Ferrari's challenge goes up in smoke at Baku: 2022 Azerbaijan GP report


Max Verstappen led a comfortable Red Bull 1-2 in Azerbaijan after a double Ferrari failure led both cars to retire

Smoke pours from the rear of Charles Leclerc Ferrari at the 2022 Azerbaijan GP

Baku brought more agony

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Death. Taxes. And Ferrari making a mess of a championship challenge.

Some things in life just seem to be inevitable, but they’re still painful. That’s how it feels right now watching the wheels come off the Maranello hype train.

And the frustration must surely be growing for Charles Leclerc as he sees his first real opportunity to fight for a drivers’ championship rapidly slipping away.

There’s still such a long way to go this season, but the Ferrari collapse has been pretty spectacular. Leclerc led the championship by 34 points from George Russell after the third round of the season, with Max Verstappen some 46 points adrift. The turnaround since then has been remarkable and Baku was perhaps the biggest implosion so far.

Sergio Perez takes the lead at the start of the 2022 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Sergio Perez heads into the lead at the start

Leclerc took his fourth pole position in a row with a stunning lap on Saturday, and despite losing out to Sergio Perez off the line he was quick enough to keep Verstappen at bay through the opening nine laps.

But then the first disaster hit Ferrari, as Carlos Sainz went straight on into the run-off area at Turn 4 with a hydraulic issue that meant he would go no further.

Carlos Sainz walks back after retiring from the 2022 Azerbaijan GP“We were looking forward to start pushing after nine laps of managing the tyres and trying to have a good introduction to the tyres and suddenly the hydraulics went and that was it,” Sainz said.

With the virtual safety car required, Leclerc headed for the pits and switched to hard tyres, with a long stint ahead of him if he was going to execute a one-stop strategy. Mercedes followed suit. Red Bull, however, was confident in its race pace and left Perez and Verstappen out in the lead.

As the medium tyre finally started to fade for the two leaders – with Leclerc gaining over a second a lap – it was Perez who was struggling much more for pace and the Monaco winner was told not to fight his team-mate as he closed in, with Verstappen taking the lead cleanly at Turn 1 on Lap 15.

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“With Max he was clearly a lot faster at that stage of the race, so it was the right call not to fight because I didn’t have any pace at the time and Max deserved to be ahead a that point,” Perez said.

Two laps later and Perez was into the pits for a conveniently slow stop that kept him third on the road but prevented his tyre advantage over Verstappen from creating an awkward situation. Whether it was intentional or not, it meant when Verstappen stopped for hard tyres too on lap 19 he emerged ahead of Perez once again, and Red Bull would soon be in dreamland.

Holding a 13 second lead, Leclerc suffered the all-too-familiar sound of a Ferrari power unit crunching his hopes of victory to pieces as he accelerated towards the finish line, taking him out of the lead for the second time in three races. The Monégasque managed to coast into the pit lane as Ferrari mechanics put their hands to their heads before beginning to pack up early.

Smoke from Ferrari of Charles Leclerc in the 2022 Azerbaijan GP

Smoke trails from Leclerc’s Ferrari

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“It’s more than frustrating, the first stint we weren’t particularly strong but towards the end of the stint on mediums I was catching back up to Checo,” Leclerc said. “And the VSC we were taking the opportunity to pit and I think it was the right choice.

“We were in the lead, we had to manage the tyres and the race to the end and we were definitely in the best position possible. Another DNF, it hurts, yeah.”

It was a retirement that prevented a strategic fight from playing out, with Verstappen believing he’d have closed the Ferrari down over the second half of the race.

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“As soon as we got out and they told me the gap was about 12 or 13 seconds I thought that was a bit of a gap to close,” Verstappen said. “But I saw his pace and thought let’s see if we can fully close that gap. I had confidence with the car we had today and the pace we had that it would have been an interesting fight to the end.”

From there, the only concern Red Bull had was with tyres, having seen Verstappen miss out on victory a year ago when his left rear failed in the closing stages. There were some blunt discussions between Verstappen and his race engineer about the pace he needed to drive at, with both he and Perez under no threat whatsoever from behind as Russell was running a distant third.

But even that worry was alleviated with some Ferrari help. Zhou Guanyu had already been forced to end a very impressive drive due to a power unit concern of his own when running in the points, when the fourth Ferrari-powered car slowed out on track.

This time it was Kevin Magnussen who saw something fail exiting the section around Baku’s old town and he pulled over on the inside of Turn 15, bringing out the virtual safety car once again on Lap 33.

Azerbaijan GP retirements

From left Sainz, Magnussen, Zhou and Leclerc all retired in their Ferrari-powered cars

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That afforded Red Bull the luxury of stopping for more hard tyres, something the two Mercedes drivers could also do. Russell was comfortable in third but Hamilton – running fifth at the time and dropping to sixth behind Yuki Tsunoda as a result – was anything but.

“Argh, my back is killing me!” Hamilton exclaimed on team radio shortly before Magnussen’s stoppage.

The seven-time world champion at least had some of his concentration taken up by the fight against the AlphaTauri drivers, who themselves were hampered by a lack of a second set of hard tyres and had to try and make the one-stopper work. Hamilton cleared Tsunoda within two laps and set off after Pierre Gasly.

Fortunately for Hamilton, this Frenchman wasn’t driving an Alpine after he had spent a number of laps stuck behind Esteban Ocon due to the impressive top speed of the Renault-powered car. A ten-second gap was closed in eight laps and Hamilton forced his way to the inside on the run to Turn 3 to take fourth and ensure a strong haul of points for Mercedes as Russell took his third podium of the year.

Lewis Hamilton is helped out of his Mercedes after the 2022 Azerbaijan GP

Hamilton is helped out of his car with back pain after the race

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“Happy it’s over,” Hamilton said after the flag. “Sore. That was the most painful race I’ve experienced, the toughest race I’ve experienced.

“(It was) horrible, the worst at the beginning of the race. I thought it would get much better, got a bit better in the corners towards the end but down the straights still just as bad.

“There were a lot of moments where I didn’t know if I was going to make it. One, whether I was going to keep the car on track as on the high speed I nearly lost it several times. The battle with the car was intense.”

Aston Martin of Sebastian Vettel in the old town at the 2022 Azerbaijan GP

Vettel went off but still scored points

Florent Gooden/DPPI

Hamilton had battled into the top four though ahead of Gasly, who picked up a strong fifth place he hopes will “kickstart the season”, with Sebastian Vettel an encouraging sixth at a track he finished on the podium at last year. Vettel’s result was even more impressive given the fact he went straight on at Turn 3 trying to overtake Ocon and had to spin his car round quickly to rejoin, a moment that perhaps cost him a shot at Gasly.

Fernando Alonso was seventh after also capitalising on Alpine’s immense straight-line speed, ensuring he was so tough to pass but also made rapid progress after his pit stop and kept the McLarens at bay.

“It happened to me, it happened to many people and it’s happening to Charles”

It was Daniel Ricciardo who won the intra-team battle to take eighth. As the lead driver to start on the hard compound tyre, Ricciardo ran long and made his only pit stop on Lap 33 when Magnussen retired, using the virtual safety car to get ahead of Lando Norris, much to his team-mate’s annoyance in the latter stages as he had to follow Ricciardo home.

Ocon followed the same strategy as Ricciardo for a hard-fought point in tenth place, and it was the lesser positions that were drawing the attention because of the ease at which Red Bull was dominating after Ferrari’s implosion.

Sergio Perez pours champagne over Max Verstappen after the 2022 Azerbaijan GP

“I would always say s**t happens,” Verstappen said of Leclerc’s plight. “That’s racing, you know? It happened to me, it happened to many people in the past and unfortunately it’s happening to Charles.

“If I would be in the same situation I would also be disappointed, I think that’s very normal, but it’s about how you come out of it. You always look at how to improve things and that’s what we did as well at the beginning of the season. You learn from it, you don’t like it, you are angry, but you turn it around.

“You always have to stay on it because something else might happen and you have to prevent these issues from happening.”

Those issues are preventing a real title battle from happening right now, so Ferrari needs to get on top of them extremely quickly.

Max Verstappen is cheered by team as he crosses the line to win the 2022 Azerbaijan GP


2022 Azerbaijan Grand Prix results

Position Driver Team Time Points
1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1hr 34min o5.941sec 25
2 Sergio Perez Red Bull +20.823sec 19*
3 George Russell Mercedes +45.995sec 15
4 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes +1min 11.679sec 12
5 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri +1min 17.299sec 10
6 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin +1min 24.099sec 8
7 Fernando Alonso Alpine +1min 28.596sec 6
8 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren +1min 32.207sec 4
9 Lando Norris McLaren +1min 32.556sec 2
10 Esteban Ocon Alpine +1min 48.184sec 1
11 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo +1 lap
12 Alex Albon Williams +1 lap
13 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri +1 lap
14 Mick Schumacher Haas +1 lap
15 Nicholas Latifi Williams +1 lap
16 Lance Stroll Aston Martin DNF
Kevin Magnussen Haas DNF
Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo DNF
Charles Leclerc Ferrari DNF
Carlos Sainz Ferrari DNF

*Includes additional point for fastest lap