Race Weekend Central

F1 Midweek: Can Sergio Perez Keep the Pressure on Max Verstappen?

Does Sergio Perez’s win in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, which left him only six points behind Max Verstappen in the driver standings, make him a true challenger to Verstappen for the world championship?

Any driver six points out of the lead after four races should of course be considered a championship contender. But we have to consider that almost everything worked in Perez’s favor over the weekend at Baku. Perez won the sprint race on Saturday (April 29th), helped in part by Verstappen’s clash with George Russell. The win gave Perez eight points, trimming two from Verstappen’s (who scored six) championship lead.

In Sunday’s (April 30th) Grand Prix, Perez’s win, aided by a fortunate pit stop under the safety car (while Verstappen pitted under the yellow flag), led to Perez’s win, and another seven points being trimmed from Verstappen’s lead.    

In addition, the race took place on the Baku City Circuit, and Perez is renowned as a master of street circuits. 

The point is, the F1 season is long, and more often than not, the stars won’t align for Perez. And nothing motivates Verstappen more than losing, so expect a determined Max to come away from Miami with a decisive win.

All that being said, luck was certainly the reason Perez took the lead, but maintaining that lead, and making it look easy, was all skill. Perez’s triumph was not solely the result of the difference between pitting under the safety car and pitting under a yellow flag. That scenario would not have played out as it did had Perez not passed Charles Leclerc soon after Verstappen cleared Leclerc. The fact that Perez was so close to Verstappen when Nyck de Vries’ spin resulted in the yellow flag may have decided the race. Because there was little gap separating the two Red Bull drivers, Red Bull couldn’t double-stack a pit stop. So, Perez’s skill put him in position to be the beneficiary of such good luck.  

The bottom line is Perez will need more days like his Sunday in Baku, and Verstappen – and Red Bull – simply won’t let that happen. Having a three-time world champion is eminently more important than having a world champion for RB. 

My prediction: Verstappen clinches the world championship at the Mexico Grand Prix on October 29th. Or sooner.

Did Perez actually jump the restart after the safety car ended?

Nothing appeared unusual about Perez’s restart, but the Red Bull driver had to briefly sweat out a possible unsafe release investigation (which the conspiracy theorist in me assumes was somehow initiated by Verstappen, who likely instructed his errand boy Christian Horner to contact the race director). Unfortunately for Verstappen, the Azerbaijan race director did not answer to the name Michael Masi.

Stewards quickly decided a review was unnecessary, racing resumed, and Perez cruised to the win.

See also
The Pit Straight: To Sprint or Not To Sprint?

Did any other team make any gains on Red Bull over the month-long break?

Despite a month off, Red Bull picked up right where they left off, while their closest rivals appeared to remain stagnant. 

Whether it’s Mercedes, Aston Martin or Ferrari chasing the Red Bulls in a given week, it’s merely a battle for third place. One would think that it would be exhausting for Red Bull’s rivals, but they’re almost always too far back to even get a whiff of the RB’s exhaust. 

What was the most disappointing aspect of the race?

The overtaking, or lack thereof. Save for the two Red Bull’s passing Leclerc, and Lance Stroll and Russell gaining two places each on the start, there weren’t many other passes that significantly changed the order. And the last half of the race resembled a high-speed funeral procession, albeit through the historic and quite beautiful part of town. Let’s be honest, the 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix was nothing more than a discount Monaco Grand Prix.  

Was there anything positive for Verstappen to take away from Sunday’s race?

Two things: 1) No matter Verstappen’s luck in future races, he’s not going to finish worse than second, and 2) he’s totally forgotten about his issue with Russell, and his opinion of Russell’s head.

Can you fault photographers for prematurely thinking the race was over before Esteban Ocon’s pit stop on the final lap?

Yes, the photographers were completely at fault, for not realizing the race was over much sooner, like on lap 10. If you F1 photographers want to get a shot of the winning car, just take a pre-race photo of both Red Bull cars, which means you’ll already have the shot of the winning car. And the second-place car, to boot. 

But seriously, it’s imperative that F1 immediately address the situation, which could have been disastrous. It was not a pretty picture.

Can de Vries be proud of his performance at Baku, despite finishing last after spinning and stalling on lap 9?

This may have been de Vries’ career-defining moment in F1, in that he can say he was almost solely responsible for victory.

Fernando Alonso missed a podium finish for the first time this year. What happened?

Alonso’s Aston Martin certainly seemed to have enough pace, and he appeared to be biding his time to make a run at Leclerc, but Alonso was unable to achieve his fourth consecutive podium. Maybe his mind wasn’t totally engaged. Let’s call it “allegedly an alleged case of the alleged curse of allegedly dating Taylor Swift.”

But despite missing the podium, Alonso appeared pleased with his result. It seems Alonso has a permanent smile on his face this year. That could be because he’s a solid third in the driver standing, or because he may be involved with arguably the hottest pop diva on the planet. Or, it may simply be because he gets to say the name Mike Krack a lot, since that’s the name of the Aston Martin team principal, and saying that name is 100% chuckle-inducing.

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