Red Bull are usually the favourites for street circuit races. After a great result at Monaco, the Azerbaijani GP at Baku would give them another chance to outperform championship rival, Mercedes.
While Baku’s layout is not as tight and restrictive as Monaco, the minimal run-off area is defined by solid walls and there are plenty of heavy braking zones that can catch drivers off-guard. Red Bull drivers topped the charts throughout practice with Mercedes a long way behind on Friday. Ferrari showed great pace for the second race weekend in a row and its lap times weren’t far behind the front runners. As expected, Baku saw a fair bit of crashes as well and a total of four red-flag stoppages during qualifying, including one in Q3 again.
Charles Leclerc was able to set the fastest time in his first Q3 run, thanks to a bit of slipstream from Lewis Hamilton ahead. Max Verstappen set the second-fastest time on his first run. Lewis then went out a second time, with Valtteri Bottas ahead of him to get some tow for the flat out section down the main straight, and was able to go quicker than Max but still slower than Charles. Like most drivers, Verstappen waited till the very end of Q3 to make his final attempt for Pole position. Unfortunately, around the same time, Yuki Tsunoda ploughed his AlphaTauri into the wall at the exit of Turn 3. Carlos Sainz was the driver behind who had to make a last-minute evasive manoeuvre and ended up sliding onto the slip-road at the end of the straight to avoid hitting the crashed AlphaTauri. This incident brought on the final red flag of the day, ending Q3 prematurely and denying all drivers their final fast lap attempt.
This meant that Leclerc had secured another Pole position thanks to Q3 ending under red flag conditions, but luckily this time it wasn’t from him crashing. Verstappen missed his chance again and had to settle to start from third on the grid while Hamilton was able to keep his spot on the front row ahead of the Dutchman. Gasly was in excellent form as well and was able to set the fourth-fastest time, just 2 milliseconds slower than Verstappen’s first lap. Sainz was just a hundredth slower and had to start from fifth on the grid. Lando Norris’ time was sixth quickest but he got a 3-place grid penalty for not complying with red flag regulations and lined up ninth on the grid. Consequently, Sergio Perez was able to start from sixth despite having trouble getting a clean fast lap in Q3. Tsunoda’s first-ever Q3 run in F1 ended up being good enough to start on the fourth row alongside Fernando Alonso. Bottas had his worst qualifying of 2021 yet with his first run (without any slipstream) and was only good enough for tenth, nearly 1.5 seconds slower than the Pole-sitter. The Finn was struggling for pace all weekend and was also running a different rear wing that hindered his straight-line speed. Daniel Ricciardo crashed in Q2 and would start from 13th. The incident denied Sebastian Vettel the chance to move up into Q3 and would start from 11th, but it allowed him a wider range of tyre strategies.
Charles, Lewis and Verstappen started well by getting off the line quickly. Sergio’s start was excellent as he made up two places on the first lap, passing Carlos into Turn 1 and then overtaking Gasly down the inside of Turn 3. Given the slipstream effect around Baku, Leclerc’s lead was always going to be short-lived, especially in a Ferrari that does not have the same pace as the Mercedes or Red Bull behind. Hamilton zipped past into the lead at the end of Lap 2. The Ferrari driver was able to stay within DRS range of the Mercedes for a few laps before falling behind and getting passed by the first Red Bull at the end of Lap 6 and then by the other one the following lap, both times down the main straight. By Lap 8, Hamilton was leading the race with Verstappen hunting him and Perez staying keeping them in view from P3 while Bottas was languishing in P10. It was the ideal situation that Red Bull need to challenge Mercedes for the title.
Most drivers were expected to be on a single-stop strategy: starting on the Softs and switching to the Hard compound within the first 15 laps. It made sense too with Pirelli stating that the Hard (C3) compound would be good enough for 40 laps of the 51 lap race.
Lewis was cornered with both Red Bulls right behind him and Mercedes calculated that an undercut was their best option. He made his pit stop at the end of Lap 11 and got held up for an extra couple of seconds as the crew had to let another car pass to ensure a safe release from the pit box. That was all the advantage Red Bull needed when they pitted Verstappen the following lap who rejoined the race ahead of Hamilton while Perez took the lead. The Mexican driver was doing some really good laps that would see him jump not only the Mercedes but perhaps his teammate too. When he pitted the lap after his teammate, a slow tyre change on the left-rear meant that he rejoined the track behind Verstappen but just ahead of Hamilton.
At this point in the race, Sebastian Vettel was in the lead. He’d started from 11th on the grid on a fresh set of Soft tyres and was going for a longer first stint as most of the middle-order had already pitted for their Hard tyres. It wasn’t long before he was caught up by the race leaders but the strategy had helped him move up the order, as he pitted on Lap 19 and rejoining the race in P7.
Verstappen was not able to run away with the race lead but he did pull enough of a gap to be able to control the race pace. Perez had a long afternoon keeping Hamilton behind him and out of DRS range. The reigning champion would never be close enough down the main straight to make an overtake and Checo would use his battery reserve to stay ahead at the next DRS zone into Turn 3. The Red Bull was especially quick through the tightest sections of the track where the Mercedes would lose a fair bit of time and then not be close enough to take advantage of the slipstream or get DRS down the straights. This carried on for around 15 laps.
On Lap 31, the cameras cut to a car crashing into the wall down the main straight of the Baku circuit. That’s a high-speed section where everyone is going flat out so it caused immediate alarm regarding the driver’s well being. The Safety Car was brought out immediately to ensure the safety of all drivers on track. It was the Aston Martin of Lance Stroll and luckily he was okay enough to climb out himself once it was clear. At first, it seemed quite odd for him to crash on a straight but it was soon revealed that the incident was caused by a rear left tyre bursting, causing his car to swing into the wall.
The incident created a few murmurs in the strategy rooms too as Stroll was running on Hard tyres, the set he started on, that were less than 30 laps old. Since it was unclear if the tyre had failed due to wear or been punctured by debris, teams stuck with their original single-stop plans. Also, Stroll’s car had crashed at pit lane entry which meant no team could capitalise on the SC period anyway. By the time the pit was accessible, it was too late for anyone to make any gains by stopping for a new set of tyres. All racers were resigned to continuing the race on their current tyres for the remaining 20 laps or so.
After a few laps behind the SC, the race resumed on Lap 36. The Red Bulls were weaving in front of Hamilton like a choreographed dance to get their tyres warmed up. Verstappen waited till the last possible moment to put his foot down for the restart, minimising his rival’s opportunity to get a slipstream down towards Turn 1. Perez was able to hold off the No.44 Mercedes W12 and Gasly locked up while approaching the first corner. As Leclerc took the outside line to avoid the rear end of the AlphaTauri, Vettel slipped past his former teammate down the inside and up into P5. As they approached Turn 2, Charles had a big lockup but managed to keep his nose out of the Aston Martin’s diffuser and hold track position. At the end of Lap 36, Vettel used his fresher tyres and the slipstream to get past Gasly on the main straight and into P4. It was looking like a tasty race result for the man who’d started 11th on the grid.
Max did not waste any time to distance himself from the threat of Hamilton and Perez resumed his difficult task of being sandwiched between them. There was no significant gap between these front runners and while no one had DRS, it was close enough to stay interesting.
Towards the end of Lap 46, the camera was following Hamilton’s chase of Perez before cutting to Max Verstappen’s Red Bull veering towards the wall at full speed. His rear left tyre had blown out which led to the driver losing control and ended up bouncing off the wall. This was particularly scary as this was the fastest section of the track where all cars were going at their top speed. Perez and Hamilton rounded the debris without much drama and Verstappen was quickly seen to be unhurt. The Red Bull driver was visibly overcome with frustration at losing out this opportunity to win the Baku GP and increase his championship advantage. After what seemed like ages, the race was finally red-flagged with just 4 laps remaining, partly thanks to Red Bull’s request to the FIA officials present.
Stopping the session was necessary to clear the debris and the crashed RB16 of Max Verstappen from the main straight. It also allowed all remaining drivers to change tyres for the final stint, a relief given that both crashes that day involved cars that had done 30 laps or more on the Hard tyres. While Pirelli will conduct a detailed investigation into what could have caused the tyres to malfunction as they did, the teams believe it to be a tyre failure while the tyre manufacturer suspects debris on the track had caused punctures. The stoppage also gave Mercedes the chance to carry out some repairs on Hamilton’s car including a new front wing as the old one picked up some damage from Verstappen’s debris.
After a fairly long red-flag period, the officials announced that the remaining 3 laps of the race will be completed with a racing start. Considering that the formation lap behind the safety car would be counted as well, it would be a 2 lap scramble to the chequered flag. As Hamilton lined up on the front row for the second time that day, this time with Perez on Pole, it was his best chance to clinch victory from a difficult weekend and make the most of Verstappen’s DNF.
When the lights went out, Hamilton had a great start while Perez stuttered off the line. However, the Red Bull swerved towards the inside to put pressure on the Mercedes as they headed towards Turn 1. The next thing we saw was Hamilton lock both his front wheels as he braked for the corner and went straight off while Perez and the rest of the order followed the track. In a matter of moments, a golden opportunity had slipped away from Hamilton just like it had for Verstappen with the crash.
Sergio rabbited off with the lead to finish the last two laps of the 2021 Baku GP and claimed his first win with Red Bull Racing and his second win ever in Formula 1. This was also the third time that the Mexican racer has got on to the podium at Baku.
Just behind him, Sebastian finished the race in P2 to secure the first-ever podium result for Aston Martin and was also voted driver of the day for his faultless performance. The brilliant first stint, 18 laps on the Soft compound, really made the difference.
The incidents with the front runners allowed Pierre Gasly to move up to P3 and had to battle Charles Leclerc to hold on to it. It is the Frenchman’s third-ever F1 podium, all of them with the junior Red Bull team. While Baku has (nearly) always given us interesting podium results, this is perhaps the best one yet. In some ways, it was an all Red Bull podium.
Leclerc had to settle for a P4 finish and while he would have preferred a podium result after the chaos, the Ferrari simply did not have the race pace to take on the AlphaTauri while Vettel perfectly executed his race strategy to move up the order. Teammate Carlos Sainz had a shocker following the success at Monaco as he lost a spot to Perez at the start. He was one of the early pitters, changing to Hard tyres on Lap 10 and had lock-up at the entry of the Castle corner on his out lap. Not only did he drop down a few positions, but Sainz also flat-spotted his fresh set of tyres that would have hampered his overall pace for the rest of the race. He found himself out of the points for a while before moving up two spots at the Lap 36 restart. Sainz crossed the finish line in P8, earning crucial points that move Ferrari up into third in the constructor’s championship.
It was a rough weekend for McLaren as well with Lando Norris picking up a grid penalty in Q3 and Ricciardo crashing in Q2. Both drivers had a poor start as well, losing positions and the two were briefly battling each other for P11. However, Norris was able to gain a spot in the pit stop shuffle and then some more places after the various incidents, including an overtake on Yuki Tsunoda at the Lap 50 restart. Ricciardo found himself firmly stuck behind Bottas for most of the race. In the end, Lando crossed the line in a lucky P5 while Daniel had to settle for P9.
The drama at the front and the surprise podium result of the race completely overshadowed the stunning performance from Fernando Alonso who finished P6! The Alpine driver had a decent qualifying and was able to pull off some stunning overtakes during the race. Most notably, he made two incredible passes around the outside of the Turn 5 chicane: the first one on Bottas after the SC restart on Lap 36 and then on Tsunoda at the Lap 50 restart. Unfortunately, his teammate Esteban Ocon had an early retirement after just 3 laps due to a mechanical issue.
The second AlphaTauri of Tsunoda also finished in the points at Baku with the rookie driver crossing the finish line in P7. He did lose out to Norris and Alonso in the final restart but it was a respectable performance from the youngster for his best result yet.
Kimi Raikkonen finally scored his first points of the 2021 season with a P10 finish (got a post-race penalty in Imola that nullified his race finish). It wasn’t a great weekend for the Finn who started 14th on the grid but he’d be happy to finally get some points on the board. In a reverse of Monaco, teammate Antonio Giovinazzi finished just behind in P11. The Italian had another brilliant start to his race from the back of the grid after crashing in Q1, moving up to P15 on the first lap. However, Alfa Romeo’s strategy did not work out too well with Kimi starting on the Medium compound but still pitting after just 13 laps and Antonio making an early stop on Lap 3.
Watch all the best overtakes in this video from Formula 1:
Valtteri Bottas’ woeful day came to an end when he crossed the finish line in P12. He’d been unable to make any gains during the race and had lost positions on both race restarts. Teammate Lewis Hamilton ended his 2021 Baku race in P15, his first non-points finish since Austria 2018. The reason for his massive lockup at the restart was explained soon after the race and it was quite a surprising one. While it was indeed driver error, it wasn’t a racing mistake. Mercedes uses a system called “Magic brake” that shifts the break balance forwards, up to 85 per cent, and is used primarily to heat up the front brakes and tyres during a formation lap or before a race restart. To make it easy to use, the system has its own button and on Hamilton’s steering wheel, it’s located just behind the top left side. At the race restart, when Perez moved aggressively towards Hamilton, the Brit accidentally engaged the “magic” system as he swerved to avoid the Red Bull. So when he did apply his brakes for Turn 1, the massively front-biased brake balance meant he had no rear brakes and that’s why he locked up and slid straight off.
In some ways, it was a moment of cosmic balance with Hamilton getting the same bit of rotten luck that has plagued Verstappen for years. With neither driver scoring points, there has been no change at the top of the driver’s championship. However, the win has allowed Sergio Perez to climb up to third in the standings. With only one car on the podium instead of two, Red Bull’s advantage over Mercedes in the constructor’s championship stands at just 26 points. After two difficult races back-to-back, Mercedes will be looking to bounce back aggressively to make up for the lost points.
After another week’s gap, we’re heading into a triple header (three race weekends in a row) starting with the French GP. The most boring circuit on the calendar (Monaco included), Paul Ricard, has usually favoured the Mercedes F1 car with its fast corners, much like the Catalunya circuit. While the Spanish GP is at least pleasing to the eyes, this French GP has been an eyesore in F1 since this circuit returned to the calendar in 2018. Still, anything can happen on race day and I’m looking forward to another strong result from BOTH Red Bull drivers.
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- S. Perez Red Bull Racing Honda — 2:13:36.410
- S. Vettel Aston Martin Mercedes +1.385
- P. Gasly AlphaTauri Honda +2.762
- C. Leclerc Ferrari +3.828
- L. Norris McLaren Mercedes +4.754
- F. Alonso Alpine Renault +6.382
- Y. Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda +6.624
- C. Sainz Ferrari +7.709
- D. Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes +8.874
- K. Räikkönen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari +9.576
- A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +10.254
- V. Bottas Mercedes +11.264
- M. Schumacher Haas Ferrari +14.241
- N. Mazepin Haas Ferrari +14.315
- L. Hamilton Mercedes +17.668
- N. Latifi Williams Mercedes +42.379*
- G. Russell Williams Mercedes DNF
- M. Verstappen Red Bull Racing Honda DNF
- L. Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes DNF
- E. Ocon Alpine Renault DNF
*Latifi got a 30-second time penalty as he did not enter the pit lane during SC after the Verstappen crash. He got mixed messages from his race engineer which resulted in this penalty.