How Leclerc or Perez could have won 2022 Azerbaijan GP – MPH

Mark Hughes

Had the cards fallen differently, it could have been either Charles Leclerc or Sergio Perez's day in Baku – Mark Hughes analyses the Azerbaijan GP

Maz Verstappen crossing the line to win the 2022 Azerbaijan GP for Red Bull

Red Bull maximised where Ferrari did not

Red Bull

Another grand prix, another lost Charles Leclerc victory – possibly. It’s not certain the Ferrari ace was on the way to winning this one, but he was leading with no further stops to make when the Ferrari’s power unit erupted into clouds of high-velocity smoke. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen won it and may have been able to have done so even without the Ferrari’s help, given that he was on much newer tyres. But it was a battle we didn’t get to see.


Could Leclerc have won?

The benefit of Leclerc’s brilliant pole position was lost as the Ferrari’s wheels spun up on a section of melting tarmac just ahead of his slot. With Perez making a great getaway the Red Bull was straight down the inside and into the lead. He set a hard pace through that first lap, determined to get himself out of DRS range and was 1.3sec ahead at the end of lap one, then 1.8sec, then 2.1sec. Perez at this moment looked every inch the super-confident winner of the previous grand prix who had out-qualified his team-mate for the second successive race.

Leclerc was left to fend off Verstappen’s attacks. Even once DRS was enabled after two laps, the Red Bull’s straight-line speed advantage wasn’t enough to do anything other than claw back what it had lost to the Ferrari accelerating onto the straight. Leclerc and Verstappen were initially lapping around half-a-second slower than the flying Perez.

Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) and Sergio Perez (Red Bull-Honda) in parc ferme after qualifying for the 2022 Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

Win was potentially in sight for Leclerc – instead he was left looking enviously at Red Bull

Grand Prix Photo

Carlos Sainz attacked Verstappen for the first couple of laps but was already wary about what that might be doing to the tyres in such high track temperatures while running so little wing. He backed off. “I was just managing a lot the tyres, not really pushing, waiting for a moment to push a bit later.”

He was as well to do so. Although the tyre degradation around here is pretty low and this was always an ideal one-stop race, it’s relatively easy to overheat the rears especially if – like Ferrari and Red Bull – you have opted to go with very low wing levels for maximum speed and raceability on the long straight.

As early as the sixth lap Perez was reporting that he was struggling for traction, with his engineer advising him on changing differential settings to help. He was now lapping no quicker than Leclerc/Verstappen.

Then on the ninth lap Sainz’s car broke down out on the circuit, with no hydraulics. A virtual safety car was eventually applied to the field as the car was moved out of harm’s way.

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The VSC was confirmed just as the leaders were getting close to the pit entry. It was early enough to offer the advantage of a very time-cheap pit stop, as a new set of hard-compound tyres would comfortably get to the end from there. Perez was called in about 1s too late – after he’d already passed the painted lines which define the pit entry lane.

Leclerc by contrast was already in that lane even before his team was telling him to pit. Verstappen was told to do the opposite of the Monegasque and so stayed out.

Potentially, this had just won Leclerc the race. Perez later implied his irritation of not being advised soon enough that the pit window would be open if there was a VSC, meaning he wasn’t prepared for the sudden call.

With the pack at VSC speeds, the pit stop loss is around 10sec less than a stop taken with the field at full racing speed. The Red Bulls were 1-2 for now, but Leclerc in third, all his tyre changing done for the day, was only around 9sec behind and they still needed to make their stops.

That’s indeed how it panned out. After both Red Bulls had made their stops Leclerc was leading the race by 13sec. There were 43 laps to go. Yes, the Red Bulls were on fresher rubber – and Verstappen was now ahead of Perez – but they would need to be careful in how much of that rubber they used up in closing down that big gap, so as to still have more rubber than Leclerc by the time they arrived on his tail – if they ever did. Given also that it had already been shown that the Red Bull’s end-of-straight advantage wasn’t necessarily enough to get it past even with DRS, it was by no means a done deal that Leclerc could not have stayed ahead. Maybe, maybe not.


Could Perez have won?

Sergio Perez on the podium after finishing second at 2022 Azerbaijan GP for Red Bull

Perez could have won if Red Bull had been sharper with pitting under VSC

Red Bull

Had he stopped under the VSC, yes. He had track position over Leclerc and Verstappen. If Max had still stayed out, he could not have overcut ahead because of Perez’s time-cheap stop. Leclerc also would have still been behind – he was coming in regardless of what Perez did – and with the Ferrari subsequently retiring it would have come down to Verstappen chasing Perez down on fresher rubber later on. Could he have held on?

Once Perez missed the pit entry, he was doubly doomed for not only was he on a less advantageous strategy but it also left him on rear tyres which had not reacted well to being pushed hard on full tanks for the first few laps, then suddenly cooled under the VSC. This can cook the rubber, making it hard and brittle.

“Right at the restart after the VSC that we lost the pace,” said the Mexican. “We really dropped the pace massively.”

Enough for Verstappen, whose tyres were fine and with the Ferrari now out of his way, to catch and pass Perez easily, well before they each pitted.

Yes Perez was told not to fight, but he had nothing left with which to fight by this stage, such was his lack of rear grip.

But the Ferrari’s engine blew after just 20 laps, leaving Verstappen and Perez to cruise to their one-two, well over half-a-minute ahead of George Russell’s bouncing Mercedes. Lewis Hamilton in the other car was running what the team described as an ‘experimental’ floor set up and its bouncing was even more diabolical. He qualified behind Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and lost around 20sec stuck behind it in the first half of the race. A later VSC for Kevin Magnussen’s broken-down Haas allowed Hamilton to pit for fresh rubber and he used this to eventually nail a pass for fourth. He was clearly in some discomfort with his back afterwards.

Sebastian Vettel got the Aston Martin into Q3 again, made up a place in the pits on Hamilton under the first VSC but lost it again trying to pass Gasly. He remained behind the AlphaTauri to the end, in sixth. Fernando Alonso used the huge straight-line speed of the updated Alpine to keep the McLaren pair Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris behind him. The McLarens were on inverted tyre strategies and ran nose-to-tail throughout, their internal battle kept on a tight leash by the pitwall. The second VSC got Ricciardo ahead. Prior to that, Norris had more than a pit stop’s-worth of gap on him.

Leclerc was lost for words after a possible win had got away from him for the third race in succession. But the winner Verstappen knows all about losing an apparent victory here and in a way this compensated for his victory-costing tyre blow-out here 12 months ago.

“You can never make up what you lost last year,” he said. “But I think today we had an incredible pace in the car, we could really look after the tyres and we could chip away at it, pass for the lead. But then, of course, also maybe a tiny bit lucky with the retirement, but I think nevertheless our car was really good today, so I could have closed that gap. Then of course you have a race on your hands.”

A race we were denied.