Postcards from… Baku
Street circuit specialist Perez doubles up in Baku
If the world championship were to take place only on street circuits, Sergio Perez would certainly be one of the big favourites. Five of his seven career victories to date have come on street tracks, where the walls take no prisoners. On Sunday, Checo became the first driver to win at the Baku street circuit twice. His other wins have come at Jeddah, Singapore, and Monaco, while his only win at a permanent track was in fact his very first: 2020 at Sakhir, but on the shorter Bahrain track that was only used once.
And if racing only on street circuits wasn't a possibility, Perez might instead want to ask Formula 1 boss Stefano Domenicali to have several races in Azerbaijan as an alternative: the Mexican has been on the podium in Baku five times from seven races. As well as his pair of wins, he's also had one second and two third places, leaving aside his success in Saturday's Sprint race.
In any event, the first part of the season has shown that Perez is in a position to fight for the title no matter what type of circuit is put before him. With just a six-point gap to the championship leader, Max Verstappen, he only has to score seven points more than his team mate in Miami next weekend to take the lead of the title race.
Leclerc maintains his qualifying crown in Baku
There's another driver who always seems to have a good feeling with Baku – at least when it comes to putting together a flying lap. Ferrari's Charles Leclerc became the first driver to take a pole position twice during the same event last weekend, going fastest in the Friday qualifying session that set the grid for the grand prix, as well as in the very first Qualifying Shootout on Saturday, which determined the grid for the Sprint race.
There's definitely something special going on between Leclerc and Baku: Friday marked his third consecutive pole position for the grand prix after he claimed P1 on the grid in 2021 and 2022 (he was also on pole in Formula 2 back in 2017).
In general, the Monegasque feels particularly at home in qualifying on street circuits: he's also claimed pole twice at home in Monaco (in 2021 and 2022) as well as twice in Singapore (2019 and 2022).
Unfortunately, he's not had quite the same luck when it comes to racing, having failed to convert pole to victory on four street circuits (as well as the three already mentioned, we can add Jeddah to the list). From a total of 15 participations, there have only been four podiums.
Successful debut for a new Sprint weekend
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix witnessed the debut of a new weekend format for events that include a Sprint race. Despite a few vocal criticisms – notably from Max Verstappen – the initial verdict was positive. Friday became notably more spectacular, with just a single intense free practice session in which the teams had just 60 minutes to find the best setup, try out any new upgrades, and carry out some high fuel runs as well. Only two and a half hours later, it was straight into qualifying to establish the grid for the grand prix in the usual way. Saturday became effectively a standalone event with a cut-down version of qualifying and the race: a big step forward compared to the previous format: eliminating a second free practice session (which was of little use as the cars were already in parc ferme conditions) and a sprint qualifying where the drivers were reluctant to take risks, given that any mistakes would have big consequences for Sunday.
There are still aspects that can be improved and the audience figures need to be properly analysed, but generally speaking, it's a step in the right direction.
When fifth went fastest
There have been many innovations introduced to the technical, sporting and organisational aspects of Formula 1 ever since Liberty Media took over, all aimed at improving the show both on and off the track. One of the first novelties was the return in 2019 of a point for the fastest race lap, as long as the person setting it was classified inside the top 10.
In the relatively conservative world of Formula 1, resurrecting an idea that had last seen the light of day from 1950 to 1959 was initially greeted with scepticism, but over time it's sometimes served to add an extra element of interest to the closing stages of races that were largely already decided.
It's not often though that fastest laps have been regularly traded at the end of the race thanks to a fierce battle among the top four, as was the case at Baku last weekend. Both Perez and Verstappen, as well as Leclerc and Alonso, were sufficiently close to each other that even the tiniest slip could have ended badly. Calls from the pit wall to exercise caution were generally unheeded, with the drivers also benefitting from a hard tyre that was not only reliable, but also allowed them to push for maximum performance even at the end of a long stint.
For a short while it looked like Verstappen had the upper hand, setting a time of 1m44.232s on the 51st and final lap. But he reckoned without the Mercedes of George Russell in fifth, who had time to make an extra pit stop for the soft tyre without losing a place. The Englishman crossed the finish line with a final lap time of 1m43.370s: lowering the reigning world champion's benchmark by nearly a second.
A fright and a record for Ocon
For Esteban Ocon, Baku was a weekend to forget that ended with a 15th place. But he will probably vividly remember the scare he had at the end of the race, when he found himself having to brake hard to avoid people in the pit lane, as he made his final stop at the end of lap 50. Nonetheless, that last-minute stop to stay within the rules – with each driver having to use two different slick compounds unless it's a wet race – allowed the Frenchman to set a small record. Ocon became the driver to have covered the longest distance – 300.150 kilometres – with a single set of hard (C3) tyres since 2015. The previous record was held by Pascal Wehrlein, who clocked up 297.321 kilometres on the same set of tyres in a Sauber at the 2017 Brazilian Grand Prix.