The good and bad news for Sergio Perez as F1 returns at Baku

Oliver Harden
Red Bull duo Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez, neither happy. Bahrain March 2023

Red Bull team-mates Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez, neither happy. Bahrain March 2023

The bad news for Sergio Perez? After three races of the 2023 Formula 1 season, he sits 15 points behind Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen in the Drivers’ World Championship.

The good news?

This weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku promises to be right up his street. Literally.

Over recent years, Perez has built a reputation as a street circuit specialist – his feather-light touch of the throttle paying dividends on acceleration out of the slower, 90-degree corners that tend to characterise these tracks – and it was in Baku two years ago that he claimed his first victory in Red Bull colours.

He has since gone on to win in Monaco, Singapore and Jeddah, taking a couple of pole positions along the way.

Perez, lest we forget, outqualified Verstappen at this track last year, but coming straight after his victory in Monte Carlo and freshly signed contract extension his focus perhaps wasn’t where it should have been as he was well beaten by his team-mate in the race.

It is a quirk of the calendar that five of the opening seven rounds are held on street circuits – could that explain why Perez tends to start a season strong? – and in the absence of an external threat all eyes will once again be on him to take the fight to Verstappen in Baku.

Nearly an entire month has passed since the last race, but it was hard to ignore the feeling that the Australian GP – even this early into the new season – was a decisive moment in the inter-team Red Bull battle.

As Perez inexplicably fell in Q1, the momentum of his victory in Saudi Arabia instantly draining away, Verstappen was dominant from pole to take his second win in three and establish a clear points advantage over his team-mate.

Verstappen is no stranger to team-mate confrontation in Baku, of course, for it was here in 2018 where Daniel Ricciardo licked the stamp and sent it into Turn 1 and Max returned to sender.

Third in the standings after three consecutive P3 finishes to start the season, Fernando Alonso memorably scored the hardest-fought points of his career in Baku in 2018 by hauling a badly wounded McLaren to seventh place.

With straight-line performance one the few obvious vices of the 2023 Aston Martin package, a similarly defiant drive may be required this weekend if Alonso is to maintain his ever-present place on the podium ahead of some more favourable circuits to come.

And what of team-mate Lance Stroll? He is something of a Baku specialist himself, having secured his maiden F1 podium here for Williams in 2017 and put in a seriously impressive stint on the hard compound prior to his dramatic tyre failure in 2021.

Might a potentially challenging weekend for Aston Martin open the door for Mercedes or even Ferrari to step forward as Red Bull’s biggest challengers on raw pace?

The abiding memory of Mercedes’ last visit to Baku was the sight of Lewis Hamilton shuffling away with his hand clutching his back after a particularly punishing race where the W13’s porpoising problem was at its most extreme.

Yet to outqualify team-mate George Russell in 2023, Hamilton is surely in for an easier ride this year but it remains to be seen whether the 2018 Azerbaijan GP winner will take any more enjoyment from the Baku streets this weekend.

If it’s fireworks you’re looking for, keep a close eye on Charles Leclerc.

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Much has been made of Leclerc’s frustration with Ferrari’s limp start to the season and his first-lap retirement in Melbourne was potentially the first manifestation of that discontent affecting his judgement on track.

Baku has brought out both the best and worst of Leclerc over the years, with memories of an emotional F2 win following his father’s death in 2017, a breakthrough result as an F1 rookie with Sauber in 2018 and a wondrous pole in 2021 tempered by his qualifying crash as favourite for pole in 2019.

With the vagaries of the Baku weekend (more on that later) set to bring opportunity, expect another all-or-nothing drive with Leclerc prepared to end up in the wall for the sake of forcing Ferrari’s first podium of 2023.

To understand how just one strong result can alter the entire complexion of a team’s season, look no further than McLaren.

Having missed their development targets over the winter, the team had resigned themselves to a difficult start to the year but currently sit fifth in the Championship after Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri stayed out of trouble in Melbourne.

With McLaren welcoming a much-needed upgrade package designed to right the wrongs of recently dismissed technical director James Key, their season starts now and from a very decent platform.

Having pipped McLaren to fourth in the standings last season, could Alpine live to regret their failure to punish their closest rivals across the first three races of 2023?

With Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon running into each other at the controversial restart in Australia, Alpine let McLaren off the hook but could be well placed to strike back on the long stretches of Baku, where Gasly stood on the podium in 2021.

Meanwhile, Haas sit just a single point behind Alpine following Nico Hulkenberg’s P7 finish in Australia, but the American team will have to overcome the weight of history to add to their score in Azerbaijan.

Haas arrived on the grid in the year F1 raced in Baku for the first time in 2016, but the team have registered just one points finish – Kevin Magnussen’s seventh place in 2017 – in their six previous visits.

Fellow Ferrari customers Alfa Romeo should expect to count on Valtteri Bottas to deliver in Baku, the Finn taking one of the most impressive victories of his career for Mercedes in 2019.

Yet having been convincingly outperformed by team-mate Zhou Guanyu at the last two races, the pressure is slowly rising on Bottas to justify his place and suddenly the notion of him sticking around for the team’s 2026 Audi rebrand seems wildly unrealistic.

Among the underrated stars of the season so far, Yuki Tsunoda has qualified in the top 10 on both of his previous appearances in Baku and another would come in handy for the struggling AlphaTauri team.

And just what might be possible for joint-bottom Williams this weekend? After reaching Q3, Alex Albon was running as high as P6 at the time of his crash in Australia.

With the high-speed blasts of Baku set to play even more to the strengths of the low-downforce FW45, there may be gold to be had if the car can be kept out of the walls.

But, at this circuit and with this format, the same is true for each and every driver this weekend.

The Azerbaijan GP will see the first of six sprint races held across 2023, with tweaks to the format now confirmed.

Those changes will see a single practice session and qualifying for the grand prix proper take place on Friday, with Saturday reserved for sprint qualifying (called a Sprint Shootout) and the sprint race itself.

Opportunities will almost certainly arise in Baku; it’s just a matter of who exactly will take them.