Max Verstappen dominated most of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix but was cruelly denied victory as he became the second driver to suffer a high-speed blowout while leading in the final few laps.
A late-race restart could have handed victory to Lewis Hamilton but his run of 55-consecutive points finishes ended after a lock-up while fighting for the win, leaving him out of the points in 16th and last of the remaining runners.
It meant Sergio Perez held onto the lead and won from Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly in what was a two-lap sprint to the finish following a late red flag stoppage, caused by Verstappen’s crash.
Some 51 laps earlier, Charles Leclerc got the best reaction time on the original start to hold the lead comfortably into Turn One and leave Lewis Hamilton to cover off Max Verstappen.
Behind them, Sergio Perez was immediately on the move to make up for his disappointing qualifying to take position from Carlos Sainz at Turn Two. He wasn’t finished there as he dived down the outside of Pierre Gasly for fourth at Turn Three to slot in behind his team-mate.
Antonio Giovinazzi made up the most places on a hectic first lap to rise to 15th but was in at the end of the first lap for hard tyres in a strategic call. Lando Norris had a torrid time on the opening tour, dropping from ninth to 12th. Daniel Ricciardo cleared his team-mate into Turn Two on the second lap but didn’t make it stick as Norris fought back for P12 at Turn Three.
A fallen branch on the racing line forced the top three to scatter at Turn 15 as Leclerc and Verstappen cut to the inside to avoid the debris but it gave the second-place Mercedes a great run down the hill into the last meaningful corner of the lap.
With a great run out of Turn 16, Hamilton was able to clear Leclerc across the line to open lap three, taking the lead of the race and opening up breathing space between himself and title rival Verstappen.
The Red Bull kept comfortably within DRS of the Ferrari but couldn’t close up like Hamilton had done previously. Leclerc struggled on the soft tyres and Verstappen had a half-look on lap four but couldn’t dive to the inside for a move. Esteban Ocon was the first retirement on the same lap, boxing with an engine issue.
The top three were separated by 1.6sec across the line on lap six as the two in pursuit maintained DRS advantage down the straights.
Leclerc got a little eager on throttle out of Turn 16 and had a kick of oversteer to end the lap and Verstappen took full advantage. The Dutchman moved clear of the Ferrari for second into Turn One to set about chasing down the leader. Behind, Yuki Tsunoda DRS’d his way by Fernando Alonso for P7 having lost out to the Spaniard at the start.
Perez followed his team-mate’s example and was by on the next lap to put Red Bull two and three, placing Mercedes into hot water. Hamilton got to work immediately, putting in purple sectors to build a gap but reported the balance was not to his liking in the opening phase.
Leclerc peeled into the pits on lap 10 for fresh hard tyres to be the first of the leaders to box. Tsunoda followed in as well as the strategy games kicked off.
Hamilton’s lead fell below a second on lap 11 as he reported struggles with the rear tyres in his efforts to keep Verstappen out of DRS range. Perez was playing himself into the equation nicely, setting the fastest lap to close in on the leading duo and 2.5sec of the race lead.
Sainz had boxed for hard tyres but struggled to generate the temperature on the out lap and went off at Turn Eight, taking to the escape road. The Spaniard was able to back it out of the narrow run off and rejoin well down the order with major flat spots.
The lead Mercedes was in at the end of lap 11 for fresh hards but was held up as Gasly came by, leaving the window open for Red Bull to capitalise following the slow stop. Verstappen responded immediately with the fastest first and second sectors.
Red Bull pulled off a typically rapid stop on the next lap and with a 1.9sec stop, Verstappen comfortably took track position by 4sec.
Perez was in on lap 14 for his stop with the chance to take the theoretical lead but a slow 4.3sec stop took away his hopes. Despite the slow stop, he rejoined ahead of Hamilton.
Aston Martin kept its drivers out the longest and Sebastian Vettel held the lead up until lap 19. The four-time champion’s pace meant he rejoined in seventh to pick up position on Tsunoda with a great overcut.
Perez was keeping Hamilton at bay nicely following the pitstops and, despite reporting the Mercedes was rapid down the straights, had enough for the world champion in the middle sector to keep himself out of reach.
Valtteri Bottas was having the same issue in his battle with Norris for P9. The Finn hadn’t made any sort of progress since the start of the race and couldn’t clear the McLaren with DRS on laps 21 and 22. Mercedes informed Bottas that he had to clear Norris for any hope of a top five finish and decent points from a miserable weekend. His pursuit fell apart on lap 24 with a wide moment at Turn 16, dropping to over 2sec back from the McLaren driver.
Following his lock-up after his pit stop, Sainz had fallen down to 14th but was finally able to gain a place, moving clear of Giovinazzi at Turn Three around the outside.
Next up for the Ferrari driver was Alonso and, on lap 27, claimed 12th place from his compatriot with some DRS into Turn One.
Lance Stroll was the only one yet to pit but never got the chance. He crashed heavily on lap 31 out of the final corner, bringing out the safety car and leaving the pit entry closed with the wrecked Aston Martin blocking the entry. He’d taken his hard tyres all the way through the race but a rear left tyre failure pitched him into the wall at high speed. Stroll was able to get himself out of the car and after a quick lift back to the pits in the medical car, walked back into the garage for a debrief.
The pit lane entry was cleared on lap 34 but with the field bunched up, none of the leaders took the opportunity to pit. Alonso, Giovinazzi, Schumacher and Russell were the only ones to pit for softs but the Haas driver didn’t make it out onto track immediately. A left front wasn’t fitted and luckily for the German, he was able to be pushed back and get back out.
The safety car was withdrawn on lap 35 and Verstappen was left to manage the restart on the long Baku straight. The leader left it as late as possible and defended his lead but it was Vettel on the move. The remaining Aston Martin took fifth from Leclerc into Turn Two and was attacking Gasly for fourth into Turn Three, the AlphaTauri just clinging to the place. Bottas dropped down to 13th behind Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen on the restart to compound his problems.
In the tow though, Vettel was easily by Gasly on lap 37 and with the freshest rubber in the field, free to attack Hamilton for third. The Mercedes was well within DRS range on lap 39 but a quick look to the inside of Turn One was seen off by Perez. Giovinazzi was the next driver to clear Bottas with DRS, taking 13th from the Mercedes driver.
A string of fastest laps for Verstappen took him over 4sec clear of team-mate Perez but the Mexican couldn’t completely shake his pursuer. A quicker sector two was enough to keep the third-place man at arms length rather than dropping him. Fastest lap for Hamilton on lap 44 kept the pressure on but he couldn’t break into DRS range like had done earlier.
He’d checked out in front but on lap 46, Verstappen suffered a high-speed blowout and heavy crash on the start/finish line. A left rear tyre failure pitched the Red Bull driver into the wall at the fastest part of the track, well over 200mph. He got out of the car ok but was furious, kicking the wreckage on his way back to the pits.
The race was red flagged on lap 48 as the clear-up operation commenced and drivers were brought into the pits. Red Bull team manager Johnathan Wheatley radioed into race control and revealed that it had no indication of an imminent failure. He also urged race director Michael Masi to stop the race to allow everyone to change tyres.
After a much-needed breather, the race was set to recommence with a standing restart from the grid. Vettel and Ricciardo were the only drivers with fresh soft tyres for the restart. Hamilton revealed his mindset ahead of the restart, saying the championship “was a marathon, not a sprint”, eager to secure points with his rival out of the running.
Nicholas Latifi was handed a 10sec stop/go penalty ahead of the restart for failing to go through the pit lane prior to the red flag after his race engineer ordered him to stay out on track.
The field lined up on the grid to commence lap 50 and a two-lap sprint to the finish.
Hamilton’s brakes were smoking plenty as the lights went out but the Mercedes driver got alongside Perez. The corner looked to be his but locked up at the first corner and went straight on, dropping to last place. Perez took the lead and did his best to clear off into the distance.
Leclerc cleared Gasly going onto the final lap but the AlphaTauri surged back by into Turn One to hold third place. The two duelled into Turn Three, allowing Norris to join in the fight. Alonso had made the most of the restart to take sixth from Tsunoda.
Perez held on to the lead and took his second career win from Vettel and Gasly. Leclerc held off Norris for fourth despite the McLaren having a decent tow. Alonso secured sixth ahead of Tsunoda, Sainz, Ricciardo and Räikkönen as the Alfa Romeo driver secured his first points of the season in 10th.
2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix race results
|1||Sergio Perez||Red Bull||51 laps||25|
|2||Sebastian Vettel||Aston Martin||+1.3sec||18|
|10||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo||+9.5sec||1|
|11||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo||+10.2sec|
|17||George Russell||Williams||+3 laps|
|18||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||+6 laps|
|19||Lance Stroll||Aston Martin||DNF|