Baku win gives Perez biggest chance of F1 career - can he maintain form?


Sergio Perez has forced his way into the F1 championship fight, but hasn't yet shown he can win for Red Bull on non-street circuits. Mark Hughes looks at how his Azerbaijan GP victory provides a defining chance in his career

Sergio Perez celebrates 2023 Azerbaijan GP with Max Verstappen in background

Xavi Bonilla/DPPI

In winning the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Sergio Perez made it two-all against Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen so far this season. If you include Perez’s Baku sprint race victory on Saturday he’s actually 3-2 up. He heads to Miami just six points behind. His qualifying average is less than 0.2sec adrift of that of the great Verstappen and in Baku he seemed to have a small but genuine edge. Has Max really got a title challenge from his own team-mate on his hands?

Perez certainly believes so. This is the biggest chance of his career, probably the defining chance of all those years of effort, coming to Europe as a teenager far away from his Mexican homeland, making the sacrifices, coping with the disappointments, waiting for 190-odd grand prix starts before winning one. He’s a resilient character taken on as a good second driver but forcing the team, through his own performance, to give him equal opportunity to its long-favoured freakishly gifted son Verstappen.

The Red Bull RB19 is so superior to everything else that only Perez can conceivably make Verstappen sweat for a third straight title. But can he maintain such form once we move to more conventional tracks? “I think he just needs to do it at a normal track,” says Christian Horner. “He’s excelled at the street circuits. All of his victories for us have been at street tracks. It’s the second time he’s won here, he won in Singapore last year, Monaco last year, Jeddah this year, so yeah, we just need to get him going on the proper circuits.”

Related article

“I just need to win every time I have the opportunity to do so,” said Perez. He got a lucky break here with the timing of a safety car just after Verstappen had pitted, and ahead of his own stop, but had looked genuinely faster when chasing in the first stint and keeping Verstappen off his back in the second. “Then at the races where that’s not possible, I have to finish second, to score the result every time. If you are up and down there’s no way you can fight for the championship.”

When the challenge is all about shaving the walls, Perez always features. Entry speeds don’t dominate competitiveness as they do on conventional tracks. It’s about improvisation, confidence and a sensitive throttle foot. Verstappen can be fast anywhere, but around here this weekend he was struggling a little. The front end didn’t give him his usual confidence and he was losing time in the heavy braking demands of Turns 2, 3 and 8. He has tools on his steering wheel to play with which can help in situations like this to give him the strong front end he likes, serenely unconcerned about the rear moving around. But he didn’t key the right combination in – not until about 10 laps from the end, when it was too late.

If Perez had DRS’d his way past… there’d have been a tense atmosphere later

So in the first stint, on the delicate medium tyres almost everyone started with, once past the pole-sitting Ferrari of Charles Leclerc, he was just driving within that mild discomfort and taking care of the tyres, leading and surely on the way to victory. There were a couple of laps before Perez found his way by the Ferrari but on his first clear lap he was 0.7sec faster than the cruising Max had been circulating. Yet he was taking less from the rear tyres, not needing to play with the tools so much as he doesn’t feel the need for that strong front, and is quite happy leaning into the understeer on entry and balancing it with the throttle on exit. He wasn’t running such a high engine braking setting and didn’t feel the need to try to rotate the car on entry from the rear. So his rears weren’t running as hot. That first clear lap got him to within 0.2sec of Max and within another three laps he was within DRS range. He looked all set to put a DRS pass on him at the end of the 10th lap – when Red Bull brought Verstappen in. Ordinarily that would have bought Verstappen a big chunk of undercut time to increase his lead and once onto the very durable hard tyres would no longer have that issue and he’d presumably run then to a routine victory.

Except Nyck de Vries had just brought the safety car out after breaking the AlphaTauri’s track rod against the Turn 5 tyre barrier. The incident happened a few corners before Verstappen was brought in, but before it triggered the safety car. Red Bull figured that de Vries – whose engine was still running – had just run straight on and would rejoin. If that had happened and they’d not brought Verstappen in and Perez had DRS’d his way past… well there’d have been a tense atmosphere there later.

Sergio Perez heads into old town section of Baku circuit on 2023 Azerbaijan GP weekend

Perez is masterful at shaving Baku walls, but hasn’t won at a conventional circuit for Red Bull


So the safety car sprung Perez (and Leclerc) past Verstappen, but he’d looked capable of doing it anyway. Now that he was in the lead, Perez faced the daunting task of pushing hard enough to keep Verstappen from getting into that 1sec DRS gap (once Max had repassed Leclerc) for the next 40 laps or so. They raced pretty much flat-out for the next 20-odd laps but everything that Verstappen threw at him, Perez had an answer for. Verstappen got to within 1.1sec on the 21st lap, but never as close again. As his tyre temperatures began creeping up he lost touch little by little and with 20 laps to go Perez had broken the Max challenge. He almost threw it away with a hefty hit of the Turn 15 tyre barriers, but got away with it. Both cars had brushed the tyres several times, but that was the biggest hit.

Related article

A long way behind, Leclerc fended off Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin for third, but only just. The Aston had qualified 1sec slower than the pole-setting Ferrari but was faster in the race. Aside from the Red Bull’s reluctance to get good front tyre temperature on the first flying lap, the Ferrari was on pole thanks to Leclerc’s habitual brilliance around here, decent straightline speed and its ability to generate front tyre temperature by the start of the lap, giving Leclerc the confidence to weave his magic. But it has a greater appetite for rear tyres than the Aston. The Mercedes had the Aston’s lack of straightline speed and the Ferrari’s heavy rear tyre deg – or at least Lewis Hamilton’s did. That’s how Alonso forced him into stopping early, which was then punished by the safety car, springing Alonso past. That early stop lost Hamilton places also to team-mate George Russell and the other Aston of Lance Stroll. He made both of these back up on track and pressured Carlos Sainz’s fifth placed Ferrari.

This Ferrari-Aston-Merc order changes from one track layout to the next. But the Red Bull’s place in that hierarchy is unvarying. As we get to conventional tracks, can Perez continue to vary the Red Bull order? No-one outside seriously believes so. That’s of no concern to Perez but he’s going to need all that resilience.