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Deflation and Elation
The 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix
Text & Photos | Thomas Lam
Edit | Henry Lau
Design | Answer Chui

Red Bull’s Sergio Perez won the drama-filled Azerbaijan Grand Prix after Max Verstappen suffered a catastrophic tyre failure and Lewis Hamilton failed to hold the lead.


Overview

Sergio Perez took victory in the dramatic Azerbaijan Grand Prix after teammate Max Verstappen crashed out from the lead with just five laps remaining following a massive rear tyre failure at 200mph. Lewis Hamilton then threw away second place at the restart to finish 15th and out of the points.

Verstappen looked sure to claim the victory following Hamilton’s slow pit stop that left the Brit behind both Red Bull drivers. Once in the lead, the Dutchman dominated the race.

But a terrifying left rear tyre puncture sent the Red Bull ace out of control and hurtling into the right-hand side concrete wall on the start-finish straight.

Questions

No doubt, deep questions are already being asked of Formula One’s tyre supplier, Pirelli, following Lance Stroll’s Aston

Martin suffered an identical high-speed blowout near the same spot on Lap 31.

The Grand Prix was then suspended on Lap 49 of 51 after Red Bull sporting director Jonathan Wheatley urged FIA race chief Michal Masi to red-flag the event, fearing another devastating puncture.

Sprint Race

The drivers were permitted to take on fresh rubber for what was effectively a two-lap sprint race before Hamilton launched a desperate lunge up the inside of Perez for the win in the first turn only to run off the track and down the escape road in a cloud of tyre smoke.

But the seven-time world champion sensed an opportunity to pass Perez and win the race at the first bend only to run off the circuit.

Sebastian Vettel rolled back the years to drive from 11th to second to claim Aston Martin’s first-ever Formula 1 points, with Pierre Gasly third for AlphaTauri.

Hamilton’s late mistake meant Verstappen remains four points ahead of the Brit after the opening six rounds.

Qualifying

Baku’s qualifying, which saw four red-flag periods, bordered on the manic.

When the smoke had cleared, Charles Leclerc performance raised a few eyebrows as he captured his second pole of the year and his second in a row. The Monegasque edged out Hamilton by two-tenths of a second, with Max Verstappen a disappointing third for Red Bull.

Yuki Tsunoda crashed his AlphaTauri in the final moments of qualifying, preventing the grid from completing their last runs.

Upward Climb

Pierre Gasly had another standout performance for AlphaTauri to start fourth while Fernando Alonso continued his surprising upward climb into Q3. McLaren’s Lando Norris out-qualified teammate Daniel Ricciardo again (who shoved it into the wall in Q2, finishing 15th). Unfortunately, Norris was given a three- place grid demotion due to rules infringement.

Sergio Pérez would start seventh for Red Bull.

The 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton was the first off the line at the start, but Leclerc’s Ferrari takes the lead into Turn 1, as Carlos Sainz locked up heavily into Turn 2 around the outside of Pérez. The Mexican was now in fourth.

It was Leclerc ahead of Hamilton by 0.9s at the start/finish line. Verstappen was right on the back of Hamilton.

The three cars at the front were very close on Lap 2, with Hamilton looking to outbrake Leclerc onto the pit straight.

Hamilton made the move stick as they started Lap 3, quickly sailing past the Ferrari. There were just 1.3s between the top three as Verstappen set the fastest lap on Lap 6. Verstappen took Leclerc around the outside with DRS on Lap 7. Pérez was now nearly within a second of the Monegasque. By Lap 8, the Mexican was into third.

Pressure

Hamilton now bore all the pressure, as he couldn’t build a gap with a Mercedes that had been off the pace the entire weekend.

On Lap 10, Hamilton radioed he could probably do another lap or two. He was struggling with his rear tyres.

Hamilton dived for his only stop on Lap 11. However, with Gasly pitting at the same time, the seven-time world champion’s release was delayed.

The Mercedes driver’s pit-stop took 4.6 seconds, allowing Verstappen to take the race lead when he pitted for fresh rubber on the following lap. Hamilton’s slow stop also allowed Perez to leapfrog him.

Once in the lead, Verstappen remained unchallenged. By Lap 29 of 61, the Dutchman had extended his lead to 6.5s. Hamilton pestered Perez, but despite being faster than the Mexican in the final sector, he could not find a way past.

Terrifying

Then, on Lap 31, Lance Stroll suffered a terrifying tyre failure. Stroll’s Aston Martin speared the concrete wall on the left- hand side of the pit-straight, but while his car sustained extensive damage, he emerged unscathed.

The safety car was deployed for five laps to clean up the debris, with Verstappen executing the perfect re-start to leave Perez trailing.

Behind, Sebastian Vettel, who ran longer in his first stint to lead the race for a brief period, had fought his way past Leclerc and Gasly to move up to fourth.

At this point, Verstappen was in complete cruise control – on course to move 16 points ahead of Hamilton – until the Dutchman’s terrifying tyre failure.

The race was red-flagged for 30 minutes, and ahead of the standing re-start, Hamilton told his team, “you have to remember this is a marathon not a sprint”, seemingly content to take second and his 18-point haul.

The Restart

At the restart, Hamilton’s brakes were billowing smoke. Perez did his best to slowly approach his starting slot, leaving the Brit’s Mercedes to mimic a roast left too long in the oven.

Hamilton had engaged a mode to help warm up the brakes under a safety car. The Brit said he thought he had turned it off but learned he must have turned it back on during an upshift.

At lights out, Hamilton grabbed the inside line, taking the lead from Perez. As he applied the brakes for Turn 1, the Mercedes’ fronts locked, leaving the Brit just a passenger. The Mercedes went straight on, taking the escape road. He returned in last place.

Among the remaining survivors was Leclerc, finishing fourth for Ferrari, just ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris. Fernando Alonso rousing drive brought Alpine unexpected sixth-place points, with Tsunoda taking seventh for AlphaTauri. Sainz finished a disappointing eighth, with Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen taking ninth and tenth, respectively.

In the end, with Mercedes scoring zero points, Verstappen somehow kept the championship lead. Mercedes have scored just six points in the last two races. When was the last time that happened?

Now it’s off to the French Grand Prix in two weeks, where we’ll see if this fantastic 2021 season can continue to mimic the unpredictable Grand Prix seasons of the tumultuous 70s.