We need to talk about the Azerbaijan Grand Prix podium finishers. It’s a little while after Sunday’s latest Formula 1 race now so this might just seem a bizarrely belated attempt to recap the race results. But it isn’t.
Because of the drama involving title contenders Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton in Baku, much of the Sunday night coverage and the early-week reaction has revolved around that. It’s been on Verstappen’s heartbreak, the latest Pirelli tyre blowouts, Hamilton’s second big error in six races, Mercedes’ disappointment, and the consequences for the championship.
That’s understandable, and fair, because even though Verstappen and Hamilton failed to score and on paper the championship wasn’t impacted at all, there was still an awful lot to dissect and understand. But the title fight and the fortunes of those within it shouldn’t take too much attention away from the podium heroes of Baku. So here we go.
Sergio Perez, Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly all wrote tremendous stories for themselves in Azerbaijan with excellent performances that meant they were in position to inherit their results.
There is often an element of luck in motor racing. Never more so than on street tracks! But the difference between a good result in a chaotic race and a great one tends to be made by the drivers in crunch moments.
Perez inherited the win, not Hamilton, because of four crunch moments. He’d underperformed in qualifying but produced two great around-the-outside passes on the opening lap to get back to fourth, right behind Verstappen. That basically cancelled out his loss of track position from qualifying and put him in a position to have a seriously good race.He wasted no time getting past the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc after Hamilton and Verstappen did, which kept him in touch with the leaders. He produced a mega inlap which, combined with the benefit of the overcut and his stint being the longest of the top three, meant he jumped Hamilton despite a slow pitstop that cancelled out Hamilton’s own delay.
And over the rest of the race he had the measure of Hamilton: keeping him behind with a faultless drive through the long second stint, and then keeping his composure at the restart for the two-lap sprint to the finish while Hamilton hit the infamous ‘magic’ toggle and sent himself flying down the Turn 1 escape road.
So yes, Perez wouldn’t have won without a big slice of luck in his favour. But he would have finished second without it. It was an excellent race to complete a much more competitive weekend. Had a late hydraulic pressure scare proved terminal for Perez, it was Vettel might have suddenly found himself winning the whole thing.
Another who underdelivered in qualifying, with a lock-up preventing him from taking a place in Q3, Vettel will reflect fondly on his Q2 elimination in hindsight. It allowed him to start on a fresh set of softs which he used to good effect to extend his opening stint and jump the lower top-10 cars into the top six. He turned that into fourth at the safety car restart with an aggressive double pass on Gasly and Leclerc. And once Verstappen and Hamilton had handed Vettel second, he never looked under threat during the mad dash at the end. For Vettel, a first Aston Martin podium and second points finish in a row helped underline how strong he’s starting to look in his new team.
F1 chief Ross Brawn said Vettel’s reborn and this was a performance that oozed comfort and confidence. Vettel is one of the best drivers of his generation and watching him on top form is a genuine pleasure. OK, it’s only two races, and who knows what will happen on a more conventional track in France, but this Vettel purple patch is better than anything we’ve seen since late-2019.
And then there’s Gasly. Is there a more dependable driver in topsy-turvy races than the AlphaTauri star? It seems like every time he has an opportunity for something special with this team he produces the goods.
But it’s worth stressing Gasly was a top-five contender all weekend and in the race he seemed nailed on for fourth in normal circumstances, getting ahead of the pole-claiming Ferrari of Leclerc.
Gasly battled an engine issue in the second half of the Baku race that he said left him vulnerable on the straights, so he knew he’d come under attack from Leclerc after the final standing start. It looked like Gasly had lost out down the start-finish start to start the final lap but he tucked back inside the Ferrari’s tow, got enough of a slipstream to launch a counter-move and absolutely SENT it into Turn 1.
He did the same at Turn 2 and 3, right on the absolute limit of braking, to keep the place. Gasly thought he’d end up in the wall. Instead he ended on the podium alongside Perez and Vettel.
Of those three only Perez was set to stand there in ‘normal’ circumstances. But none of them needed crazy circumstances to have a good race, they were already putting that together themselves. They weren’t the stars of the show but they were very classy secondary characters.
And when the leading men exited stage right, the podium trio deservedly took their place in the spotlight.