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Verstappen’s Baku curse continues
Baku just does not do boring does it.
Okay, 2016’s first Formula 1 visit to the City of Winds may have been a snore-fest but that was under the umbrella of the European Grand Prix. This is the Azerbaijan GP. And it never fails to deliver.
But perhaps Sunday’s race saw the most remarkable chapter around the Baku City Circuit yet, as with Max Verstappen seemingly cruising to successive F1 race wins for the first time in his career, the Red Bull driver’s rear-left Pirelli failed on the penultimate lap.
Sending the Dutchman careening into the wall, Verstappen was left to not only count his blessings but also lick his wounds, resorting to kicking his deflated tyre in disgust on leaving the cockpit, denied an impending 14-point lead over Lewis Hamilton.
This was not the first slice of misfortune for the 21-year-old in Baku however, and after his infamous crash with Daniel Ricciardo three years ago, Verstappen will leave Azerbaijan wondering quite how this one slipped him by.
But Verstappen’s weekend yet had a silver lining to it…
More on that in a bit.
Vettel’s love of Azerbaijan remains
Verstappen may be starting to loathe the Land of Fire, but for Sebastian Vettel, Baku remains very much on his ‘places to visit’ list.
In just his sixth race for Aston Martin, the German made it a fourth Azerbaijan GP on the bounce with a P4 finish or better, here once more taking the runners-up spot.
Vettel will be under no illusion this could be a rare high point in his season, and as such the 33-year-old’s relished what is now a rare opportunity to spray the champagne.
Whether you like Vettel or not after a recent history of antagonisms and disharmony at both Red Bull and Ferrari, it nevertheless good to see the smile back on the face of a man who has given F1 so much, in his 15-year career.
Defeat from victory’s jaws for Hamilton
It really was a weekend of see-sawing emotions across the grid, and for Hamilton, with little expectations of Baku, for him to have had a glimpse of an unlikely victory, will stung significantly.
That all of course came following Verstappen’s late tyre drama.
As a crestfallen championship leader trudged back to the paddock, it was decreed the race would restart on the grid with just two laps to complete.
Hamilton meanwhile, had positioned himself in second spot behind Sergio Perez, and appeared primed to snatch victory and what surely would have been a huge 25 points. But fate was again to play its part during a remarkable finale.
Poised like a caged lion on the grid, Hamilton’s Mercedes’ tyres smoked in anticipation of a quick dash to Turn 1. That part of his plan was achieved, as was overhauling Perez. But it all went awry.
For those observers with keen hearing after the race on Sunday, Hamilton was heard to mutter on the team radio that he had forgotten to use Mercedes’ unique ‘magic’ system.
That involved pumping a lever under the driver’s seat, so as to keep the brakes warmed for a restart.
As Hamilton had overtaken Perez, there was little space or room for braking as it was, and as the bend approached, his tyres suffered a full lock-up, sending Hamilton flying off into the track’s slip-road.
So soon after Verstappen had been resigned to losing his points lead, his main rival for the title had come home last. It was a truly, scarcely believable scenario.
One suspects, that had Verstappen been given the chance to retain his four-point Drivers’ Championship advantage at the end of the weekend, he would perhaps begrudgingly have taken it. That is where we are after Round 6.
Questions for Pirelli
It was not only Verstappen left shaken and not at all stirred by tyre problems this weekend, as Lance Stroll was sent crashing out of Azerbaijan with a bump.
Whilst Vettel was celebrating his return to the podium, his Aston Martin cohort had suffered a similar blow-out to the Red Bull driver, which sent his own car sideways into the wall at approximately 200kmph mid-race.
Narrowly avoiding collecting podium finisher Pierre Gasly in the incident, as Stroll meandered his way back to the garage to be consoled by his father and team owner Lawrence, its was clear the Canadian had been rocked.
For Pirelli, the two incidents guarantee their in-tray will be piled high with questions this week, as answers are sought to how their wheels could suffer such sudden and explosive failure.
Having brought with them the standard C3, C4 and C5 to Azerbaijan, for reliability issues to arise on two separate occasions, is a matter of concern.
As Red Bull boss Christian Horner was heard to say on the pit wall after Verstappen crashed out, there was ‘no warning’ of any problems with the car’s telemetry, pointing to an issue that has no obvious answer.
But that won’t stop it becoming a bone of contention ahead of the French GP.
Perez could be genuine contender
Sergio Perez then, was the weekend’s big winner in Azerbaijan.
Competitive throughout the weekend in Baku, Perez had been lurking over the course of the 51 laps on Sunday, but after a mistake during his first pit stop saw Verstappen overtake, it appeared as though Perez would have to play second fiddle in the Red Bull garage again.
But in this most unpredictable of campaigns – certainly the most for some time – it was Perez who was on hand to mop up the crumbs.
Perez’ win in Baku sees him leapfrog Lando Norris into third place in the points standings by a cushion of three, but after those above him failed to score, he now stands just 32 points off of Hamilton, with his teammate not far off.
So has Perez now thrown his hat into the title race discussion?
It is worth considering that, with just six races down in the season, and with both Red Bulls showing little sign in terms of performance between them.
Verstappen is of course expected to provide Hamilton with the sterner test for his eighth F1 crown, but could Perez yet sneak up in both driver’s rear-view mirrors?
As F1 approaches a three-weekend arc beginning in France in 10 days, after a season that has given more in six races than it has for most of the last six years, all eyes will be on Le Castellet for another pivotal period in the campaign.
The 2021 French Grand Prix takes place at Circuit Paul Ricard, Le Castellet, between 18-20 June.
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