Perez beats Leclerc and Verstappen to victory in action-packed Baku Sprint
Sergio Perez claimed the first Sprint race victory of the season at the Baku City Circuit on Saturday afternoon, beating Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen to the chequered flag for the maximum eight points on offer.
With F1’s Sprint format being revised for 2023, a new ‘Shootout’ qualifying session set the grid for the 17-lap dash, which took place in pleasant weather conditions and featured action from start to finish.
One driver who did not take part was F1 rookie Logan Sargeant, who crashed out of the Shootout and was withdrawn from the 100-kilometre Sprint due to the significant damage his Williams car sustained in the incident.
Meanwhile, the grid was another car lighter after Alpine made suspension changes on Esteban Ocon’s car under parc ferme conditions, with the team enduring a particularly challenging weekend on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
When the start lights turned on one by one and eventually went out - with all drivers on medium tyres apart from the soft-shod Lando Norris and Valtteri Bottas - pole-sitter Leclerc jumped out of his grid slot to maintain the lead into Turn 1, with Perez holding P2.
FORMULA 1 AZERBAIJAN GRAND PRIX 2023
|1 Sergio Perez PER Red Bull Racing||33:17.667||8|
|2 Charles Leclerc LEC Ferrari||+4.463s||7|
|3 Max Verstappen VER Red Bull Racing||+5.065s||6|
|4 George Russell RUS Mercedes||+8.532s||5|
|5 Carlos Sainz SAI Ferrari||+10.388s||4|
Behind, an incredible scrap ensued between Verstappen and the fast-starting George Russell, with the pair going side-by-side through the opening sequence of corners before the Mercedes nosed ahead of the Red Bull at Turn 3.
Verstappen was not a happy man after conceding the position, taking to the radio and accusing Russell of barging his way through – replays confirming contact and a thump of the wall for the reigning two-time world champion.
Just as Verstappen lit up the airwaves and requested an FIA investigation, AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda understeered into the wall at the exit of Turn 13 following contact with team mate Nyck de Vries, littering debris – and his rear-right tyre – over the circuit.
With the Virtual Safety Car deployed, Leclerc held P1 from Perez, Russell, Verstappen and team mate Carlos Sainz, with Fernando Alonso clearing Williams’ Alex Albon to put his Aston Martin on the tail of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes.
Despite losing a wheel, Tsunoda limped his way back to the pits and mechanics attempted to make repairs. However, it became clear as soon as he rejoined the track that the damage was terminal, forcing the full Safety Car to make an appearance, under which Ocon opted for a cheap stop and switched to softs.
With drivers cruising around behind Bernd Maylander, Red Bull radioed Verstappen to confirm floor damage. “How?” Verstappen replied. His engineer then replied: “How do you think?” That prompted further frustration from Verstappen, who added: “Mate, I don’t understand how he can keep the position and he’s damaging my car…”
Up front, there were concerns for leader Leclerc who reported a “cut” – later confirmed to be a cat – on the radio, but the Monegasque quickly had to turn his attentions to the race restart, with the Safety Car peeling into the pits and the green flag action resuming at the end of Lap 5.
Leclerc mastered the restart to keep his advantage at Turn 1, with Perez again holding onto second, as Verstappen made up for his opening lap disappointment by finding a way back past Russell for the final podium spot as things stood.
Sainz pulled off some robust defending to retain fifth, while Alonso pounced on Hamilton to gain another position and rise to sixth. A few car lengths behind, Albon kept himself in the final points-paying position, with Stroll and Norris for company.
Shortly after the race restarted, Perez got within DRS range of Leclerc and made a clean overtake along the lengthy start/finish straight as the pair moved on to Lap 8, with Verstappen sitting a second-and-a-half back.
Perez dropped Leclerc as he moved into clean air, with all eyes shifting to Verstappen in third, who proceeded to lap significantly quicker than Leclerc and put pressure on this weekend’s double pole-sitter.
Further back, Oscar Piastri pulled a pass on McLaren team mate Norris to move up to 10th, with Norris’ gamble to start the race on soft tyres soon being ditched in favour of a second stint on mediums – Ocon soon following suit with a second stop, and Bottas reporting that his red-marked rubber was “starting to melt”.
As the race entered its closing stages, Stroll found a way past Albon into Turn 1 to provisionally take the final point on offer, while Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg caused further excitement by going to battle over 11th position in the two Haas machines.
Perez maintained his composure up front while the final laps ticked by, ultimately taking the chequered flag almost five second clear of Leclerc, who managed to keep Verstappen at bay for the runner-up spot.
Russell and Sainz followed in fourth and fifth respectively, with Alonso, Hamilton and Stroll securing the final points on offer, denying Albon and Piastri – who followed that pack closely across the line.
Magnussen ultimately led Haas’ charge in 11th, with Hulkenberg tumbling all the way down to 15th late on amid tyre struggles. That allowed Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu and the recovering Alpine and AlphaTauri cars of Pierre Gasly and De Vries to move ahead.
Bottas opted against a switch from softs to mediums and logged a distant 16th place, followed by final finishers Norris and Ocon, while Tsunoda watched from the sidelines after his early accident.
“It was good,” said Sprint race winner Perez. “With these tricky sessions, it’s been a lot of pressure put on us and our teams – engineers, mechanics, drivers. So, to get away with maximum points was the main objective, but obviously we know that tomorrow is the main race.
“We were able to learn a bit [for the Grand Prix], but obviously tomorrow we are going to be on much higher fuel loads [and] track conditions are going to be different. I think there is good learning today. P3 is not ideal for tomorrow’s race, but I will give it a go and fight for the win.”
Gasly and De Vries made up the most places across the 17-lap race, rising four spots from P17 and P18 respectively, while Norris was the biggest loser, falling seven positions from P10 to P17 after starting on soft tyres.
After Saturday’s standalone Sprint action, the F1 field will now get ready for the main event on Sunday afternoon: the 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Head to the RACE HUB to find out how you can follow the 51-lap encounter.