After a dominant win, with a dose of luck, Sergio Perez seems increasingly like a Formula One title contender.
Red Bull’s status as the leading team isn’t in doubt but now it’s 2-2 on wins between Perez and his teammate Max Verstappen and the Dutchman’s lead is down to six points.
“Well done guys, we dominated this weekend,” Perez told his team over the radio. “We are in the fight, guys.”
Perez took advantage of a fortunately timed safety car to beat Verstappen to the victory in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Sunday, adding it to the sprint he secured the day before, as Red Bull kept up its winning start to 2023.
In what the stewards called a “very dangerous situation” near the end of the race, a group of people including photographers had to run out of the way as Esteban Ocon came into pit on his second-to-last lap.
Perez took the lead when he managed to save time pitting during a safety car period after Verstappen had come in a lap earlier. The two didn’t fight for position after that, but Perez said they “pushed to the maximum” as he fought to keep the lead. Both Perez and Verstappen clipped the track wall at different times.
Verstappen started second behind Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc but swept past him on the long start-finish straight at the end of lap 3, the first lap on which drivers were allowed to use the DRS overtake assist system on the rear wing.
It was a copy of the pass Perez made on Leclerc on his way to winning the sprint race Saturday. After Verstappen took the lead Sunday, Perez needed only two more laps for his own similar pass on Leclerc to seize second. It was a powerful illustration of Red Bull’s unbeatable race setup after Leclerc had signalled a minor resurgence for Ferrari by taking pole position for both the sprint and main race.
Perez benefited when an accident by Nyck de Vries brought out the safety car after the AlphaTauri slid off the track with a broken suspension, just after Verstappen had pitted from the lead. The safety car meant Perez and Leclerc lost less time on their stops and came out ahead of Verstappen. The Dutch driver said he wanted Red Bull to review “if there was anything we could have done different” on the call to pit, since de Vries had already stopped before Verstappen came in.
After that, the two Red Bull drivers pulled away from the pack in a straightforward win. Red Bull has won all four Grands Prix this season and the sprint in Baku on Saturday. Leclerc was third to continue his recovery after a poor start to the year and said the Red Bulls had been “in another league” for race pace.
Perez is the only driver to win in Baku more than once and has four podium finishes in his last five races there. The Mexican driver joked he had won “two and a half” times in Azerbaijan including Saturday’s sprint.
Verstappen accepted it just hadn’t been his day and was a calmer figure than on Saturday, when he confronted George Russell over a first-lap collision in the sprint.
“Checo (Perez) and I, we’re having a good time,” Verstappen said. “You need to acknowledge and also appreciate when somebody has done a great job.” Perez added there is a “very high level of respect” between the two as they fight for the championship lead.
Fernando Alonso finished in fourth place, showing strong pace for Aston Martin after issues in qualifying on Friday, ahead of Carlos Sainz, Jr. for Ferrari and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, who recovered after losing out in the safety car period like Verstappen.
The second Aston Martin of Lance Stroll took seventh ahead of Hamilton’s teammate George Russell, with McLaren’s Lando Norris and AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda ninth and 10th, respectively.
The race stewards summoned FIA staff overseeing the pit lane over the incident involving Ocon. It appeared on TV broadcasts that the staff were leading a group of photographers across the pit lane toward the pit wall ahead of the expected finish of the race and were surprised when Ocon drove into the pit lane.
“We considered that it was fortunate that there were no serious consequences on account of what happened today. We stressed that the requirements of ensuring a safe and orderly event are paramount. This was acknowledged by the FIA team,” the stewards wrote, adding that the FIA pledged to review its procedures.
It was the second potentially dangerous incident in as many races after fans climbed security barriers at the Australian Grand Prix while cars were still on track.