10 things we learned from F1's 2021 Azerbaijan GP

Sergio Perez took his first Formula 1 victory with Red Bull in an eventful Azerbaijan Grand Prix as 2021's two title protagonists both failed to score. We assess the key talking points, as Mercedes' number two endured a trying weekend, Ferrari's qualifying form turned to disappointment on race day and Pirelli came in for criticism.

10 things we learned from F1's 2021 Azerbaijan GP
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Oh, Baku. Beautiful, bonkers Baku. After a year away, Formula 1 returned to the fastest street circuit on the calendar and was rewarded with a race to remember.

Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton both saw chances to win the race pass them by and left Azerbaijan empty-handed as Sergio Perez scooped his second grand prix victory, heading up a podium few could have predicted at the start of the weekend.

F1 left Baku with some drivers proving a point, others being left with serious questions to answer, and a tyre suppler again facing scrutiny after two high-speed failures.

Here are 10 things we learned from Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Christian Horner congratulates Sergio Perez

Christian Horner congratulates Sergio Perez

Photo by: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

1. Perez was the right pick for Red Bull

There has been a real hunger about Sergio Perez through his early days with Red Bull, working to get up to speed with what has proven to be one of the hardest F1 cars to tame.

The signs of his Baku pace were evident from early in the weekend. He topped FP2, took second in FP3, and was in the mix through Q1 and Q2 on a similar level to team-mate Verstappen. Traffic in Q3 led to his only bad lap of the weekend that left him sixth on the grid, but he wasted little time in fighting towards the front.

Perez’s win was incredibly fortunate, inheriting the victory after Verstappen’s tyre failure, but he could have won on merit. His pace towards the end of his soft tyre stint was blistering, allowing him to jump Hamilton. Had he not run a bit deep into his box, he may even have jumped Verstappen for the lead.

With or without Verstappen’s retirement, Perez proved in Baku that Red Bull made the right call to draft him in for 2021. He now seems to have a good understanding of the RB16B, with this victory only adding to his growing confidence and comfort.

Importantly, he was there to pick up the pieces when things fell apart for Verstappen, single-handedly extending Red Bull’s constructors’ championship lead. It’s exactly what he was signed to do.

Damaged tyre on the car of Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Damaged tyre on the car of Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

2. Pirelli faces scrutiny over its tyres once again

To see both Verstappen and Lance Stroll walk away unharmed from their high-speed crashes on Sunday was a relief after two strikingly similar incidents on the main straight.

Stroll suffered a left-rear tyre blow-out after just 30 laps on the hard tyres he started on, and Verstappen met a similar fate in the closing stages on 34-lap-old hards, his left-rear failure robbing him of victory just four laps from home.

Red Bull was quick to inform the FIA that the failure had been instant, its data showing no signs of excessive wear or issues, putting the focus onto Pirelli.

Verstappen was immediately cynical about what the tyre manufacturer's explanation would be, predicting Pirelli would blame debris - and he was proved correct a couple of hours later. Pirelli F1 tyre chief Mario Isola said his team “cannot exclude that the damage was caused by an external factor” such as debris, revealing Hamilton’s tyres were found to have deep cuts as well.

But it nevertheless leads to more scrutiny for Pirelli. Given the construction of the tyres was changed for this year to make them more robust and deal with the growing forces of these cars - to prevent a repeat of what happened at Silverstone last year - issues like this really need to be avoided.

A full investigation will follow, but the reaction to the latest issues - including Verstappen's father, ex-F1 racer Jos, who said Pirelli “always say that” about debris - shows that faith is lacking.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, climbs out of his car after crashing out from the lead

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, climbs out of his car after crashing out from the lead

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

3. Verstappen was robbed of a huge opportunity

It’s hard to find much fault with Verstappen’s performance in Baku once the lights turned green on Sunday. Had his tyres held up for another four laps, he’d likely be toasting a 14-point lead at the top of the drivers’ championship and back-to-back wins for the first time in his F1 career.

But a cruel turn prevented him from taking a richly-deserved victory, and instead left him at risk of losing the lead of the championship, only for Hamilton to squander the opportunity on the final restart.

Verstappen’s frustration was clear to see after he hopped out of his wrecked Red Bull, but he was gracious in defeat and appeared under the podium to congratulate Perez on his win. 

As F1 gears up to return to the more ‘normal’ tracks, and potentially a happier hunting ground for Mercedes, Red Bull may see it as a missed opportunity that Verstappen’s lead stands at just four points.

“I wanted to open up the gap a little bit more before we go back to those kinds of tracks,” he said. 

Yet the team should take comfort not only in its own dominance, but also the fact that Mercedes failed to capitalise.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12 and Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B at the restart

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12 and Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B at the restart

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

4. Damage limitation was achieved despite Hamilton’s late mistake

Hamilton’s accidental activation of the “magic” switch may have cost him the chance to take an unlikely win in Baku, but he should still be pleased with his weekend.

For outright pace, Mercedes was a step behind Red Bull right the way through. Had it not been for a late breakthrough in FP3 that helped Hamilton get on top of his tyre warm-up issues, he may have faced a far tougher race akin to Monaco.

Instead, the seven-time champion looked set to get a comfortable third - a decent result, all things considered - before Verstappen’s late failure gave him a sniff of victory on the standing restart. Remarkably, he could have left Baku 21 points ahead in the championship.

All things considered, to have a deficit of just four points after two largely-miserable weekends in Monaco and Baku can be considered a success for Hamilton and Mercedes. The team has a track record for learning from its defeats and hard moments, meaning if it can get on top of the tyre warm-up issues as we return to the more ‘normal’ tracks in France and Austria, it could yet restore its advantage over Red Bull.

As Hamilton said over team radio during the red flag, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” - and as damage limitation goes, that’s been achieved - despite his open goal miss.

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

5. Bottas picked a bad time for his worst performance of the year

Valtteri Bottas really picked his moment to put in his worst performance of the season so far, leaving Mercedes empty-handed after Hamilton’s off on the final restart.

Mercedes had struggled throughout practice, but while Hamilton was able to make a big breakthrough at the end of FP3 that vaulted him towards the front, Bottas was left mired down the order, qualifying 10th.

He made little progress in the race despite regular giddy-ups from his race engineer, who went from glass half-full (“if you pass Norris, you could finish fifth”) to half-empty (“if you don’t pass you’ll finish 10th”) as they tried to claw back some points.

And they would have, had Bottas not fluffed both restarts. He lost four places in six corners after the first safety car, leaving him 13th under the red flag. He gained just one place - thanks to Hamilton’s off - in the final two-lap sprint.

“I felt like a sitting duck to be honest,” Bottas said, lamenting the tyre warm-up issues that again reared their head. “There were cars coming left and right and I couldn’t do anything.”

As Perez proved, it was a day for the ‘number twos’ to shine - and Mercedes really needed Bottas to be there to initially help Hamilton and then salvage something. But he wasn’t.

How much of that was Bottas and how much was Mercedes’ own struggles in Baku is something the team needs to get to the bottom of, especially when it comes to thinking about plans for 2022.

PRIME:

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin, 2nd position, celebrates on the podium

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin, 2nd position, celebrates on the podium

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

6. Vettel proves why Aston Martin signed him

With the exception of wishing Sergio Perez “feliz navidad” (that’s ‘Merry Christmas’) as congratulations after the race, Sebastian Vettel delivered a perfect day in Baku.

His fight from 11th on the grid to finish second was only partly down to the misfortune of others. The 2018 Baku pole-sitter started well and drove an excellent first stint, giving him the chance to lead a race for the first time since Mexico 2019 and overcut two cars in the process.

Vettel was on course to finish fifth before he battled past former Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc and AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly on the restart, leaving him in position to grab second after Hamilton’s late off. For a driver who has faced criticism for his composure in wheel-to-wheel fights, to see such aggression successfully charged into his run towards the front was really great to see.

It proves the quality Vettel still bears, and why Lawrence Stroll was so keen to bring the four-time champion on-board for 2021. Aston Martin’s first F1 podium was hard-fought, and shows the team is well in the fight for a top-half finish this year - somewhat going against this feature’s belief a couple of races ago that its season was looking like a write-off!

Consider this humble pie eaten…

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

7. Ferrari isn’t back to being an F1 force just yet

Having spent all of the build-up stressing its Monaco pole was a one-off, Charles Leclerc’s charge to P1 in qualifying may have indicated that Ferrari, at last, was back.

But the race was a more sobering experience for Ferrari. Leclerc was unable to live with the pace of the Mercedes and Red Bull cars - his hopes not aided by a tree branch on-track - as he slipped back, and was jumped by Pierre Gasly in the pits before also losing a place to Sebastian Vettel on the safety car restart.

Fourth flattered Ferrari’s true race pace, but Mattia Binotto admitted that he was “expecting something better after the qualy” and that Ferrari had “not been perfect in many areas”. Carlos Sainz Jr was left beating himself up over his mistake at the start of his hard tyre stint, going straight on at Turn 8 and costing himself almost half a minute. He should really have been in the fight for a good haul of points, but finished a disappointed eighth.

Binotto took some heart in the fact Ferrari had finally moved up to third in the constructors’ championship. But to hold just a two-point lead over McLaren, considering the pace Ferrari had in the last two weekends, is a disappointing return. It could end up being a costly chance missed, should the battle rage on all season.

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin, 2nd position, sprays Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri, 3rd position, with Champagne on the podium

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin, 2nd position, sprays Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri, 3rd position, with Champagne on the podium

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

8. Gasly is one of F1’s very best right now

Had Perez not won the race for Red Bull, we would probably be back to the discussion about Gasly’s merits to return to the senior squad after another top display in Baku.

The AlphaTauri driver showed rapid pace throughout the weekend, leading FP3 and even seeming like an outside bet for pole position in qualifying. Fourth on the grid matched his best-ever grid position, and he delivered a super display in the race to jump Leclerc.

An engine issue left Gasly struggling in the second half of the race, allowing Vettel to surge past, but he was nevertheless able to get his elbows out in the late fight with Leclerc. After being passed on the main straight heading into the final lap, Gasly passed Leclerc back into Turn 1, the move clinching him a third F1 podium.

Gasly is one of F1’s very best right now. AlphaTauri’s start to the season has been a bit so-so, particularly after the pre-season hype, but the Frenchman’s performances in the last two races especially have been outstanding. He’ll be essentially in the fight for fifth in the constructors’ championship.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12 runs wide from Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B at the restart of the race

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12 runs wide from Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B at the restart of the race

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

9. The red flag standing restart was definitely the right call

Restarting a race with just two laps to go may have led to comparisons to NASCAR’s green-white-checker rule, but race control deserves credit for setting up the sprint finish.

Michael Masi was a bit slow in calling for the safety car after Verstappen’s crash - concerns about which are set to be raised at the next drivers’ briefing - but the race looked set to end in such fashion before the red flag was eventually thrown.

It allowed for all the drivers to switch to soft tyres, and made for an exciting finish. Hamilton’s mistake aside, we were treated to the tussle between Gasly and Leclerc, while Fernando Alonso was able to fight from P10 to P6.

The drivers also welcomed the sprint finish. “The Americans took over so I wasn’t really surprised that we go first with the entertainment!” said Gasly, making a tongue-in-cheek reference to Liberty.

“I was quite happy. It always brings a bit more excitement. It creates some sort of adrenalin inside you. I knew there would be some opportunities because you start only for two laps, everybody is a bit like lions out of the cage and everybody goes for everything.

“I really enjoyed it. If anything, hopefully in the future they will do the same.”

Questions need to be asked of race control after the race, particularly over the delayed safety car deployment. But credit must be given for helping give us one of the most memorable finishes in recent F1 history.

Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes AMG

Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes AMG

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

10. The real war of words is between Wolff and Horner

For all of the chat about mind games or a “childish” war of words between Hamilton and Verstappen in their title fight, it’s actually their team bosses that are most guilty right now.

Verstappen said on Thursday that he “can’t be bothered” with the off-track exchanges that appeared to be stoked in Monaco, defusing things with Hamilton.

Christian Horner had other ideas though. Amid the threats of protests about flexi-wings - front and rear - Horner said he would “keep my mouth shut” if he were Wolff. Wolff fired back by calling Horner a “windbag who wants to be on camera”.

It’s quite funny to see Horner and Wolff firing shots back and forth at each other, but you get the impression that they actually quite enjoy it. Wolff himself talked up the “soap opera” off-track between the drivers after Monaco, but right now, the team bosses are taking the leading roles.

As far as the flexi-wing saga goes, it all fizzled out quite quickly. The rigidity tests will come into force from Paul Ricard and prove just how much of an advantage they offered.

But with how things are hotting up, it’s unlikely to be very long until we have the next political spat brewing.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, celebrates with his team mate on the podium

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, celebrates with his team mate on the podium

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

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