Sunday Standouts: Baku Brilliance
After the glamour of Monaco comes the dependably dangerous Baku circuit. There were four red flags raised in qualifying alone, tying a record from Hungary 2016, and four retirements on race day itself. Charles Leclerc put his car on pole for the second time in a row, but unlike in hometown Monaco, was able to start the race. The race quickly showed that the Ferrari’s were still off the pace of the Red Bull and Mercedes cars, and he slowly fell down the rankings after that. Championship leaders Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were right up at the top, but shock incidents (a blown tyre for Verstappen and a bad lock up on the unforgiving street circuit) left the points table wide open. This resulted in an incredible points haul for some drivers, major losses for the rest, and overall tightened the championship back up a little bit. (though the leading duo are still far far ahead) It also means that as of now, McLaren’s Lando Norris is the only driver who has scored points in every race this season. With all that said, here are my 5 wins and 3 misses of the 2021
Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
————— Wins —————
5. Yuki Tsunoda
Called “a super talent” by Alpha Tauri Team Principal Franz Tost after Sunday, Tsunoda has had a much better weekend here in Baku than the last 4. He was able to take P8 - which became 7th after Lando Norris’ grid penalty - in his first Q3 appearance of his F1 career. Compared to his rookie counterparts in Haas, Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin, he has been the one to place highest of the three. (Though this is more likely attributed to the prowess of their respective cars and teams) Considering that it was his first time even driving in Baku, the Japanese driver should be proud of his P7 drive this weekend.
4. Fernando Alonso
4th belongs to the driver who maddened Tsunoda in the closing stages of the race. The Spaniard actually seemed to lack pace in the beginning, but during the restart, Alonso showed why Alpine brought him back into F1 as he leapt up a sensational four places for P6. This result also means that for the first time this season, he is ahead of teammate Esteban Ocon (who retired in Baku) in the drivers’ championship. Some have doubted Alonso’s place on the 2021 grid, especially after Callum Illot’s snub from being passed over by Haas. People are paying more attention to the rising talents in the feeder series, and hopefully with this result and what could be growing comfort within the team, Alonso can firmly quash those opinions for the rest of his time at Alpine.
3. Pierre Gasly
It was a tense fight for 3rd after the restart between Gasly and Leclerc, with the two trading positions through the streets. Gasly keeps proving that he is a solid first driver for Alpha Tauri, and consistently pulls in points for the team. This will be his 5th consecutive points finish out of six races this season, and the Frenchman is on a roll. He stayed in the top 6 in Friday practice, topped FP3 on Saturday, and that afternoon qualified in P4 just 3 tenths behind pole sitter Leclerc. Gasly stayed there rather comfortably until Sebastian Vettel overtook him as part of his charge up the grid. Despite struggling with a power issue - which was why Vettel passed him so easily - Gasly successfully fended off Leclerc for a well deserved podium to round off a good week.
2. Sergio Perez
Perez has had a pretty good track record (excuse the pun) in Azerbaijan, with 2 previous podiums here from 2016 and 2018. Even from Friday practice, the Mexican seemed to have a newfound confidence in the RB16B as he remarked, “today it was like, I finally understand how to drive this car, how I need to drive it.” Qualifying left a little more to be desired as he placed 7th, but tidy overtakes and pit strategies (even though he had to make up for a slow stop) meant that he was in an excellent position to take advantage of others’ mistakes. Despite Verstappen’s accident and Hamilton’s rare blunder, it was yet to be smooth sailing as he nursed a hydraulics issue all the way to the chequered flag, stopping the car immediately after the finish line in fear that it wouldn’t go any further. This marks Perez’ first Red Bull victory, and this feat has allowed him to take 3rd in the championship standings in front of Norris and Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas. Clearly he has impressed team principal Christian Horner, who said, “I think it’s an added string to our bow on a day that you lose your lead car that Checo’s right there to deliver the win… I’m really pleased with the job that Checo is doing.”
1. Sebastian Vettel
When I started this series I was determined to keep the podium out of the top 5, but this week was clearly the exception. Vettel rounds off the podium trio as he proved that he has still got that fighting spirit. The German displayed confidence reminiscent of Bond as he drove his AMR21 (nicknamed Honey Ryder this year) past car after car from 11th on the starting grid. Red Bull boss Helmut Marko anticipated that Vettel would take up to five races to get comfortable at Aston Martin, and his sudden shine in Monaco and Azerbaijan looks incredibly promising. Baku will be the last of the street tracks for a while, and the triple header will be a good opportunity to assess Vettel’s grasp of the Aston car on more conventional circuits. If his grasp of the car is finally good and consistent, we could see truly spectacular things out of Vettel and Aston Martin yet.
————— Misses —————
3. Esteban Ocon
Ocon seemed on good form all season against teammate Alonso, but a loss of power left his race result out of his hands as he retired after three laps. The Frenchman had not been having a good weekend either, failing to reach Q3 and out-qualify Alonso yet again. But he will have his home Grand Prix to look forward to this week, and an incredible three-year contract from the Alpine team to keep him there until 2024.
2. Mercedes (Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas)
It seems incomprehensible to see Mercedes in this spot again, but overall, Baku was another miss for the German team. Leaving pointless from the weekend could not have been on Mercedes’ to do list as an utter lack of pace from Bottas and a shocking mistake from Hamilton stretched Red Bull’s lead in the constructors’ standings. By now most will be familiar with Channel 4 commentator Mark Webber’s scream when Lewis Hamilton went straight into the run off area at the unforgiving first turn, leaving Perez unchallenged for the win.
Another hot story coming out of the Azerbaijan GP however, was what happened with the Pirelli tyres. It gave both the audience and the paddock a major scare when Lance Stroll and Verstappen suddenly spun into the barriers. The problem was revealed to be a tyre failure at the left-rear, and not debris as was originally believed to be. An investigation was conducted after backlash, but ultimately there was no big fault found with either the tyres or the team’s running of them and honestly revealed more questions than answers. Pirelli has introduced a new set of protocols starting in France in an effort to better monitor the operating conditions of their tyres, but as the main supplier of tyres and a big partner fo F1, there could be trouble brewing if their relationship with the teams is fraught.
That is it for my Sunday Standouts for the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, if you enjoyed it share it on Twitter! This a regular series for the 2021 season, so make sure follow my Twitter @castorscorner to stay updated!