Max Verstappen looked set to take his first first-ever Azerbaijan Grand Prix victory before he crashed out from the lead with just five laps to go – giving Sergio Perez a second career victory, as Lewis Hamilton locked up on the penultimate lap to finish 15th in a hugely dramatic race in Baku.
For the first time this season, Charles Leclerc led away from pole, but he was passed for the lead by Lewis Hamilton with no need for DRS, so strong was the tow, on Lap 2. Verstappen then swept by the Ferrari man on Lap 7.
Verstappen took the lead after a crucial sequence of pit stops, Hamilton starting that sequence on Lap 12 with a slow switch for hards thanks to traffic in the pit lane. Verstappen pitted a lap later and emerged first, followed by Perez who split the championship rivals. And the Dutchman seemed to have victory in the bag, mastering a Lap 35 Safety Car restart after Lance Stroll’s terrifying accident, when the Aston Martin driver’s left-rear tyre appeared to gave way on the pit straight.
That was until Verstappen himself, comfortably in the lead on Lap 47, spun and crashed after an apparent tyre issue of his own. Unhurt, but shaken, his crash triggered the Safety Car, which turned into a red flag that suspended the race on Lap 48. The race resumed with a standing start 35 minutes later on Lap 50, giving us two laps of flat-out action, the field all having switched tyres during the stoppage.
Perez would lead Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Pierre Gasly and Leclerc off the line for the re-start. Hamilton got away well, his nose seemingly ahead of Perez’s, but the Briton locked-up heavily and went into the Turn 1 run-off. He finished 15th, leaving Perez in the lead, Vettel second and Gasly – having held off a charging Leclerc in the final laps – to take the final podium place.
FORMULA 1 AZERBAIJAN GRAND PRIX 2021
|1 Sergio PEREZ Red Bull Racing||2:13:36.410||25|
|2 Sebastian VETTEL Aston Martin||+1.385s||18|
|3 Pierre GASLY AlphaTauri||+2.762s||15|
|4 Charles LECLERC Ferrari||+3.828s||12|
|5 Lando NORRIS McLaren||+4.754s||10|
Vettel started 11th but finished a brilliant second as he pitted 18 laps later than anyone else, and emerged sixth. On the re-start after Stroll’s crash, he took P4 off Leclerc and Gasly, and was promoted to the podium by Verstappen’s retirement.
Leclerc finished fourth as his Lap 10 undercut attempt on Gasly didn’t pay off. While he tried to wrestle P3 off the Frenchman after the final re-start, his efforts were in vain and the Ferrari driver finished fourth.
Lando Norris shrugged off a three-place penalty and undercut his rivals having started P9 to take fifth ahead of Fernando Alonso, both movers in that final re-start, while AlphaTauri’s rookie Yuki Tsunoda started seventh and finished there having pitted early on Lap 9.
Rounding out the top 10 was Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz in P8 – who bounced back on hard tyres after a huge Lap 11 lock-up that left him as low as 15th – Daniel Ricciardo, up to ninth from 13th, and Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo in P10.
But the headline story was Verstappen’s retirement from the lead, and Hamilton’s shocking late lock-up that cost him a shot at re-taking the championship lead after this astonishing Azerbaijan Grand Prix finish.
As it happened
Before the drivers began their formation laps, a one-minute silence was held in memory of long-time McLaren shareholder Mansour Ojjeh and former FIA President Max Mosley – while those around the paddock also took time to remember their late friend and colleague, F1 camera person Thomas Bonnecarrere.
Cloudy skies overlooked the Baku City Circuit as the wind picked up on the formation lap, but there was no risk of rain amid high temperatures. The heat was on, then, with Red Bull arriving in Azerbaijan just one point ahead of Mercedes; third-place starter Max Verstappen four points ahead of front-row starter Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ championship.
But all eyes were on pole-sitter Charles Leclerc as the lights went out, the Ferrari driver starting this race (unlike in Monaco) and he led away, with Hamilton, Verstappen, and Red Bull’s Sergio Perez – having picked up P4 from Carlos Sainz and Pierre Gasly in the opening lap – in tow.
Who needs DRS? That was the question Hamilton asked on Lap 2 when he found himself in Leclerc’s slipstream after the pole-sitter made a mistake at Turn 15. Hamilton swept by on the straight and was in the lead, Leclerc hanging on and Verstappen feeling a creeping sense of frustration that he couldn’t take P2 off the Ferrari.
That frustration was duly quashed on Lap 7 when Verstappen activated DRS to fly past Leclerc for second place on Baku’s monstrous straight. Leclerc fell to P4 a lap later as Perez went past the Ferrari in a similar move.
The pit window blew wide open on Lap 12, as Hamilton pitted for hards, with every driver in the top 13 having started on softs. But he was held up by Gasly’s AlphaTauri, cruising past in the pit lane, and suffered a 4.6 second stop to emerge fourth. With Red Bull wary of the undercut, Verstappen pitted a lap later for hards and ended up in front thanks to a 1.9 second stop.
Perez had a brief window of clean air and set blistering pace, but his stop on Lap 12 was not as swift as Verstappen’s, so he came out of the pits in second – splitting the two championship rivals. Hamilton gave chase with nothing but the RB16B’s bumper in view, but could not make a move stick.
Cue a heart-stopping moment on Lap 31 when Lance Stroll’s left-rear tyre appeared to give way on the main straight and he spun at high speed, a heavy impact into the wall following. He emerged shaken, but fortunately unhurt. The Safety Car was thus deployed for a lengthy clean-up of aero parts and shards of carbon-fibre strewn on track.
Verstappen snaked around the circuit ahead of Perez, Hamilton, Gasly, and Leclerc for the Lap 35 Safety Car restart, and the Red Bulls stayed ahead of Hamilton. Behind, there was a brilliant battle between Gasly, Leclerc, and Sebastian Vettel, who was up to sixth having started on new softs from P11, only to pit on Lap 18 – which was later than anyone else.
Vettel managed a brilliant pass on former team mate Leclerc at Turn 1 on the restart, the Monegasque locking up both front tyres in defence of his position and almost careering into Gasly. The four-time champion then took P4 off Gasly a lap later on the main straight, leaving the AlphaTauri driver to exclaim “That’s not possible!” on the radio. Positions stayed static at the front.
Then another bombshell moment struck on Lap 47 when Verstappen’s left rear tyre also appeared to fail and another high-speed accident on the main straight followed. The race leader was unhurt, but out, leaving Red Bull without a first one-two in Baku and Verstappen without a chance to extend his championship lead. What seemed a comfortable victory was dashed in a milli-second.
A Safety Car followed and then a red flag on Lap 48. Everything came to a standstill, the drivers stopping in the pits for 35 minutes to aid a lengthy clean-up. And the race would restart, drivers starting from their new slots on the grid, on Lap 50 of 51, all having changed tyres. Crucially, Vettel had a brand new set of softs in the bank. Perez would lead Hamilton, Vettel, Gasly, and Leclerc in P5 – whose Lap 10 undercut attempt on Gasly, starting P4, had not worked.