How AlphaTauri inadvertently saved Red Bull a major driver headache

Thomas Maher
Red Bull's Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen on the podium at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Baku, April 2023.

Red Bull's Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen on the podium at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Baku, April 2023.

AlphaTauri’s misfortunes in Azerbaijan could have prevented the Red Bull drivers from having a far more contentious race on Sunday.

Red Bull might be sighing with relief after avoiding a direct on-track scrap between their two drivers in Azerbaijan, having lucked into circumstances that meant no direct dueling between them en route to another 1-2 finish.

With the Red Bull drivers claiming their third 1-2 finish of the season, it was Perez’s turn to lead the duo home as the Mexican driver took his second win in four races as he continues to underline his status as a street circuit specialist.

It was an impressive display from Perez, following on from his Sprint race victory on Saturday. Having started from third on the grid, the Mexican driver was able to follow Verstappen through with an overtake on Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari on Lap 5 to move into second place.

While the standard status quo during 2021 and ’22 has usually seen Verstappen storm off into the distance if Perez is behind him, that usual dynamic clearly wasn’t unfolding as Perez began closing down his teammate and closed to within DRS range.

With seven-tenths of a second between them, the chessboard appeared perfectly set up, particularly with Verstappen not able to use DRS to defend against his teammate with the Red Bull known to have a particularly potent straight-line speed advantage once the drag reduction system is activated.

But, just as the race appeared set to spring to life with a Perez overtake seemingly seconds away, events further down the field were about to shake things up.

Nyck de Vries forces a Safety Car intervention

Negotiating his way through Turn 5 on Lap 10, driving for Red Bull’s sister team AlphaTauri, Nyck de Vries continued his messy weekend in Baku by turning in too early and clipped the inside wall to break his left-front suspension and knock his wheel askew.

“The accident today was fully my mistake,” De Vries explained after.

“It was very silly and unnecessary and that responsibility is on me. I am disappointed with myself but that’s the way it is. There are positives to take away from this weekend and I’ll try to look at them.”

While parked at the side of the race track in a precarious position, a Safety Car intervention initially didn’t appear on the cards as the car appeared intact.

“From the glimpse that we got, all four wheels were on the car, he hadn’t hit the barrier, and the engine was running,” Horner told media afterward.

“It looked like he’d select reverse and carry on, so you’d never expected that to go to a Safety Car. Usually, if you see a car in the barriers here, it’s a Safety Car, but there was no sign of it. It was only subsequently on the replays that we were able to see his track rod was broken.”

The timing wasn’t bad for Red Bull, given Verstappen had already been complaining about his rear tyre grip starting to fade away, with Horner also revealing that the team considered doing a double-stop by stacking their drivers.

But they quickly decided against, due to the fact their drivers were so close together on track. With Verstappen negotiating his way through the final sector, Red Bull’s strategy team proved as decisive as ever as the call to Verstappen, as race leader, was made: “Box, box, box.”

Pitting for fresh hards at the end of that lap, Verstappen was back up and going 2.9 seconds later with Perez and Leclerc continuing on their way. Just seconds later, the Safety Car was deployed as it became evident De Vries couldn’t get his car moving again, handing a big time advantage to the drivers who had stayed out.

Both pitted at the end of that lap, capitalising on Verstappen’s slower pace under Safety Car conditions to come out in front of him and hand Perez the high ground. recommends

Max Verstappen clinging on to ‘positive lessons’ after Sergio Perez defeat

More fighting talk from Sergio Perez as he narrows gap to Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen never gets back within attacking range of Sergio Perez

The pitstop circumstances had handed Perez a tiny buffer in the form of Leclerc, a buffer that quickly vanished as Verstappen overtook the Monegasque once again once the action resumed.

With 40 laps to go, it was a near-identical repeat of the scenario in Saudi Arabia only, this time, Verstappen was only 1.5 seconds behind his teammate. But, just as in Saudi Arabia, Verstappen proved unable to close the gap to Perez. The closest the reigning World Champion got was 1.1 seconds behind Perez, not quite enough to have his life made easier by a DRS activation.

Both slugged it out, as evidenced by their willingness to brush tyres against the barriers in the thrill of the stand-off, but it slowly but surely came Perez’s way as the gap eased out to over three seconds before Verstappen steadied the ship in the final 10 laps.

Just as in Jeddah, Verstappen simply couldn’t do anything about an imperious Perez who, once getting into prime position, showed no signs of the slight pace deficit or sharpness that has differentiated the two drivers over the past two seasons.

It would have been understandable if Verstappen had been left highly frustrated by the situation but, following on from his ill-tempered Saturday after the Sprint, the reigning Champion was completely circumspect about the events that had cost him the lead and, in the cooldown room, spoke jovially with Perez about the role reversal from when he benefitted from a similar Safety Car intervention at Saudi Arabia in 2022.

“These kinds of things we’ll analyse anyway if it was the right call or not, but it was definitely unlucky,” Verstappen told Sky later.

“I think today was just a very good day in terms of understanding the car and what I need from the car a bit more. We know it’s a very long season. A lot of things are learned again, Baku is quite different to Miami and Miami is gonna be, again, very different to the other tracks we go to. But you keep learning, it can never be perfect all the time. I think there are always days that you can learn.”

AlphaTauri incident delaying the inevitable?

With Sergio Perez unquestionably taking a significant step forward in terms of pace and mental resilience in the opening races of 2023, his form being far more comparable to Verstappen than in the past, the potential for an explosive race was there in Azerbaijan.

In 2014, Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg enjoyed an epic ‘Duel in the Desert’ that set the tone for a teammate rivalry that eventually disintegrated to the point of warfare – Rosberg simply refusing to accept playing second fiddle to Hamilton, even if it did take him another two years to topple Hamilton.

Perez seems to have taken a similar mentality into 2023, and Red Bull are allowing their drivers to push each other to the very limit without yet reigning anyone in. In 2018, Verstappen battled Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo on the streets of Baku, with the pair eventually colliding and both retiring.

Had the Safety Car not been needed to cover the recovery of De Vries’ car, it’s quite likely that Verstappen and Perez would have had a direct on-track duel that the DRS effect could have kept alive for much longer – that duel was only seconds away from starting.

The Safety Car pitstop that benefitted Perez wrecked any chance of this happening, due to allowing for a gap to form that Verstappen was never quite able to close down. Imagine what might have been had the Red Bull drivers swapped back and forth, unable to shake each other off throughout… would it have ended quite as happily?

Once again, Red Bull have avoided having their drivers going to battle for the win in a direct wheel-to-wheel duel, thanks to De Vries’ error.

But, based on both’s current performance level and that of the car, it appears only a matter of time until it happens – will it remain smooth and amicable, or is a season of internal war on the cards?