A Bitter-sweet weekend for Red Bull - F1 2021 Season Review: Azerbaijan
F1 returns to Azerbaijan, and what a race that was!
Sunday night saw the Formula One circus return to Azerbaijan for the first time since 2019; and as usual, the race delivered. Let's take a look at exactly what happened over the Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend - starting with qualifying.
As drivers were pushing the limits around the narrow streets of Baku, Q1 didn't even last five minutes before the red flag was waved and drivers had to return to the pits. Lance Stroll put his Aston Martin into the wall at Turn 15, a corner that had been catching many drivers out in the Free Practice sessions. Giovinazzi brought the red flag out for the second time in Q1, making the exact same mistake as Stroll, but heavily damaging the right hand side of his Alfa Romeo. The five drivers eliminated were Nicolas Latifi in 16th, Mick Schumacher in 17th, Nikita Mazepin in 18th, followed by Stroll and Latifi on the back row, who were unable to set a time before crashing.
Q2 saw a third red flag waved following a lockup by Daniel Ricciardo at Turn 3, putting his MCL-35M into the barrier - showing that the Australian is still not happy with the balance of his car. The red flag in this session impacted Sebastian Vettel, who was on track to make it through to Q3 before he had to abort his lap, meaning he missed out by 0.029 seconds. Esteban Ocon would start behind the German in 12th place, followed by Ricciardo in 13th, Raikkonen in 14th and Russell in 15th.
The Q3 shootout saw Charles Leclerc bizarrely take pole position for the second weekend in a row as a result of red flags, with some late-session incidents at Turn 3 between Yuki Tsunoda and Carlos Sainz. Leclerc put in a fantastic banker lap time after picking up the slipstream from Lewis Hamilton on the long main straight in order to take provisional pole. Valtteri Bottas was a team player for allowing his teammate to get a tow and set a second-place time that may not have been possible without that effort. Mercedes had been struggling all weekend in practice with one-lap pace, and Bottas was only able to set a time good enough for tenth.
Max Verstappen would set a banker lap good enough for third place, and was on his way to take another pole position before the red flags came out at the end of the session. Tsunoda braked way too late for Turn 3 and put his car in the wall, while Sainz spun his car down the escape road after being distracted by the crashed Alpha Tauri. The session was not restarted and the first-run lap times counted as the final starting positions.
Leclerc would be starting in first place, alongside Hamilton; while Verstappen started in third, along side Pierre Gasly - who put an excellent effort to get his car into fourth place after Tsunoda gave him a tow. Ex-teammates Sainz and Lando Norris would start in fifth and sixth respectively, while Perez and Tsunoda would start in seventh and eighth. Fernando Alonso would start in ninth place, ahead of Bottas in tenth.
After the session, Norris was issued a penalty for breaking red flag rules after a radio mis-communication, dropping him to ninth place.
Now that we are all caught up with qualifying, let's move on to the race.
As the five red lights went out in Baku, Leclerc was able to retain the lead from Lewis Hamilton, despite the Mercedes being seemingly stronger in a straight line than the Ferrari. Sergio Perez had a fantastic first lap, putting his Red Bull into fourth place by the end of lap two; while Giovinazzi also made huge progress, gaining five places on the first lap. Norris, on the other hand, didn't have a good start, losing three places and being put under pressure by his teammate.
Hamilton closes the gap to Leclerc by the end of Lap 2 and is able to make a pass on the Monégasque, even without DRS. Leclerc is then unable to keep up with the Mercedes, and is shortly put under pressure by Verstappen as DRS is enabled. It takes Verstappen until lap 6 to finally make his way past Leclerc, and Perez follows through on lap 7. Meanwhile, Ocon retires his car on lap 4 following a puff of smoke from the engine.
Lando Norris is the first driver to make a planned pitstop, switching to the Hard tyres on lap 8 to try and get some clear air and go deep into the race. Leclerc also comes into the pits two laps later, fitting the Hard tyre, and emerging in tenth place, ahead of the midfield.
Hamilton responds to Leclerc's stop and pits on lap 11 for Hard tyres, but is held by traffic in the pitlane, resulting in a slow stop. Gasly, Bottas and Ricciardo all follow Hamilton into the pits for Hard tyres. Norris was able to jump Bottas in the pitstops with the undercut, as it wasn't looking good for him to overtake the Finn on-track.
Verstappen pits on lap 12 for Hard tyres, and has a lightning-fast 1.9 second and allowing him to comfortable jump Hamilton and take the lead. Perez pits on lap 13 for the same tyre compound, has a slow stop, but still jumps Hamilton to take second place. Hamilton starts to apply pressure to Perez, but backs off in order to conserve tyres.
The race settles down into a rhythm after this, until lap 31 when the safety car is brought out due to a big crash on the main straight. Lance Stroll suffered a rear-left tyre failure and hit the wall at high-speed, much like his accident in Mugello last year, and causing the pitlane to close too. Alonso, Giovinazzi, Russell and Schumacher make pitstops under the safety car when the pitlane is re-opened, but an error saw Schumacher stop at the pitlane as his tyre wasn't attached correctly. Haas rectified this situation and sent the German on his way again.
The race is restarted on Lap 36 of 51, and Hamilton starts to put pressure on Perez while Verstappen pulls away. Bottas has an awful restart, dropping three places, and then a fourth when Giovinazzi passes the Finn with DRS on the main-straight.
On lap 46, Max Verstappen would suffer heartbreak as his right-rear tyre fails on the main straight and sends him spinning into the wall at 200mph. Thankfully the Dutchman was okay, but a critical 25-points for his championship were taken away - leaving many questioning the safety of Pirelli's compounds. The safety car is deployed while Verstappen's car is recovered, but Red Bull speak to the FIA over the team radio and ask for the race to be red-flagged as there was 'no warning' of the failure, and it would be safer to not risk other drivers crashing.
The race was red flagged following this conversation and the entire field switched to a fresh set of tyres. The race would continue on lap 50 as a standing start, with a two lap sprint to the finish.
As the five red lights once again went out in Azerbaijan, it was Hamilton that got the better start and drew alongside Perez, looking to take the lead into Turn 1. However, the Briton accidentally flicked a 'magic switch' on the upshift, which engaged a setting used to build consistent brake temperatures on out laps. As a result, the seven-time champion locked up and went straight on at Turn 1, dropping him to the back of the field and returning the lead to Perez.
Sebastian Vettel was promoted to second place as a result, while Leclerc and Gasly squabble for the final podium position. Leclerc passes Gasly on the main straight as they start the final lap, but Gasly moves and out-brakes Leclerc in order to re-take his third place spot. Leclerc isn't able to answer, and Perez wins the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, ahead of Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly! What a fantastic race, and it is great to see new faces on the podium in this wild season. The full race results can be found below.
Overall, I would rate the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix an 8.5 out of 10. while the middle of the race wasn't particularly exciting, the start and end saw non-stop action, and it wasn't clear who would win the race until they crossed the line! Let me know what you thought of the race in the comments below.
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