Vettel Drove A Perez-esque Race To Score Aston Martin’s First F1 Podium: 2021 Azerbaijan GP Race Report

Sebastian Vettel scored Aston Martin's 1st podium upon their return to F1 (courtesy: Mercedes AMG Petronas)
Sergio Perez won his first race for Red Bull Racing, also his first win of the 2021 Formula 1 season, ahead of Aston Martin Racing’s Sebastian Vettel and AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly. Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, the two title protagonists, failed to add to their points tally despite leading the race at different times.

The 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix had twists and turns as it delivered a welcome but a completely unexpected result. Sergio Perez won his first race for Red Bull Racing, also his first win of the 2021 Formula 1 season, ahead of Aston Martin Racing’s Sebastian Vettel and AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly. Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, the two title protagonists, failed to add to their points tally despite leading the race at different times.

Saturday’s pole-sitter Charles Leclerc finished a fine fourth ahead of Mclaren’s Lando Norris while Fernando Alonso registered his best finish since returning to Formula 1 this year by claiming sixth. AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda was seventh, his best result in the sport, ahead of the other Ferrari of Carlos Sainz Jr. The last two points-scoring positions were claimed by Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen, the latter scoring his first point of the season.

Multiple Race Leaders

After storming to a surprise pole position on Saturday, Leclerc was the early race leader. Based on Friday’s Free Practice data, the Ferrari cars were expected to struggle in the race with excessive tyre wear and it wasn’t a surprise that Leclerc was one of the first drivers from the leading pack to pit. After following him around the Baku City Circuit for the opening few laps, Hamilton made a brilliant move on Leclerc on the main straight – without the aid of the DRS, to take the lead of the race. “Despite starting at the front, we knew we could well be overtaken by the cars of the two front running teams, which is what happened,” summarised Leclerc.

The 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix saw five race leaders – Leclerc, Hamilton, Verstappen, Perez, and Vettel.

Disaster For Mercedes

The results from Friday’s Free Practice sessions confirmed Mercedes’ struggles in Baku. The team admitted that they were unable to generate enough tyre temperatures to extract single-lap pace from their package. The team were competitive in race trim but were expected to struggle in qualifying. This is why Hamilton’s P2 in qualifying was the biggest surprise of the session. The team worked hard to find a sweet spot in their setup to bring themselves back in the fight this weekend. From being unable to break into the top-10 in Free Practice 2, Mercedes-Hamilton were suddenly leading the race on Sunday.

In the end, an accidental flick of the ‘magic’ button on his steering wheel saw Hamilton drop out of the fight for the race win at the second restart. In fact, the error was so costly that Hamilton dropped out of the points altogether ending his 54-race streak of finishing in the points. “When Checo came towards me after the restart, I turned the wheel and flicked a switch which shifts the brake balance and that caused me to lock up. It’s one of the toughest moments I’ve had for a while – one moment we had all the points and the next we had none but for sure, we’ll regroup and come back,” explained the reigning world champion.

Hamilton’s one-off error won’t bother Mercedes as much as their questionable race strategy will. The team saw both their drivers be overcut by competition – Hamilton losing ground to Verstappen and Perez despite being in the lead while Bottas lost to Norris. In the case of Bottas, the Finn’s bad luck continued as he failed to score a point for the second race in succession. Bottas was denied his second fast lap in Q3 and saw himself stuck in a lowly P10. As for the race, Bottas was invisible and went backwards to finish 12th. The last time two Mercedes cars finished a race but failed to score points was back in the 2012 United States Grand Prix.

Bittersweet Race For Red Bull Racing

Despite showing superior pace in the Free Practice sessions, it was only after the pit stops that Red Bull Racing took the lead of the race. In qualifying, P3 (Verstappen) and P7 (Perez) was the best the team could manage. However, the team turned their fortunes around in the race by executing the perfect overcut on Hamilton – one that saw both drivers jump the Briton in the race order. The former World Champion team was on course to score their first 1-2 finish of the season until Verstappen suffered a high-speed tyre blowout in the closing stages of the race.

Said Verstappen post-race, “To retire from the lead of the race so close to the finish is pretty frustrating. I didn’t feel anything strange with the car and then suddenly the left rear went and I was in the wall quite hard. It’s not a nice place to crash and we don’t know the exact cause yet, I’m sure it will be fully investigated. Up until that point, it was a great day, the car felt perfect and I was comfortable in the lead so it felt like it would be an easy 1-2 but there are no guarantees in this sport.”

Perez, who was running in second, inherited the lead after Verstappen’s crash. The Mexican had driven a fantastic race until that point – an opening lap that saw him overtake three cars followed by flawless driving over the next 30-odd laps to keep Hamilton at bay. For Red Bull Racing, Perez played both his roles to perfection. First, the able wingman to Verstappen and second, picking up the points in case Verstappen suffers from misfortune. His win saw him jump two positions in the Drivers’ Championship – P3 ahead of Bottas and Norris.

A jubilant Perez said, “It was a crazy rollercoaster of a race, we were basically flat out from the very first lap and I had Lewis behind pushing me so I couldn’t breathe, it was very challenging but we kept our focus. Everything worked perfectly today apart from the restart at the end where I just had no grip. I thought I cannot lose this race two laps from the flag so I braked as late as I could into Turn 1 and then I saw Lewis locking up and go straight on into the run off.”

Pirelli’s Tyres

The sport’s official tyre supplier came under the scanner after Stroll and Verstappen’s high-speed failures. In the days to follow, a more thorough investigation will take place but the initial reason revealed by Pirelli for these failures was ‘track debris’. While Verstappen lost a race and vital points in the Drivers’ Championship, Stroll missed out on scoring points on a day when his teammate stood on the podium.

After being eliminated in Q1 of qualifying, the Canadian was running the reverse tyre strategy after opting to start on the hard tyre. In their optimal race strategy, Pirelli revealed a 36-40 lap stint on the hard – an indication that the compound had sufficient life in it. However, Stroll and Verstappen’s failures came on the 30th and 32nd lap of their stint. “I believe I can exclude that failures were due to tyre wear, because it’s not a matter of tyre wear. The rear-left tyre is not the most stressed tyre in Baku because…it’s obviously the rear-right,” stressed Mario Isola, Pirelli’s Head of F1 and Car Racing.

Sprint Qualifying Race

Verstappen’s shunt prompted the FIA to Red Flag the race three laps to the end. The stoppage was to allow the marshals to clear the circuit of debris while also permitting drivers to change their tyres on grounds of safety. The two-lap dash to the end offered one of the most exciting finishes to a Formula 1 Grand Prix. Hamilton almost took the lead of the race before the ‘magic’ button fiasco. Vettel, Gasly and Leclerc were engaged in a brilliant battle for the podium positions while a spirited Alonso overtook six cars to finish sixth!

At the flag, seven of ten teams scored points – Mercedes joining Haas and Williams in the no-score list. While the gap between Verstappen and Hamilton remained unchanged, Perez’s win gave Red Bull Racing a 25 point boost in their lead over Mercedes in the Constructors’ Championship.

Podium and Points For Jehan Daruvala

India’s lone Formula 2 star Jehan Daruvala experienced his first outing at the Baku City Circuit. After a low-scoring weekend in Monaco, the Mumbai-born lad bounced back to score a podium and a good chunk of points in Azerbaijan – finishing 4th, 3rd and 7th in the three races over the weekend. “It was super fun to race in Baku and filled with lots of action. I scored decent points after a difficult weekend in Monaco. I can’t wait for the next few rounds as they are tracks I really enjoy,” said Jehan to Firstpost. The Indian racer is 7th in the drivers’ standings.

This post was first published on Firstpost

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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