2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix | 6 talking points

01st May 2023
Damien Smith

It’s 2-2 for the season. Sergio Perez once again played to his strengths on a street track by scoring his second win of 2023 – with a bit of luck from the safety car. But the Mexican fully deserved his win at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix after pushing team-mate Max Verstappen for pace in the early stages, then holding him off with assurance once he was in the lead. Checo’s sixth career win and second in Baku was arguably his best.


1. Can Perez take the title fight to Verstappen?

That’s the question that hovers over this season of Red Bull domination. The cars from Milton Keynes have won all four grands prix run so far in 2023, without any other team getting a sniff – which means our only hope of a title battle appears to rest with Perez. On this evidence and from what we saw in Jeddah where he also won, there might be hopes he can ‘do a Nico Rosberg’, who defied expectations by beating Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton to a title in 2016. But in this case, it still seems like an extreme long shot.

Even Red Bull’s team boss Christian Horner appeared to suggest as much when he said after the race that all Checo has to do now is replicate his fine street circuit form at “normal” tracks – where Verstappen nearly always holds the upper hand. It should also be said that this team is built around the two-time world champion, and Verstappen – while gracious in Baku – doesn’t take too kindly to Perez getting above his station as the team’s number two, as we saw last year. A combination of Verstappen’s invincibility across a season and his own built-in sense of entitlement in a team that loves him means Perez has a mountain to climb.


2. Safety car lends a hand

But make no mistake, Verstappen felt the heat from Perez in Baku. The Red Bulls quickly passed Charles Leclerc, who had once again showed he is the qualifying master by taking pole position, then drove away into their own race. Checo was closing on Verstappen, who was working his tyres a little harder than he would have liked, which is why Red Bull pitted him early on lap 10 – and also avoided a potential Perez DRS pass on the team leader.

But then Nyck de Vries clouted the Turn 5 wall in his AlphaTauri and triggered a safety car. Terrible timing for Verstappen as the other frontrunners pitted, with both Perez and Leclerc emerging in front of him. He had no problem dealing with Leclerc once again, but Perez – that was a different matter. The Mexican managed his lead with the maturity and assurance you would expect from one with so much experience and deserves full credit for how he did so to close to within six points of Verstappen in the championship table. 

But Perez, 2023 world champion? Right now, that’s still something of a stretch to imagine.


3. Boost for Leclerc

Even though Ferrari was once again outpaced and well beaten by Red Bull, this race offered some hope to Leclerc – but only because of the manner in which he secured his first podium of what had so far been a dire season.

Like Perez, Leclerc had to manage his tyres and pace as he came under attack, in his case from the Aston Martin of Fernando Alonso. The wily Spaniard saved his tyres for a final push towards the end, but Leclerc was wise and equal to anything the two-time champion could throw at him. Fourth for Alonso ended his run of podiums this season, although the performance confirmed what we already know: Aston and Ferrari are neck and neck to be F1’s second-best team this term. Not exactly the target Leclerc would have been hoping for pre-season, but after the disappointment of the early races at least Baku represented a much-needed upturn in performance and end result.


Hamilton shows his class

Like Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton lost out when the safety car emerged because he too had pitted early. The seven-time champion even dropped out of the top 10. But then he showed why it would be folly to suggest he’s a spent force by the manner in which he came back from that blow.

The Turn 1 dive on team-mate George Russell, who had out-qualified him yet again, highlighted Hamilton at his best. He couldn’t beat Carlos Sainz Jr’s Ferrari for fifth, but only because his Mercedes lacked straight-line speed, even with DRS. But this was still a top-line drive from one of the all-time greats. Better days can still come back to him.


Russell’s spat with Verstappen

The day before the grand prix, the main talking point in Baku was Verstappen’s fury at Russell for their battle in the otherwise underwhelming sprint race (which Perez also won). The Mercedes had edged into the Red Bull in their side-by-side battle, punching a hole in Verstappen’s sidepod – and the Dutchman had choice words for his fellow 25-year-old, who he patronised for his lack of experience, among other insults.

Our verdict? Russell has plenty of steel in racing situations and had every right to attack when he did. They were walking a fine line in tight 90-degree corners, but this was good, clean, hard racing – and Verstappen showed his worst side in his petulant reaction. Russell won’t be bothered by the barbs in the slightest.


Worrying Ocon pitlane incident triggers alarm

The final talking point this week concerned another moment of FIA mismanagement in a race, and one that could have led to something horrific. Esteban Ocon came in for a late pitstop in the grand prix, after a difficult weekend for Alpine, to be faced with a scrum of FIA personnel and photographers who had already been released into the pitlane to prepare for the post-race procedures. It was only luck that prevented Ocon from running into someone. The incident will be reviewed and must not be allowed to happen again.

From Baku, F1 heads straight across the Atlantic for the Miami Grand Prix next weekend. It’s another street race, of course. Can Perez do it again?

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images

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