While Scuderia Ferrari Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc started the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on pole, the real race today looked more likely to be between the Red Bull cars of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez.
The Mexican made light work of getting past the Ferrari man in yesterday’s Sprint, while the Dutchman surely would have done the same if it weren’t for damage to his bodywork sustained in that collision with George Russell. Sergio Perez’s victory brought his deficit to Max Verstappen in the drivers’ standings back down to 13 points, and the street circuit king undoubtedly saw today as another opportunity to apply pressure to his team-mate.
As we saw yesterday, the opening corners were crucial, while it was be interesting to see whether Max Verstappen would take a more cautious approach having been bitten in the Sprint. This track has a 2.2km straight and a massive DRS zone which is where Red Bull have been outperforming everyone two fold, which meant it would be almost impossible for Charles to hold them off, but all Ferrari fans were putting their hope in the Monegasque driver.
Charles Leclerc was leading the cars around on their formation lap as we were just a few minutes away from lights out. Almost the whole field decided to start the race on medium tyres, with just Nyck de Vries, who began last of the cars on the grid in 18th, and pit-lane starters Esteban Ocon and Nico Hulkenberg on the hard compound. It was also notable that the whole field went for used rather than new mediums.
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Max Verstappen had his car pointing towards the Monegasque driver in his grid slot and the Red Bull got the better start but Charles held on to take the lead into Turn One. George Russell made up two places from P11 to get up to ninth on the opening lap, while yellow flags were showing briefly in sector one but all 20 cars were still running OK. Kevin Magnussen’s Haas had some front wing damage.
On lap 3, Charles Leclerc had a 0.4s lead at the start of the main straight but with DRS Max Verstappen breezed past to take the lead of the Azerbaijan GP at the start of lap four. Within a few corners, the Dutchman had already got himself out of DRS range as well. The Ferrari man did not have DRS to protect himself from Sergio Perez as he was called outside of a second of Max Verstappen the following lap: the Mexican closed up on the Ferrari down the straight but was too far back to make a move into Turn One.
Unfortunately there was nothing the Ferrari SF-23 car or Charles Leclerc could do against the impressive straight line speed of the Red Bull RB19. Sergio Perez was much closer to Charles on the next lap and easily overtook the Monegasque into Turn One to take second place. Charles really did everything to keep them behind, but the speed difference was just too much. The Red Bull cars were over 30 km/h quicker than the SF-23 single-seater as they swept past. Max Verstappen had a 1 second advantage over Sergio Perez as he crossed the line to start lap eight, while the Mexican pumped in the fastest lap of the race after being in clear air and was jumping in and out of DRS range of his team-mate as the lap progressed.
On lap 10 Lewis Hamilton was told to box by Mercedes and that released the two Aston Martins to press on. A 2.6s stop from Mercedes for Hamilton as he cane out in 13th but in a DRS train. Lando Norris also pitted at the end of lap 10. Just a few moments later stewards deployed a safety car to deal with the De Vries incident and Sergio Perez was told to box. The front runners were using the chance to pit under the Safety Car and that has prompted a lot of the midfield to come in too. The two Ferrari cars also had a free stop behind the Safety Car. A great double stack for the Maranello team and Charles Leclerc was able to come out ahead of Max Verstappen, with Sergio Perez also capitalizing on this moment to take the lead.
George Russell and Lance Stroll got very close to each other as they came into the pit lane. Stroll was trying to build a bit of a gap to Fernando Alonso to avoid losing out in the double stack. Fortunately for the Canadian the Mercedes box is before the Aston Marti one.
For the Maranello team, the race restart was not at all positive: Carlos Sainz was overtaken by Fernando Alonso going into Turn Six to take P4, while Charles Leclerc lost second place to Max Verstappen. Red Bull was lapping 8 tenths faster than Charles on the hard tyres and it was clear that P3 is the maximum today for the Italian side.
On lap 19 of 51, there was a big mistake from Lance Stroll at Turn 16: the Aston Martin went wide and Lewis Hamilton pounces: the Brit closes right up to the back of Stroll and with DRS he breezes past to claim P6.
Ferrari told Carlos Sainz his tyres were good and he wa free to push on and “go hunting”: the Spaniard was fifth at this stage, 1.9s behind compatriot Fernando Alonso. Carlos may have been told to go hunting by Ferrari but first he was going to have to do some defending, as Lewis Hamilton had closed right up to the back of the Ferrari and had DRS here down the main straight. Hamilton’s wing was wide open as they crossed the line but he was too far back to consider a dive up the inside into Turn One.
The Ferrari pit wall were on the team radio to Carlos Sainz to check he was still happy with their strategy: “What do you think about plan A or plan C, are you still happy with plan A,” Ferrari asked Carlos. “At the moment, yes,” he replied.
With 20 laps to go, Fernando Alonso was really starting to put the pressure on Charles Leclerc. That gap that was comfortably over two seconds a few laps before was down to just 1.1s. On the other hand Lewis Hamilton had fallen away from Carlos Sainz for a few laps but the seven-time world champion then re-engaged. The gap between the P5 Ferrari and P6 Mercedes wa back down to just 0.6s.
Charles was managing these tyres extremely well and was able to build a 3.5 advantage ahead of Fernando. Meanwhile Lewis Hamilton could almost touch Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari as they went through the old part of the track. He was much closer as they entered the main straight: the Spaniard moved over to the left side of the straight to try and break the tow and the he just had enough of a gap as Hamilton ran out of straight to make a move.
Chequered Flag was out and Sergio Perez won the Azerbaijan GP to become the first repeat winner in Baku. The Mexican ame home 2.1s ahead of team-mate Max Verstappen. Charles Leclerc held off Fernando Alonso to take third place for Ferrari, the first podium for the Maranello team in 2023. Carlos Sainz kept his fifth place ahead of Lewis Hamilton. George Russell secured the fastest lap on the final lap after that late pit stop. He took the point away from Max Verstappen.