years, Nyck de Vries is a champion of substance who deserves more respect.
His status as a full-time Formula 1 driver in 2023 is an achievement in itself, as De Vries saw the door closed in his face by multiple teams on his way up the ladder.
Dropped from McLaren’s junior scheme in 2019, he was overlooked by Williams as George Russell’s successor in late 2021 with the Mercedes customer team overlooking the Mercedes-backed driver to instead sign the Red Bull-affiliated Alex Albon.
Those knockbacks explained why De Vries’ point-scoring cameo appearance for Williams at Monza last year was so warmly welcomed – a talented driver seizing an unexpected opportunity and shining.
That performance propelled him into the heart of the driver market, with a number of teams suddenly alert to the gem hiding right under their noses all along.
Yet the first four races of his AlphaTauri career have revealed why such teams as McLaren and Williams had reservations over his true potential all along and why it has taken him until the age of 28 to find a permanent place on the grid.
De Vries has been unfortunate at times – an engine change in final practice in Jeddah left him woefully unprepared for qualifying – but a number of rookie mistakes, including two more over the Baku weekend, were not what was promised by the driver who enjoyed such a composed debut at Monza.
If he is to last the season at AlphaTauri, he will need to summon all the strength and resilience that got him here in the first place.
Thumbs down for the insulting sprint format changes
Liberty Media have made no secret of their modus operandi since their takeover of Formula 1 in 2017.
They want to take the sport to a new and youthful audience while remaining faithful to the millions of diehard fans with motor racing in their bones.
It was with a strange feeling of guilt, then, that you watched qualifying on Friday, which began at 1700 local time (early afternoon across Europe).
What of the teenage F1 obsessive who has watched each episode of Drive to Survive at least three times and counts a signed mini helmet among their prized possessions? They were all in school.
What about the middle-aged fan who prides themselves on having watched every single qualifying session and race since the early ’90s and makes the trip to their home race every year? They were all at work.
It amounted to an extraordinary betrayal of the sport’s fanbase, enthusiasts young and old collateral damage in F1’s latest needless attempt to spice up the show.
This was just one of the many things wrong with F1’s revised sprint race format, which made little sense on paper when announced last Tuesday and even less sense in practice.
Among all the talk about “THREE DAYS OF COMPETITIVE ACTION” in Baku – what failed to be mentioned was that one of those days, with the outcome of the sprint race no longer setting the grid for Sunday, was a total irrelevance.
For the first time in F1 history the Saturday of a grand prix weekend was entirely missable and Hamilton’s description of the sprint race as a practice session with points was surely not what the brains behind the new format had in mind.
And what of the extra qualifying session known as the Sprint Shootout, presumably because calling it ‘qualifying again’ just wouldn’t do?
Verstappen admitted to being “bored” having already gone through the tired old Q1/Q2/Q3 rigmarole on Friday afternoon.
The great unanswered question whenever a sport does this kind of thing to itself is: what next?
Where exactly is this all heading?
With the number of sprint events likely to increase once again in 2024, potentially covering as many as half the races on the calendar, is the move to standalone sprint races a prelude to a championship run in parallel to the main competition?
Will a Sprint Champion be crowned next season, perhaps, with bonus points for winning the title added to the driver’s score in the actual World Championship?
With motorcycle racing already adopting the sprint concept for themselves – why can’t these other categories ever come up with their own ideas? – F1 is determined to make the sprint a success, but the format that debuted in Baku is not the answer.
Given the choice between the new sprint and the old, the old wins every time.
At least that one had some degree of influence on the rest of the weekend.