Analysis of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, brought to you by Bahrain International Circuit
It was the first sprint race of the season. There are six sprint race weekends planned for 2023 with a number of changes to the format with the aim of enhancing the overall spectacle. The main change was that the sprint race would no longer set the grid for Sunday’s race, with the main race qualifying set for Friday and a separate sprint qualifying on Saturday morning. The main reason for the changes was to remove the link between the sprint and main race and therefore encourage more aggressive driving for the sprint. It also meant that there was just one practice session over the weekend, potentially adding to the jeopardy with the teams having less time to gather performance data on the cars.
The main race qualifying once again showed Charles Leclerc’s ability to pull out incredible times over one lap as he became the first car that wasn’t a Red Bull to take pole this season. Verstappen and Perez were close behind, with Sainz and Hamilton completing the top five. Further back, McLaren had brought some major upgrades to the car which seemed to be working well with Norris in seventh and Fernando Alonso just ahead of him in sixth.
The sprint race on Saturday provided plenty of entertainment, not least an attritional battle between George Russell and Max Verstappen. The two drivers collided on turn two, causing damage to Verstappen’s side pod.
The damage clearly slowed his car as the world champion was unable to get close to Leclerc, who had earlier been overtaken in first place by Perez on lap two. Verstappen did, however, manage to overtake Russell later on in the race.
The incident led to an irate Verstappen and some fairly fruity language over the team radio as well as some heated conversations after the race. But it was a Perez victory which showed that whilst Ferrari had clearly made progress in the last few weeks, their race pace still has some way to go. Russell managed to finish fourth, with Sainz fifth and the other Mercedes of Hamilton in sixth. Alex Albon was an impressive seventh with Alonso eighth as the last points scoring place.
With six different teams in the top eight on the grid, and a street circuit well known for incidents, safety cars (five of the last seven races had one) and red flags, yesterday’s race was well set to provide some engaging battles.
As expected, whilst Leclerc got off the line well, his lead did not last long as Verstappen overtook him on lap four with some ease, closely followed by Perez moving in to second just two laps later. Whilst the two Red Bulls flew off into the distance, de Vries stopped on track on lap 10, which acted as a catalyst for pit stops.
The timing of those stops were critical, with Verstappen, Hamilton and a handful of others stopping immediately, whilst the majority of the field waited for a safety car which materialised the following lap. With time saved on safety car pit stops, the top order was shuffled with Hamilton dropping to 10th and Verstappen to third. Whilst Verstappen managed to overtake Leclerc soon after, Perez was revelling in the lead and is something of an expert in street circuits, so Verstappen could not get close enough to overtake. Leclerc held on to third, just ahead of Alonso with Sainz in fifth and Hamilton sixth, following his mis-timed earlier pit stop. Overall, however, it was another dominant display from Red Bull who were at times a second a lap quicker, showing there is much to do for the rest of the field to catch up.
The racing comes thick and fast at this time of year, as F1 returns to Miami next weekend. Whilst the circuit may be slightly less well suited to Perez’ driving style, given his current form he certainly should not be ruled out. If he does win, he will take the lead in the drivers’ championship. So, despite the overall Red Bull dominance, the intra-team rivalry should give fans plenty of excitement as this season progresses.
* Laurence Jones is senior manager, Marketing and Communications, Bahrain International Circuit. [email protected]