Red Bull’s Sergio Perez was the winner as the first sprint race of the F1 2023 season was staged at the Baku circuit in Azerbaijan.
The Mexican continued his stunning form on street circuits to overcome polesitter Charles Leclerc, with Max Verstappen third after a spiky encounter with Mercedes driver George Russell.
Here are the winners and losers from sprint Saturday…
If there’s an F1 race in your neighbourhood, who you gonna call?
Sergio Perez, obviously.
F1’s street circuit specialist may have been slightly disappointed to have been a tenth off Verstappen on Friday afternoon, leaving him third on the grid for Sunday’s race.
But come sprint Saturday in Baku the Sergio Perez we have known and loved over the last couple of years – winner here plus Monaco, Jeddah and Singapore in Red Bull colours – had come to the fore.
Unable to dislodge Leclerc from pole, Perez was at least ahead of Verstappen on the sprint grid and that arguably proved pivotal, with Checo’s eyes looking firmly ahead on that opening lap as Russell attempted to impose himself on Verstappen.
Perez was measured in hunting down and passing the Ferrari, relying on Red Bull’s blistering speed in a straight line to keep a lid on Leclerc’s attempts to stay with him before the tyres inevitably dropped off.
A well-executed win.
What is it about Leclerc in Baku?
Something about this place – the precision it demands, the need to attack while respecting it as a circuit that can bite hard – speaks to his soul as F1’s leading risk taker.
Leclerc has landed on both sides of that divide at various times during his Ferrari career and again had a foot in both camps on Saturday morning, his lap for sprint pole soon followed by a nose-first meeting with the barrier.
If the lap for pole was on the limit, the lap until his crash had him pushing everything – himself, the car, the track and, yes, his luck – just a little bit over it.
Putting the Ferrari far higher on the grid than it deserved to be – much like his pole here in 2021 in that regard – it was inevitable that he would slide back in the race on a circuit playing so handsomely to Red Bull’s current straight-line advantage.
Only the damage from his clash with Russell prevented Verstappen from demoting Leclerc from the runner-up spot, but in holding on to P2 the Ferrari driver scored more points in the sprint than he managed in the first three races of the season.
Leclerc, P1 in the last four qualifying sessions here, will start Sunday’s race from pole – the starting position his astonishing Friday lap deserves.
It would have been cruel had the result of the sprint denied him that honour, as would have been the case with the old sprint weekend format.
Having outqualified Lewis Hamilton at each of the opening three races, it would have irritated Russell to fall in Q2 on Friday – by just four thousandths to his team-mate – as the sister Mercedes went on to secure a solid fifth.
On sprint Saturday, then, came a glimpse of what might have been – and what still could be if another wild race in Baku swings his way on Sunday.
Did the disappointment of Friday inspire Russell to treat sprint day as a free hit, taking it more seriously and driving with more aggression than some of his peers?
If it did, it showed.
Fourth – with a three-tenth advantage over Hamilton – in the Shootout, Russell effectively pushed Verstappen through Turn 2 on a front-footed opening lap to earn the World Champion’s ire.
Russell is not one to back down and later spoke optimistically of his chances of racing the Ferraris – including polesitter Leclerc – in the grand prix itself.
Watch out, he’s coming through…
Verstappen told Russell what he thought of him and once again spoke of his dislike of the sprint format – urging F1, rather than tweaking the finer details, to just drop the thing entirely and be done with it.
But of greater concern to him on Saturday night, potentially, will be that he was once again outperformed by Perez on a street circuit.
Verstappen will start as the lead Red Bull on Sunday and admitted to being “bored” during the Sprint Shootout, having already gone through the Q1/Q2/Q3 rigmarole on Friday afternoon.
That pointed towards someone driving conservatively, refusing to take unnecessary risks for what is now a standalone event with no direct relation to the grand prix itself, but his failure to beat Perez on Saturday morning led directly to his clash with a fired-up Russell on that first lap.
For all his strengths as a two-time World Champion, the one area where Verstappen still lacks compared to Perez is at its most glaring on street circuits and Checo’s feather-light touch of the throttle on exit from all those 90-degree turns.
You won’t find Perez catching a wayward rear end as he accelerates out of these corners; with Max you just might, to the point where in Singapore last year he abandoned so many laps after one too many little moments that he eventually ran out of fuel in pursuit of the perfect lap.
Attention will focus on his heated exchange with Russell and his comments on the sprint, but finding a way to replicate his usual decisive advantage over Perez on street circuits has to be a priority for Verstappen.
And who knows? Maybe his post-sprint rants, from which nobody seemed safe, were intended to make us look elsewhere.
The first three races of Logan Sargeant’s F1 career contained flashes of genuine pace undermined by rookie errors.
That trend, it seems, has continued here.
Reaching Q2 for the first time on Friday, albeit with a half-second gap to Alex Albon, offered encouragement that Williams would have a two-pronged attack on the long Baku straights expected to suit the FW45 so very well.
And then it all went wrong, Sargeant distracted by the Ferraris entering the tricky Turn 15 on Saturday morning and clattering the outside wall marked by far more experienced drivers than he over the years.
The damage done prevented young Sarge from even starting the sprint.
But at least with Williams boss James Vowles – schooled in the Mercedes way of doing things – on his side, he will find a more forgiving team principal than Guenther Steiner was in reaction to Mick Schumacher’s Sunday-write-off shunt in Jeddah last year.
As the red flags waved for Sargeant’s crash, Tsunoda was moments away from crossing the line to secure his place in SQ2.
It is in these moments that heroes become zeroes – one of the stars of Friday afternoon, and the entire 2023 campaign so far, rooted in P18.
Like Russell, did that disappointment trigger a different approach to what came next?
Although footage is yet to surface at the time of writing, damage to the front wing from a collision with AlphaTauri team-mate Nyck de Vries contributed to Tsunoda’s crash into the Turn 14 wall on the opening lap.
The team’s call to send Tsunoda back on to the track, where he crabbed slowly around the track and ate into the limited sprint race laps, heralded memories of Zandvoort 2022 and earned AlphaTauri a fine.
The challenge now?
To ensure a disastrous sprint Saturday does not knock Tsunoda off course as he prepares to start Sunday’s race from eighth.
McLaren and Lando Norris drove a bus through F1’s tweaks to the sprint format for Baku, the use of his last new set of softs in Friday qualifying meaning he was unable to participate in the new SQ3 session on Saturday in which only new softs were permitted.
Norris was one of only two drivers to start the race on softs, but in a 17-lap race in which even the medium runners were complaining, it backfired spectacularly.
Pit stops are not mandatory in sprint races but Norris could go on no more on the red-striped rubber and flipped to the mediums, leaving him cut adrift at the back.
The good news? On a weekend in which the upgraded McLaren has shown improved pace, they now know not to make the same mistake on Sunday.
It was another day ending in disappointment for Pierre Gasly, who is having one too many of these at this very early stage of his Alpine career.
He was another victim of Sargeant’s SQ1 crash, stranded in 19th place on the sprint grid after a disastrous Friday when a practice fire was followed by a meeting with the wall at Turn 3 in qualifying.
Esteban Ocon was comfortable in Q2 on both Friday night and Saturday morning, but in early 2023 the fortunes of the Alpine drivers seem to flip day by day, sometimes session by session.
With Alpine breaking parc ferme rules to alter his setup, Ocon was hit with a pit lane start for both the sprint and the grand prix itself.
He and Alpine had hoped they had saved their Saturday when he pitted for softs under the Tsunoda Safety Car early in the sprint, but they merely took the same incorrect path as McLaren and Norris and Ocon was forced to pit for a second time to revert to mediums.
Two stops in a 17-lap sprint is some going – and will doubtless take pride of place alongside Ocon’s three penalties in a day from Bahrain.