Sergio Perez sensationally claimed a breakthrough victory for Red Bull Racing at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, but the real winner was Max Verstappen, who didn’t finish the race at all.
Verstappen had led most of the grand prix after jumping Lewis Hamilton at the pit stops, and Perez following him through for second place. The Mercedes car was far from its rapid best around the unique Baku street layout, and Verstappen, who started the weekend with a four-point championship lead, was set to extend that to 14 with a second straight win.
But the race was flipped on its head just five laps from the finish when Verstappen’s rear-left tyre spectacularly gave way at more than 315 kilometres per hour on the start-finish straight.
The tyre should have been well within its duty cycle, and the team saw no warning in the telemetry that the rubber would suddenly gave way, pitching Verstappen into the concrete barriers.
The driver emerged unscathed but incensed. In a hotly contested title fight, a failure to finish stings especially badly, and as Verstappen returned dejectedly to his garage Hamilton was preparing to line up second on the restart grid.
“We’ve got to remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Hamilton radioed his team before the restart. “We’ve got to be measured on how aggressive we go.”
His message was clear: with just two racing laps remaining he had the chance to open an easy 14-point lead in the title chase. After a difficult weekend in the car, second place would be more than enough reward.
But his good intentions lasted only to the first corner. He nailed his getaway to run side by side with new polesitter Perez, and the Mexican swooped defensively to the left to cover.
In the pressure of the moment, as he went to pull his upshift paddle, Hamilton accidentally hit the button to trigger what the team calls ‘magic’ mode, which biases the brakes fully forwards. When he hit the brakes to claim the apex his front wheels instantly locked up, and he dramatically overshot the corner in a plume of smoking rubber and tumbled out of the points.
In a duel off the line, victory belonged to Sergio Perez. But it’s Max Verstappen who will leave Baku as the winner, his four-point lead of reigning champion Hamilton almost unbelievably intact.
This close championship will be decided not only by Verstappen and Hamilton’s worst days but by the performances of their teammates.
It’s in these kinds of situations, when Verstappen is out of victory contention, that Red Bull Racing needs to rely on the other car to maximise points for the team and minimise the points of rivals. In pressuring Hamilton into a mistake off the line, Perez executed his role to perfection.
Valtteri Bottas, on the other hand, continued his early season struggles to finish 12th and pointless. While it’s fair to say the Mercedes car was nowhere near its best in Baku, Bottas has also struggled to match Hamilton for much of the year to date. It meant that when the Briton made his rare error, Bottas was nowhere to be seen.
Mercedes failed to score with either car for the first time since 2018. Red Bull Racing extended its championship lead to 26 points.
Formula 1 is a team sport, and the collective ethos is crucial even to deciding individual honours. For two years Red Bull Racing has lacked a support act for Verstappen.
Perez might finally be the driver the team’s been waiting for. Can he make Verstappen a world champion?