TREMAYNE: In a race of ‘what ifs’ in Baku, Perez proved Red Bull have finally found what they’ve been looking for
Another gripping Azerbaijan Grand Prix endorsed the event’s reputation for throwing up surprise results, and what a race of ‘what ifs’ it proved to be.
What if Charles Leclerc had not taken pole position for the second race running, and kept it when Yuki Tsunoda’s gaffe during the final runs of Q3 prevented Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez, and Lewis Hamilton from getting their second runs?
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What if Charles and Lewis had not been slightly compromised by running over that fallen tree branch in the second corner on the second lap and sustaining minor damage that Max missed by dodging over the inside kerb?
The first really significant ‘what if’ came on the 11th lap, when Mercedes went for the undercut with leader Lewis, only to have to hold him for perhaps two seconds longer than intended to avoid an unsafe release when Pierre Gasly also pitted his AlphaTauri from fourth place.
That enabled Red Bull to respond by bringing Max in a lap later, and he had rejoined in the lead by the time Lewis completed his next lap. That was critical, but even more so was when Red Bull brought Sergio in on lap 13.
Having banged in fastest lap of 1m46.881s on lap 10 and broken that with 1m46.800s on lap 12, he was able to come in and switch his soft Pirellis for hards so quickly that he too got back out ahead of the Mercedes.
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From that moment onwards Christian Horner was in the Valhalla Red Bull have been dreaming of for so long, with both their cars at the head of the field, controlling the race and the opposition. Max pushed just as hard as he needed to, driving beautifully.
But Sergio was also doing a fine job, and so long as he avoided mistakes, which he did on all but one occasion, there was no way that Lewis would get past him.
The biggest ‘what if’, of course, was what if Max’s left rear tyre had not suffered a blow out? He was headed for a comfortable 26 points, and a chance to extend his title lead over Hamilton.
As it was, Max’s dramatic demise threw the race wide open again. It was a very wise decision to red flag it, and even better was the decision to resume with a standing start rather than behind the Safety Car.
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That set up the final denouement, and another big ‘what if’. What if Lewis, reacting as Sergio swung across the road to his left in a vain effort to stop him snatching the lead, had not accidentally activated the switch which puts the brake balance forward, causing him to lock up into Turn 1 and inadvertently toss 25 points into the bin?
For very different reasons, he and Max had serious reason to rue their fortunes on Sunday.
Amid all this another big ‘what if’ was playing out. Unknown to the outside world, Red Bull were giving Sergio warning messages and instructions to do various palliative things as the car’s sensors were telling them a ghastly story of impending hydraulic shutdown on the surviving RB16B.
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In the end he just made it home, matching Mexico’s great hero Pedro Rodriguez with his second victory – but they cut things so close that he had to stop the car out on the track rather than risk a slowdown lap.
But what if the Red Bull had failed on lap 51? That would have made the victor… Sebastian Vettel.
For the second race running, Seb looked like his old self, and Aston Martin had their AMR21 running very well in Baku – and were as smart as ever at strategy. Come the restart, Seb was the only driver in the top eight with a shiny set of new softs to play with.
And he made the most of them to finish an honourable 1.3s behind. The dream first F1 victory for the marque must wait, but second place gave them their first podium, a stark contrast to the firm’s embarrassing and ill-starred foray into F1 back with the DBR4 and DBR5 in 1959 and 1960.
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With Pierre Gasly boldly outfoxing Charles Leclerc going into the first turn on the final lap, Baku threw up another odd podium filled by rejected – through very definitely not dejected – drivers.
Sergio was, perforce, ejected from Racing Point last year to make way for Seb, who had been dropped by Ferrari in favour of Carlos Sainz, while Pierre, of course, had been promoted to Red Bull in 2019, then sent back to Toro Rosso just after half season before redeeming himself so clearly in the AlphaTauri at Monza last year.
On paper, nothing changed after Baku, with Max still leading Lewis by four points in the title race.
But there was one potentially very significant change – and that leads to the final big ‘what if’? What if Sergio Perez had still not been able to get on top of the driving style that the slightly tricky Red Bull RB16B Honda demands?
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If everything else had happened as it did, with Sergio still on his previous form, Lewis would probably now be 21 points ahead. Instead, Sergio’s timely step forward helped him to contain the Mercedes challenge and, when his team leader met misfortune, to save the day with a brilliant salvage job that brought the smile back to Christian Horner’s face.
I’m sure Mercedes will fight back successfully in the races to come, but I just wonder if, now that both teams theoretically have two dogs each in the fight, we won’t look back on this race as the point where the balance of power really began to swing back in Red Bull’s direction.