In a late chain of events that featured title contenders Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton left in a draw for the championship lead following late on-track issues, Sergio “Checo” Perez came out on top and claimed his first victory of the season in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit, the sixth event of the 2021 Formula One season.
The 31-year-old veteran from Guadalajara, Mexico, was initially poised for a podium result when his teammate and leader Max Verstappen wrecked with five laps remaining due to a left-rear tyre puncture, an incident that left Verstappen upset following his Monaco Grand Prix victory. With the race red-flagged to have the debris cleared from the wreckage, the race restarted in a two-lap shootout that featured all of the cars restarting in double lanes. Hamilton, meanwhile, was poised to challenge Perez for the victory until he locked up his front tires and overshot the first corner, which took him out of race-winning contention and an opportunity to reclaim the points lead. That all but gave Perez the clean air needed to drive to victory.
The Azerbaijan victory marked Perez’s second Formula One career victory in his 197th career start, his first as a Red Bull Racing driver and his first since claiming his maiden F1 victory in the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix last December. It also marked Perez’s third time standing on the podium at the Baku City Circuit after finishing in third place in 2016 and 2018.
“I think we all love Baku, right?” Perez said. “It worked well. We had good pace, good start, good first lap. We did everything perfect apart from that restart. Simply, I didn’t have any grip. I had an issue with my tyres and I couldn’t warm them up, so I think that was part of it, of the issue that I had a very poor start. We gave it all. I thought, ‘I cannot miss this race two laps from the end.’ Overall, I’m just very pleased. I certainly did a very good step in understanding the [Red Bull] car, in feeling comfortable. I think there is still a lot to come from us, so we’re just working really hard. I’m giving it my best. The season is still very long, so anything can happen.”
Despite finishing 18th with a DNF following his late accident, Verstappen, who earned a single point by setting the fastest lap at 206.839 kph, retained the lead in the drivers’ championship standings after Hamilton fell all the way back to 15th place.
“Yeah, it’s, of course, frustrating and disappointing,” Verstappen said. “So close to the finish, to retire with a tyre blowout. It’s a big shame. Sometime, you can hate this sport for a few hours and then, I’ll be fine again. Up until that point, it was a great day. The car was on fire. I was just matching whatever I needed to do behind me. It would’ve been an easy win, but of course, I know no guarantees are in this sport. Shame because we missed out on an opportunity to make the gap [between myself and Hamilton] bigger.”
“Basically, when Checo pulled over to the left and I moved to the left, I, unknowingly, hit a switch and it basically switched off the rear brakes and only the fronts were working, so it just went straight,” Hamilton said. “It’s really painful, but I’m really sorry to the team for this day. All I can do is rebuild and know that I gave it absolutely everything today.”
Trailing Perez to the line by more than a second was Sebastian Vettel, who claimed his first podium result of the season, his first since the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix last November and his first with the Aston Martin Cognizant F1 Team.
“I feel good,” Vettel said. “We started 11th, but I think we were very strong today. The team did a great job. We prepared well for the race, knew what to do and execute…good pace throughout. Looking forward to the next races.”
Pierre Gasly, meanwhile, fended off a late challenge from pole-sitter Charles Leclerc during the two-lap shootout to round out the podium in third place, thus claiming his first podium result since winning his maiden Grand Prix event in Monza, Italy, last September and the first podium result of the season for the AlphaTauri team.
“It’s been an incredible weekend for us,” Gasly said. “The car’s been very, very strong and [qualifying] was great yesterday. The race was going really well at the start. From mid-race to onwards, we had engine problems, so we started to lose performance, especially down the straights. I knew it would be tight with Charles with our lethal issue. It was quite close racing, hard racing, but exactly how we like it. I really wanted that podium and I’m really, really happy for the guys.”
Leclerc rallied from his dismal week at Monaco, where he did not make the starting grid nor competed, by finishing fourth while Lando Norris crossed the line in fifth place.
Fernando Alonso settled in sixth place followed by rookie Yuki Tsunoda, who notched a career-best result. Carlos Sainz, Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Räikkönen completed the top-10 points finishing results.
Antonio Giovinazzi finished 11th followed by Valtteri Bottas, Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin, all of whom finished in front of Hamilton. Nicholas Latifi finished 16th while teammate George Russell retired in 17th.
Lance Stroll ended his race in 19th place and with a DNF following a harrowing accident caused by a left-rear tyre puncture on the high-speed straightaway that sent the Canadian into the wall and with a wrecked Aston Martin F1 car.
Esteban Ocon finished in 20th place and as the first retiree of the event after an early engine turbo issue took him out of contention.
1. Sergio Perez, eight laps led, 25 points
2. Sebastian Vettel, four laps led, 18 points
3. Pierre Gasly, 15 points
4. Charles Leclerc, one lap led, 12 points
5. Lando Norris, 10 points
6. Fernando Alonso, eight points
7. Yuki Tsunoda, six points
8. Carlos Sainz, four points
9. Daniel Ricciardo, two points
10. Kimi Räikkönen, one point
11. Antonio Givinazzi
12. Valtteri Bottas
13. Mick Schumacher
14. Nikita Mazepin
15. Lewis Hamilton, nine laps led
16. Nicholas Latifi
17. George Russell, retired
18. Max Verstappen, retired, 29 las led, one point
19. Lance Stroll, retired
20. Esteban Ocon, retired
Verstappen continues to lead the drivers’ standings by four points over Hamilton with Perez trailing by 36 points. Red Bull Racing Honda also continues to lead the constructors’ standings by 26 points over Mercedes.
Next on the 2021 Formula One schedule is Circuit Paul Ricard for the French Grand Prix, which will occur on Sunday, June 20.