Max Verstappen delivers a dominating victory in the 2022 Azerbaijan Grand Prix
Red Bull’s commanding one-two finish followed an unprecedented Ferrari double retirement in Baku. However, the final results were very much in question after Saturday qualifying.
In recent seasons, Red Bull has been a solid threat to win on the Baku City track’s swooping corners and high-speed straights. Last year, Sergio Perez snatched victory from the jaws of defeat after Verstappen’s Pirelli tyre failure in the final laps.
The 2022 season was no different. The new RB18’s top-gear speed and slippery rear wing seemed a perfect match for Baku’s flat-out mile-long final sector.
Thus, Ferrari arrived expecting only a modest Baku podium finish. However, the Scuderia realised a Sunday victory was very much in play thanks to Charles Leclerc’s stunning one-lap pole-winning speed and projected race pace, matched with Carlos Sainz’s equally aggressive fourth place.
Incredibly, both Ferrari cars were retired within the first 20 laps of Sunday’s race.
Sainz dropped out from fourth place on Lap 9 with a surprise hydraulic issue. Unphased, Leclerc pushed his Ferrari hard in the lead and then after his first pitstop until Lap 20 when his F1-75 suffered a power unit failure.
Leclerc had been beaten to Turn 1 by Red Bull’s Sergio Perez but was on a different strategy to both Red Bull drivers, thanks to a well-timed stop under a Virtual Safety Car.
The Dutchman now leads team-mate Sergio Perez, by 21-points. Verstappen’s title advantage over Leclerc has increased from nine points to 34, which could prove a pivotal result in this season’s championship battle.
George Russell continues to shine, finishing a distant third behind the Red Bulls to claim his third podium for Mercedes. At the same time, team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who suffered excruciating back pain during the race, took fourth.
Ferrari also saw two customer cars suffer failures, with Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu and Haas’ Kevin Magnussen retiring midway through the race.
Ferrari has just seven days to get on top of its issues before racing again at the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal.
Leclerc confidently led the field to the start; every car in the top 11 fitted with Mediums. Everyone except Ocon, Bottas, Stroll and Schumacher were on Hards.
Moments before taking his slot, Sergio Perez hears a whisper from his engineer, “Elbows out at Turn 1. It’s all to play for.”
At lights out, Perez was ready. He launched his RB18 perfectly and took the inside line as just Leclerc locks up on the outside into Turn 1. The Mexican burst into the lead!
Perez immediately advances two seconds clear of Leclerc, with Verstappen occupying the Monegasque’s mirrors. By Lap 5 of 51, Perez increased his lead to 2.5s. Verstappen aggressively closed up on the pit straight as Leclerc set the fastest first sector of the race. He needed it.
By Lap 8, others are getting impatient as well. Daniel Ricciardo, undoubtedly pressured by McLaren to pick up his season’s race pace as of late, is already complaining about following his slower teammate Lando Norris.” If this is his best pace, I’ve got more,” says Ricciardo.
On Lap 9, Verstappen was closer than ever to Leclerc. He’s told to remain focused.
“Keep the pace. Nothing is running away from you up front,” is the message from his engineer. Perez remains just 2.1s ahead of Leclerc.
Seconds later, Sainz, who was in fourth place, parked his F1-75 after a hydraulic failure.
The Virtual Safety Car deployed, and both Leclerc and Russell pitted for new tyres. The Monegasque’s slow stop lasted five seconds as the front jack jammed underneath his car. Hamilton also comes in. Vettel passed Hamilton in the pit lane while Hamilton had to wait for Russell to exit.
Despite the VSC, Perez and Verstappen stayed out before the Red Bull drivers traded positions on Lap 15.
During Leclerc’s early pit stop, Verstappen found free air and quickly closed up to the rear of Perez’s car in the lead. On Lap 15, he caught Perez and overtook him into Turn 1, but only after Perez had been told “no fighting” by his Red Bull engineer over team radio. Nevertheless, the Dutchman extended his lead over Perez to three seconds on the next lap.
Perez was the first of the two Red Bulls to pit on Lap 17, but when his car failed to come off the jacks properly, his fresh tyres “lost” any advantage over Verstappen. The Dutchman pitted two laps later and re-joined in the lead. He would extend his advantage over Perez to 20 seconds by the end of the Grand Prix.
When Verstappen pitted for tyres on Lap 19, Leclerc momentarily assumed the lead, 13.5sec lead ahead of the Dutchman. With his older tyres, the Ferrari ace might need another safety car or red flag in this race to keep his lead. Then again, perhaps he felt that with his tyres working well with his pace, he could dial down his speed later in the race.
Unfortunately, the Monegasque never had the opportunity.
Hustling down the back straight on Lap 20 with no further stops to make, Leclerc’s Ferrari power unit erupted into clouds of swirling smoke. In an instant, Ferrari experienced a nightmare double DNF, and with it, any drama in Baku evaporated.
At the finish, 31 laps later, Verstappen led Perez by 18 seconds. Russell trails Perez by 22 seconds. Hamilton is another 24 seconds back as he battled a numb back, thanks to the violent porpoising of his W13.
Despite Hamilton’s acute physical distress, he still held his own in a strategic battle with AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly for fourth place. Hamilton made an extra stop over Gasly, and his fresh tyres towards the end of the race saw him take the position with an overtaking move on Lap 45.
Gasly held on to fifth place to finish ahead of Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel in a commendable sixth, with Fernando Alonso (Alpine) in seventh and the two McLarens of Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris in eighth and ninth. Esteban Ocon (Alpine) took the final point for tenth place.
George Russell is a model of consistency and speed. He is out-scoring Lewis Hamilton in a machine that is nowhere near the Red Bull’s pace and handling. Yet, with seven races in a row, Russell out-scored the World Champion 5-3 in qualifying and 99 points to 63.
Sergio Perez has become a points machine; from Australia, he’s finished 2nd, 2nd, 4th, 2nd, 1st, and 2nd.
“It hurts,“ laments Charles Leclerc. “We really need to look into that for it to not happen again. I don’t really find the right words to describe. I don’t know. We really need to look into it. We’ve been fast and we didn’t have particularly big problems in the first part of the season. Now it seems like we have more, but we didn’t change big things.”
A brilliant four poles in a row and, regrettably, not a win to show. Please give this man what he needs.