Max Verstappen opened up a 21-point advantage over his teammate Sergio Pérez in the Formula One world championship as Red Bull finished 1-2 in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on a disastrous day for Ferrari.
Verstappen had a troubled start to the defence of a title won in such dramatic fashion last year, suffering early-season reliability issues that have now become a thorn in the side of Ferrari. Charles Leclerc, who started from pole position in Baku and has done so in six of the season’s eight races thus far, led the race until an engine failure after 19 of the race’s 51 laps.
“It really hurts,” said the Ferrari man, who has retired from the lead in two of the last three GPs. “We really need not to have this happen again. We had no big problems at the beginning of the season and we haven’t changed massive things. It’s hard to understand and very disappointing.”
Leclerc’s teammate Carlos Sainz also retired early with hydraulic problems, the Italian team’s first double retirement since Monza 2020 handing Red Bull the race on a plate.
Pérez, a Baku specialist and winner in Monaco a fortnight ago, led the early laps after beating Leclerc into the first corner but, after outqualifying Verstappen for the second successive race, suffered worse tyre degradation and had to give best to the defending champion after 14 laps, the Dutchman going on to win comfortably. His 25th victory brought him level with the former legends of the sport Jim Clark and Niki Lauda.
Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal, said: “It was unlucky for Ferrari today. They took a cheap early pit stop under a VSC [virtual safety car] for Leclerc, which gave him a lead but would have meant a very long stint on those tyres. We had good pace and would have been in better shape later. It would have been fascinating to see how it played out.”
At one stage, the Red Bull drivers received a “no fighting” instruction at a track renowned for the jeopardy of close walls and lack of run-off areas. Horner, however, clarified: “Sergio was magic in qualifying yesterday but maybe we prioritised qualifying a bit more on his side of the garage. He got into some rear-tyre graining a bit more quickly than Max did today. All we asked of them was to give each other room, and they did that. It was a very mature drive by Max and redemption for last year.” At Baku in 2021, Verstappen was robbed by a tyre blow-out six laps from the end, while leading.
Behind the dominant Red Bulls, George Russell scored his third podium finish of the year and maintained his record as the only driver to score in every race. But driving a Mercedes that still suffers from “porpoising” or bouncing, a result of this year’s new aerodynamic regulations, it was far from a comfortable afternoon. “It was pretty brutal out there,” Russell confirmed. “I’ll sleep well tonight after a race on a track that is not usually that physical.”
Lewis Hamilton knew exactly how he felt, struggling to get out of his car after finishing fourth – behind team-mate Russell for the seventh time in eight races. “I was biting down on my teeth with the pain,” the seven-time world champion said. “I can’t express it. Adrenaline got me through. You were just praying for it to end.”
Once more it had not been an impressive performance by the reigning constructors’ champions but Hamilton was still upbeat enough to offer some hope. “I reckon we’re losing 1sec per lap with this bouncing and once we fix it we’ll be right there in the race,” he said.
That, though, has been a familiar refrain since the opening round of the championship, with Toto Wolff apologising for what Hamilton had been through. “We all know it’s a bit of a shit box to drive at the moment, and sorry about the back, but we’ll sort ourselves out,” the Mercedes team principal said.
Almost to a man, the drivers were questioning the bouncing phenomenon that is not exclusive to Mercedes and which, they fear, could cause long-term physical damage.
Pierre Gasly scored his best result of the season with fifth place for the Italian AlphaTauri team, ahead of a combative drive from Aston Martin’s four-time former world champion Sebastian Vettel, who could potentially have finished fourth but for a quick trip down an escape road 12 laps in.
Fernando Alonso, who at 7,771 days, can now boast the longest ever F1 career in terms of duration, finished seventh for Alpine, ahead of Daniel Ricciardo and Briton Lando Norris in the McLarens, and French team mate Esteban Ocon.