The streets of Baku belong to Sergio Perez.
The fourth round of the 2023 Grand Prix season is done, and Sergio Perez finished first, followed by Max Verstappen in second and Charles Leclerc in third. Fernando Alonso ended up fourth, and F1's other Spaniard, Carlos Sainz, rounded up the top five.
If nothing else, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix proved four top-tier teams are now competing in the 2023 Grand Prix season. Ferrari had a horrendous start to the season, but whatever it did to its car during the short break created by the cancellation of the Chinese Grand Prix worked. Charles Leclerc put his car on pole not once but twice.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. If you watched the outcome of the new-format sprint race on Saturday, the results of the Grand Prix were easy enough to predict. Perez waited behind Leclerc until the perfect opportunity presented itself, which arrived on lap eight of the 17-lap sprint. Once the pass was completed, Perez managed to open a four-second gap within the remaining laps.
That four-second gap set the tone for the Grand Prix. To eke out that much of a lead in a race where drivers were likely asked to protect the cars above all else told us everything we needed to know about the race.
Let's dive in and discuss what was a rather dull race weekend.
F1 and the FIA introduced the sprint hoping for more theatrics. When we covered the new sprint format last week, we said teams would either take it easy, hoping to mitigate damage, or the drivers would go full send, in which case there would be carnage.
Obviously, the teams were playing it safe, and the safety car only emerged once after Yuki Tsunoda lost a wheel. Tsunoda's wheel meant Perez had to wait a few laps before quickly overtaking Leclerc.
The sprint turned out to be a procession, and the biggest topic of discussion was why Max Verstappen struggled to also overtake the slower Ferrari. We only found out after the race, as Verstappen's parked car showed the extent of the damage caused by a three-corner tussle with George Russell's Mercedes on the first lap.
While F1 and the FIA did not get the drama they hoped for during the race, Drive to Survive got enough ammunition for at least one episode out of the post-race drama.
Toxic fanboys on the internet went crazy after Verstappen called Russell a "dickhead" on live television. Should Verstappen have called Russell a penis cranium on live TV? No, it's not a good look, but we understand why.
Show us an F1 driver who doesn't swear. We'll wait.
F1 is an adrenaline-fueled sport, sometimes resulting in drivers saying fruity things on the radio and post-race. They're only human, after all. Do you say "whoopsie daisies" after stubbing your little toe? Thought not.
Their little battle was called a racing incident, and we agree. Both went at it hard, as they should, and Verstappen paid the price as he could not catch Leclerc's Ferrari due to the added drag.
The English media showcased their anti-Verstappen bias again perfectly this weekend, playing their vital role in promoting toxic fandom. Verstappen said he didn't like sprint races and the additional qualifying (fair opinion). Damon Hill (a one-time champion and now supposed F1 reporter) went on a rant on live TV, sarcastically asking why they don't hand the championship to Verstappen right now. That's not even what he was talking about, Hill.
Seriously, British reporters. Your bias against the two-time champion is shocking.
Charles Leclerc got off to a good start, but Ferrari's upgrade package wasn't good enough to keep the Bulls at bay. Even before the DRS was enabled, you could see the Red Bull cars easily catch the Ferrari. Once DRS was enabled, Verstappen flew by and opened up a lead. Sergio Perez also flew by Leclerc shortly after, and the Ferrari driver didn't try to defend.
Verstappen went in for a tire change seconds before a safety car was announced. This gave Sergio Perez the upper hand as he emerged from the pits in first place. Verstappen had to overtake Leclerc again (easy enough, even without DRS), but he couldn't catch his teammate.
This weekend belonged to Checo. If you're one of those who say he only won because of the safety car, riddle me this. The safety car emerged early in the race. Verstappen had more than 30 racing laps to catch his teammate, but he could not bring the delta down to less than a second.
Perez was the better driver. Get over it.
As for highlights, there were few. Fernando Alonso pulled a beautiful switcheroo on Carlos Sainz, and Lewis Hamilton showed George Russell who the real star at Mercedes is with a glorious dive down the inside after the straight. Lance Stroll messed up the corner right before the long straight, handing Hamilton another opportunity to climb the ranks.
Lando Norris got past Nico Hulkenberg after being stuck there for most of the race and managed to get himself into the points, and that's about it.
The coolest fact from the whole weekend is Perez becoming the first two-time winner of the notoriously tricky Baku street circuit, which usually delivers more exciting racing than this. We feel the teams want to avoid risking too much on tight street circuits because it's a very long season.
The FIA recently agreed to increase the permissible power unit components a team can use during a year, but it may not be enough.
It's the fourth Grand Prix of the season, and Red Bull is almost 100 points ahead of the rest of the pack. The energy drinks company has 180 points, and Aston Martin Aramco Mercedes is second with 87 points. Mercedes is third with 76 points, and after a decent weekend in Baku, Ferrari is fourth with 62 points. These are your top-tier teams for 2023, with fifth place currently belonging to McLaren Mercedes on 14 points.
The driver standings are way more interesting. The two Red Bull drivers are well clear of their biggest threat, which is Fernando Alonso. Verstappen has amassed 93 points, and Perez is only six points behind. Will team orders come into play?
We don't think so, mainly because Checo will ignore them. He likely knows his time at Red Bull is up, so he'll be battling full-on for the rest of the season.
Alonso's biggest threat is Lewis Hamilton. Seeing these old teammates and veterans duke it out is sublime, showing the younger drivers how it's done. The Spaniard has 60 points, and Hamilton is on 48.
We think Leclerc will quickly start working his way up the ranks. Before the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, he was still in the single digits. He now has 28 points and will likely take the fight directly to Alonso and Hamilton in the coming races.
Luckily, there is no break between races as the teams are already on their way to Miami for the Poor Man's Monaco. It will be a standard old-school race with three practice sessions, qualifying on Saturday, and the Grand Prix on Sunday.
The Miami International Autodrome, a street circuit meant to feel like a permanent fixture, remains unchanged. We hope they ditched the fake marina, but there's no getting around the fact that there will be many elderly balding gentlemen in flash drop-tops like the Ferrari SF90 Spider.
Can we predict a winner? Checo is the master of the streets, but Max Verstappen won at the inaugural Miami Grand Prix last year. Still, Red Bull had some control over Sergio Perez back then, and they appear to have lost it.
Expect a Bull to cross the finish line first next weekend.
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