Race: Perez wins, late drama for Verstappen and Hamilton

Mark Scott
Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen's car is lifted away after a tyre failure at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Sergio Perez took his first win as a Red Bull driver in a fascinating Azerbaijan GP, with team-mate Max Verstappen suffering a tyre failure five laps from the end while leading.

The drama didn’t end there, either, as Lewis Hamilton fell from P2 to P15 as the race restarted from a standing start with just two laps left, locking up and going down the escape road.

Red Bull had been heading for what looked to be an almost certain 1-2 finish with Verstappen in front, but the Dutchman’s left-rear tyre deflated on the start/finish straight to deny him a crucial race victory.

The race was red-flagged soon afterwards, with Verstappen left understandably frustrated and shaken after flying into the wall at almost 200mph – in a similar incident to what had ended Lance Stroll’s race 15 laps earlier.

Once everything had played out in a frantic two-lap dash to the line in Baku, a resurgent Sebastian Vettel took a superb maiden podium for Aston Martin in P2 – earning Driver of the Day for the second straight race, as he made a nine-place improvement from his qualifying position.

Lewis Hamilton had been running just behind Perez, but he locked up at the restart and careered off track to drop the reigning World Champion out of the points completely, meaning Verstappen maintained his World Championship lead despite retiring from the race.

The battle for the final podium place saw a scrap between three drivers, but Pierre Gasly defended masterfully from Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris to take third.

After the veritable carnage that ensued during qualifying on Saturday, there were high hopes before the race that the 51 laps of Baku on Sunday could potentially produce the race of the season so far – and it didn’t disappoint.

The race start saw pole-sitter Charles Leclerc, Hamilton and Verstappen get away in order on the short run to Turn 1, with the big mover being Perez – who jumped past Carlos Sainz and Gasly to put himself P4, right behind his team-mate.

Hamilton didn’t even need the help of DRS to take the lead at the end of lap 2, passing Leclerc on the start/finish straight and scampering out of the one-second range of the Monegasue driver to stop him using the rear wing opening to retake P1 in the race.

Leclerc managed to stay in Hamilton’s DRS window with Verstappen on a charge behind and by lap 6, Leclerc slipped too far behind and he was easy pickings for Verstappen heading into Turn 1 – as the top two in the World Championship stole P1 and P2 on track.

Perez was able to follow his team-mate through on Leclerc a lap later, with the two Red Bulls putting pressure on Hamilton for the race lead, while Mercedes team-mate Bottas was struggling in P9.

Hamilton was complaining of a lack of rear grip and he pitted at the end of lap 11, losing at least two seconds as he was forced to wait for Gasly to go past his pit box before being released. With that loss of time, Verstappen came in a lap later and, with a smooth stop, emerged comfortably in front of the Mercedes driver, with the added bonus of a two-second lead to boot.

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Perez was flying in the sister Red Bull however, and despite a slow four-second stop on lap 13, he was able to make it a Red Bull 1-2 on track by getting out in front of the Mercedes. Without his pit delay, there was a chance the Mexican could have even taken the eventual race lead once Sebastian Vettel had stopped from the lead.

Both Aston Martins were the last cars to stop, with Vettel coming out P7 as he executed another overcut as he did in Monaco, with Lance Stroll attempting an overcut with a first stint that would take him beyond the halfway point, which would eventually see his race ended prematurely.

Verstappen, Perez and Hamilton edged their way clear of the rest of the field lap by lap. The Brit said on team radio that he could not get close to Perez in the middle sector and, while he had the straight-line speed advantage over the Red Bull, he could not find his way into the DRS zone.

Just behind, however, the AlphaTauri of Gasly continued his form from qualifying and was able to get past Leclerc in the pit stops, opening up a three-second gap to the Ferrari behind as the race approached its halfway point.

Up front, Verstappen began to stretch his legs. He pushed to set the fastest lap and had increased his gap to Perez up to around six seconds as the World Championship leader developed a cushion for himself.

After the crashes and interruptions that ensued in qualifying, Bottas running wide at Turn 16 and Nikita Mazepin going down the escape road at Turn 4 were as close as the race had been to any kind of running under yellow flag conditions – until lap 31.

Lance Stroll Azerbaijan GP crash 2021
Lance Stroll Azerbaijan GP crash 2021

A huge shunt for Stroll out of Turn 18 brought out the Safety Car, careering into the wall at 190mph as a left-rear tyre failure left the Canadian as a passenger, who was brought back to his garage in the Medical Car shaken but otherwise unscathed.

Understandably, Verstappen left it as late as possible to get back up to speed upon the restart as any slipstream could have given an unwanted tow behind. He got the jump on his team-mate and managed to open up a two-second gap within a single lap.

Just behind the frontrunners, Vettel took advantage of a slow exit to Turn 1 for Leclerc to get up into P5, while Gasly was just about able to keep the four-time World Champion behind him, but the Aston Martin driver was able to get the job done on the start/finish straight later in the lap to put him one place away from a podium.

Hamilton kept up the pressure on Perez which Verstappen edged further clear, but as for the sister Mercedes of Bottas, he was having a miserable time of things and saw himself passed by Giovinazzi and leaving the Finn down in P14.

Out of the blue however, Verstappen was left spinning around on the main straight after his left-rear tyre failed six laps from the end, and the Red Bull driver clattered the wall at full speed near the finish line.

This caught the Red Bull driver and pit wall by surprise as much as anyone else, with sporting director Jonathan Wheatley heard on radio communications with the FIA asking for the race to be red-flagged in case of any further tyre failures, adding: “We got zero warning of that failure. Nothing. Nothing on a metric, not a vibration, nothing.”

Rather than finishing the race early, though, a short dash to the line after a standing start was the verdict, with the teams allowed to change tyres and fix damaged parts on their cars while under red flag conditions.

Hamilton came on team radio before the restart to assure his team that this season is a “marathon, not a sprint” – hinting that he is looking more broadly at the World Championship rather than being too aggressive to try and take a race win.

However, his brakes were visibly smoking before the lights went out again, and he locked up at the restart and ended up out of the points completely.

Perez had to stop his car just after bringing home his second race victory, with a top three consisting of the Mexican, Vettel and Gasly probably not featuring in many people’s pre-race predictions in a truly bonkers Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Race classification

1 Sergio Perez Red Bull 2:13:36.410
2 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 1.385s
3 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 2.762s
4 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 3.828s
5 Lando Norris McLaren 4.754s
6 Fernando Alonso Alpine 6.382s
7 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 6.624s
8 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 7.709s
9 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 8.874s
10 Kimi Raikkonen Alfa Romeo Racing 9.576s
11 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Racing 10.254s
12 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 11.264s
13 Mick Schumacher Haas 14.241s
14 Nikita Mazepin Haas 14.315s
15 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 17.668s
16 Nicholas Latifi Williams 42.379s
R George Russell Williams
R Max Verstappen Red Bull
R Lance Stroll Aston Martin
R Esteban Ocon Alpine
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