2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix Roundup
As if the Sprint Race format didn’t make the race weekend a bit more complicated to follow than a usual race, they decided to change up the format once again just a few days before the Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend. A normal weekend consists of Free Practice sessions, followed by Qualifying on a Saturday to determine the race positions for Sunday’s Race. Simple. For a Sprint Race weekend, traditionally Qualifying moved to Friday which then decided the order for the Sprint Race on Saturday, the result of which then decided the Race order for the Sunday.
For Azerbaijan, Friday’s Qualifying session would determine the order for the Race on the Sunday, with a separate Sprint Race Qualifying on the Saturday for the actual Sprint Race following on the same day. Sounds complicated but it kind of makes more sense to separate the two out. Those who show race pace can no longer rely on their Sprint Race performance to already be higher up the grid in the actual Race on the Sunday, and those specialists at under pressure Qualifying laps get given another chance to perform in the race if it doesn’t all go to plan the day before. Also, as many of the presenters and former racing drivers stated at the weekend, it beats watching another Free Practice session where not a lot really happens.
Since 2017 when the first Formula 1 race took part on the streets of Azerbaijan, the race has been synonymous with drama and thrills aplenty. From high-speed blowouts on the longest straight section on the race calendar, 2.2 kilometres in case you were wondering, to the infamous ‘brake test’ incident between Hamilton and Vettel in the very first race all those years ago, Baku often never fails to disappoint for drama. Plus, as a street circuit the walls are close, the corners are tight and there is even a section that chicanes past a 12th century castle that is the narrowest part of any racing circuit of the year.
Qualifying on the Friday took a surprise twist with the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc outperforming both of the Red Bulls to take pole position for Sunday’s actual Race (not the Sprint Race on the Saturday), with Verstappen and Perez taking 2nd and 3rd and Ferrari teammate Sainz in 4th. Lewis Hamilton’s improved Mercedes managed to outdo Alonso in his Aston Martin, with the British driver in 5th, Alonso in 6th and followed by Norris in 7th and Yuki Tsunoda impressing in the AlphaTauri in 8th.
Following Friday’s Qualifying came Saturday’s Sprint Race Qualifying, or ‘Shootout’, to determine the places for the Sprint Race later in the day (confused yet?). Just to confuse matters further to the starting line-up, the ‘Shootout’ results meant that Leclerc would start in pole position yet again, despite a crash when trying to better his previous lap time, but for the Sprint Race it would be Perez starting in front of his teammate Verstappen, with Russel in 4th, Sainz in 5th, Hamilton 6th, Albon with a strong result for Williams in 7th and Alonso starting in 8th.
The Sprint Race itself proved why it remains a part of the F1 calendar with drama aplenty and an abundance of drama right from the off. Leclerc got his Ferrari off the grid the quickest and retained the lead into the first corner ahead of Perez. Behind them a great battle ensued with Russel and Verstappen navigating the first few tight corners, often side by side, and at one point too close causing damage to Verstappen’s side pod and resulting in a brush with the close street circuit walls. A crash with those walls for Tsunoda meant a rogue wheel on the track and a virtual safety followed by a full safety car when the returning Tsunoda could no longer continue.
When racing resumed, Leclerc could do little to hold off Perez a few laps later once within DRS range, and Verstappen had found his way past Russel who set off in hot pursuit of the now 2nd placed Ferrari. Perez would remain in the lead until the chequered flag on lap 17, with Leclerc managing to hold of Verstappen to take 2nd with the Dutchman having to settle for 3rd. Russell remained 4th with Sainz in 5th, Alonso finishing 6th, Hamilton 7th and Stroll taking the last remaining Sprint Race points or Aston Martin in 8th.
Verstappen’s protests at Russell’s contact in the early stages of the race clearly hadn’t dispersed with the current World Champion having a word with the British driver immediately after in an attempt to make his point heard further. Russell said there was little he could do to prevent the contact but it certainly appeared to fall on deaf ears with the Dutchman.
The Race order for Sunday reverted back to the result from Race Qualifying on Friday (in case you’d forgotten how confusing it was), so Leclerc would get another chance to try hold off the charging Red Bull’s of Perez and Verstappen. No driver had won on the streets of Baku more than once since 2017 so would there be a new name on the winners list or would we have the first multiple time victor come the end of the race.
Leclerc must have felt like it was a case of déjà vu as he was passed by Perez yet again in the early stages, only this time he also fell behind to the Red Bull of Verstappen this time too. Yellow flags caused by a stoppage on track for Nyck de Vries on Lap 10 meant that Verstappen saw an opportunity to pit, yet the resulting safety car meant that by the time Perez and Leclerc had pitted they came out in front of the World Champion who fell to third.
Once racing had resumed, Leclerc, by now presumably sick of the sight of being overtaken by Red Bull’s, could do little to fend off Verstappen who took second place and set off in pursuit of his teammate. However, street circuit specialist Perez was a man on form and lead till the end with little that Verstappen could do about the Mexican’s race pace. Leclerc meanwhile managed to hold off a late charge from man-in-form Fernando Alonso in his Aston Martin to take the final podium place.
Another late surge by Lewis Hamilton was not enough to catch Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, who finished 5th with Hamilton in 6th, with the Aston Martin of Stroll finishing 7th ahead of Mercedes’ Russell in 8th. Hulkenburg and Ocon had driven fantastic races to ensure they had gone from last place to in the points by the latter stages of the race. However their reliance on expecting a further safety car to allow them to strategically make a late pit stop cost them and they dropped out of the points after having to perform the mandatory pit stop on lap 49 and 50.
This left the door open for Lando Norris, who had passed Hulkenburg anyway yet benefitted from Ocon having to pit, as he finished 9th and Yuki Tsunoda put some of the Sprint Race disappointment behind him with the final points scoring position for AlphaTauri.
Perez becomes the first repeat winner on the streets of Baku, after also being victorious in 2021 in the capital of Azerbaijan. The race win cuts Verstappen’s lead at the top of the championship to single figures at just 6 points, which would have been down by a further point had Russell not made a late stop for soft tyres to take the quickest lap bonus point on offer.
Another strong performance from Alonso means he retains 3rd place in the standings ahead of Hamilton, Sainz, Leclerc, Russell and Stroll in 8th. In the Constructor’s Championship, Red Bull already have more than double the points of the next best team, currently Aston Martin, who remain ahead of Mercedes and a closely following Ferrari.
After a 3 week gap thanks to the cancellation of the Chinese Grand Prix for this year, the Formula 1 calendar immediately moves across the Atlantic to Miami next weekend for one of 3 races to be held in the United States this year. What looked like a potential walk in the park after the first few races for Max Verstappen towards another World Championship, is under very serious threat from of all places his teammate Sergio Perez. Their Red Bull car is seemingly still streets ahead of the competition and it will take a lot for the others to catch them, even at this early stage. Yet it isn’t still set in concrete and the chasing pack will still be hoping for upgrades and performance gains to ensure they can still make a challenge for the remainder of the 2023 season.
Find out more about the race and the calendar for the 2023 season here: F1 – The Official Home of Formula 1