F1 – Azerbaijan GP – Race
Salam, MiniFans! After Saturday’s sprint race in the new format, a few questions remained. Will Leclerc manage to gain more from his pole position? What is Verstappen’s real race pace when his sidepod doesn’t have a huge hole in it? Has Aston Martin solved its DRS troubles? Well, let’s see what Baku has in store!
A clean start from the cars at the top saw them keeping their grid positions, which wasn’t the case behind them, as a couple of scuffles prompted a quick yellow flag that disappeared just as fast. Despite his efforts, Alonso wasn’t able to get past Hamilton, whereas Stroll climbed up a couple of places to settle behind his teammate. At the front, Leclerc tried to open up enough of a gap in order not to allow the Red Bulls to use their DRS, but it was a futile attempt. Verstappen overtook him on the first chance he got, but Pérez had more trouble, as Leclerc managed to stay within one second of Verstappen for a couple of laps. However, the Red Bulls easily managed to settle in 1-2.
Team strategies started to come from Aston Martin, as Stroll reassured Alonso he wouldn’t attack him, as both were on the same strategy. The first pit stop calls for hards came from the backmarkers, while things started to heat up in the battle for fifth, led by Hamilton and due to his struggles with the tyres, but Mercedes called him in before the battle could start. Then, barely eleven laps in, De Vries prompted what initially was a simple yellow flag, which made Red Bull pit Verstappen hoping for a safety car due to the AlphaTauri remaining on track, but it was deployed way too late for the world champion to take the advantage that the rest of the field did compared to him, as everyone else that hadn’t boxed flowed into the pitlane.
A fantastic show of rule knowledge made Russell overtake Stroll in the pitlane, something allowed under safety car rules, as the Aston Martin was slow, giving his team time to be able to double stack the cars, and eventually making it so that the British driver got out in front. Meanwhile, Verstappen had lost two positions thanks to the strategy mistake but recovered the first one as soon as the race was restarted by his teammate, while Alonso took care of the other Ferrari. Very soon after, the tyre management kicked off, with eyes from all teams firmly set on Ocon and Hulkenberg, who had started on hards and had had them for longer than the rest of the field.
A bit over halfway through the race, a small complaint from Verstappen regarding his car illustrated one of the reasons why he wasn’t closing on his teammate, which added to Pérez’s ability to manage tyres. Meanwhile, behind them, the third step of the podium was up for grabs, as Alonso had slowly but surely reduced the gap to Leclerc. However, the Monegasque answered in kind, pushing to open it back up every time that the Aston Martin got closer. At the front and despite the space between them, the Red Bulls started trading fastest laps before they slowed down ever so slightly.
The big battle, nevertheless, was a handful of positions behind them, as Hamilton had caught up to Sainz and was desperately trying to get past. At least until last few laps came around, as everyone threw caution to the wind and abandoned their tyre management in order to try and score more points. Leclerc and Alonso momentarily stole the fastest lap away from the Red Bull drivers, but the only overtakes seen on track came courtesy of Hulkenberg, who was seeing cars passing him left and right due to his full-race old tyres. Russell pitted for softs for the fastest lap, ending the battle among the top 4 for it, and setting the podium in stone, despite Leclerc slowing down a bit too much in the last lap.
Barely a handful of laps in, the race looked settled, with the Red Bulls at the front and Leclerc completing the podium, but one of the most characteristic traits of street circuits is the high chance of safety cars, which made an appearance early on and forced Red Bull’s hand, pitting Verstappen before it came out and making him drop two places. One was easily regained, but the other was an impossible feat and made Verstappen have to settle behind his teammate, while Alonso didn’t finish on the podium for the first time in 2023, handing it over to Leclerc.