Sergio Perez won the cat-and-mouse game that was the Red Bull team-mate battle at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix to gain a psychological advantage over Max Verstappen.
As expected Sunday’s race was an intra-team battle between Perez and Verstappen with the Mexican driver fortunate with the timing of a Safety Car. But it was by no means a gifted win as he was made to hustle with Verstappen keeping him honest all the way to the chequered flag.
Charles Leclerc joined the Red Bull team-mates on the podium as he followed up his sprint race P2 with a third-placed finish in the grand prix.
As the track temperature hit 42’C, the drivers lined up on the grid with all but Nyck de Vries on the medium Pirellis. The AlphaTauri driver, along with the two pit lane starters – Esteban Ocon and Nico Hulkenberg – had bolted on a set of hard tyres.
Pole-sitter Charles Leclerc made a clear getaway as Max Verstappen crossed the track to attack him but had to settle for second ahead of Sergio Perez and Carlos Sainz. There were a few close encounters further back that cost Kevin Magnussen a piece of his front wing and Valtteri Bottas five places.
With DRS enabled on lap 3 Verstappen made short work of Leclerc, taking the lead on the main straight with the Ferrari unable to respond. Perez made it a Red Bull 1-2 two laps later, setting up the expected team-mate Red Bull battle.
Leclerc found himself running two seconds ahead of Sainz, the Spaniard under attack from Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll. “Alonso, Lance will not attack you,” was the message for the double World Champ.
10 laps into the 51-lap race, Verstappen was leading by just over a second ahead of Perez with the Mexican driver forcing his team-mate to push, and he did so into the wall although escaped without damage. Reporting he was “struggling”, that coinciding with Nyck de Vries bringing out double waved yellows as he clipped the wall and broke his suspension, Verstappen pitted from the lead.
And then out came the Safety Car. Perez pitted from the lead with Leclerc, Sainz, Alonso, Russell, Stroll all in. In fact everyone except Ocon and Hulkenberg pitted. As the top-ten played out Verstappen found himself in third place while Hamilton, who had pitted the lap before De Vries’ crash, was down in 10th.
The racing resumed with Perez leading the way, Verstappen taking second off Leclerc and Alonso passing Sainz for fourth. Hamilton overtook Russell for seventh with the latter saying that a was “s**t restart”, Stroll “hit the wall”, damaging his rear left wheel but continued lapping, Magnussen breathed a sigh of relief when he managed to avoid sliding into a wall and Alonso told Aston Martin to assist Stroll by giving him his brake balance advice.
A mistake from Stroll at Turn 16 opened the door for Hamilton to take sixth place on lap 20 with the other Mercedes of Russell almost immediately on his rear wing. After several laps stuck behind the AMR32, Russell reported Stroll was struggling with his tyres. Two drives who weren’t having issues were the Red Bulls with Perez maintaining an advantage of about 1.3s over Verstappen as they continued their game of cat and mouse for the win.
30 laps into the race Verstappen suddenly dropped back from Perez, falling over two seconds back amidst rumbles of yet more engine braking issues for the reigning World Champion. “The balance between the diff and the engine” was his complaint to Red Bull. Behind him Ferrari discussed strategy as Leclerc run third to Sainz’s fifth, Alonso in the middle of the Ferrari sandwich with Hamilton running at roughly the same pace.
“What happened at 15?” was the worrying message to Perez as he clipped the wall. That opened the door for Verstappen to sneak through for the fastest lap, taking that off Perez in a race in which the Red Bulls were again in a league of their own. Perez, though, was quick to regain the provisional point. Leclerc, P3, was 16s off the pace with 10 laps remaining.
As Hamilton chased down Sainz, the seven-time World Champion getting within DRS range, Mercedes looked to be preparing for a pit stop only for the mechanics to retake their seats. Hamilton closed to within 0.4s of Sainz with the help of DRS but was lacking that extra boost to make a pass and eventually dropped back while ahead of their tussle Alonso was hoping for his shot at the other Ferrari of Leclerc.
After a tension-fraught 37 laps of being hustled by Verstappen, Perez raced to the victory ahead of his team-mate to close the gap in the Drivers’ Championship to single digits. Leclerc joined them on the podium which was Ferrari’s first grand prix podium result of this season.
Alonso was fourth ahead of Sainz and Hamilton with Stroll seventh ahead of Russell. Lando Norris and Yuki Tsunoda completed the points while Russell made a late stop for brand new soft tyres to secure the fastest lap of the race point.
There was late drama as Ocon pitted at the very end of the penultimate lap, coming in for his mandatory stop while marshals were already in the pit lane waiting for the end of the grand prix.
1 Sergio PEREZ Red Bull Racing
2 Max VERSTAPPEN Red Bull Racing +2.137
3 Charles LECLERC Ferrari +21.217
4 Fernando ALONSO Aston Martin +22.024
5 Carlos SAINZ Ferrari +45.491
6 Lewis HAMILTON Mercedes +46.145
7 Lance STROLL Aston Martin +51.617
8 George RUSSELL Mercedes +74.240
9 Lando NORRIS McLaren +80.376
10 Yuki TSUNODA AlphaTauri +83.862
11 Oscar PIASTRI McLaren +86.501
12 Alexander ALBON Williams +88.623
13 Kevin MAGNUSSEN Haas F1 Team +89.729
14 Pierre GASLY Alpine +91.332
15 Esteban OCON Alpine +97.794
16 Logan SARGEANT Williams +100.943
17 Nico HULKENBERG Haas F1 Team +1 lap
18 Valtteri BOTTAS Alfa Romeo +1 lap
Did not finish
Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo car damage
Nyck de Vries AlphaTauri suspension