Perez overhauls Leclerc for Baku sprint win
Sergio Perez eased to a comfortable victory at the Azerbaijan sprint ahead of Charles Leclerc.
Perez started from second alongside Leclerc but couldn’t jump the Ferrari off the line. The race was then neutralized at the end of the first lap with a safety car owing to Yuki Tsunoda crashing his car at Turn 14.
Leclerc managed the restart beautifully when the race resumed on lap 6 of 17, but his SF-23 wasn’t a match for the RB19’s straight-line speed, particularly with DRS enabled down the long front straight.
On lap 8 Perez had breezed past, his rear wing wide open, and he galloped to a straightforward victory by 4.463s.
“To get away with maximum points today was the main objective, but obviously we know that tomorrow is the main race,” Perez said. “I think there was good learning today.
“P3 (on the grid) is not ideal for tomorrow’s race, but I’ll give it a go and fight for the win.”
Leclerc tried to stick with Perez, but his attention soon had to turn rearwards, where Max Verstappen had appeared after recovering from a slow start.
Verstappen was sucked into a battle with George Russell off the line that saw the two make contact into Turn 2 as the Mercedes car attempted a dive down the inside.
The light collision inflicted some bodywork damage to the Red Bull machine – including a big gash down the left-hand sidepod – and Verstappen then did himself no favors by kissing the wall at the outside of Turn 3, which handed Russell the position shortly before the safety car intervened.
Verstappen struck back at the restart and set his sights on the top two, but his damaged car wasn’t up to the task of closing down the Ferrari despite getting within DRS range, and Leclerc was allowed to escape with second position.
The Monegasque said the result confirmed his suspicions that Ferrari still hasn’t closed the gap in race pace.
“It confirms a little bit what we thought,” he said. “The Red Bull still has the upper hand in the race.
“But we again must not forget how far we were behind in race pace two races ago. We did a step forward.”
Verstappen was still fuming about the Russell incident after getting out of the car and accosted the Briton in parc ferme.
“I just don’t understand why you need to take so much risk on lap one,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.
“It’s fine. We still got into P3, got some good points, but it is what it is.”
The gaps through much of the field stabilized in the final three or four laps as drivers struggled to keep their tires from graining.
George Russell kept Carlos Sainz at bay to secure fourth, while Fernando Alonso moved up from eighth to sixth after his Aston Martin’s faulty DRS started working again.
Lewis Hamilton pipped Lance Stroll in the final points-paying places of seventh and eighth.
Alex Albon finished ninth ahead of Oscar Piastri, Kevin Magnussen, Zhou Guanyu, Pierre Gasly and Nyck de Vries.
Nico Hulkenberg had been battling with Haas teammate Magnussen but suffered sudden onset of tire graining in the final few laps that dropped him to 15th.
Valtteri Bottas was one of two drivers to start on the soft tire rather than mediums and complained his rubber was “melting” in the closing stage of the sprint.
He finished only just ahead of Lando Norris, who was the other soft-starting driver, but the Briton pitted for mediums on lap 10 in a strategy decision that will surely have generated some useful data for the team ahead of Sunday.
Esteban Ocon was the final finisher after starting from pit lane owing to a suspension change made in parc ferme. He will also have to start Sunday’s grand prix from the pits.