Max Verstappen wins Azerbaijan Grand Prix to extend his championship lead
Max Verstappen extended his championship lead by racing to victory at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Sergio Perez took second to complete a commanding one-two finish for Red Bull after both Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz failed to make it to the chequered flag with mechanical gremlins on a desperate afternoon for Ferrari in Baku.
Verstappen’s title advantage over Leclerc has increased from nine points to 34 following what could prove a pivotal race in this season’s championship battle.
Perez is now the closest challenger to Verstappen after leapfrogging Leclerc in the standings. The Mexican, who took a bonus point for the fastest lap, is 21 points adrift of his Red Bull team-mate.
George Russell finished behind the Red Bulls to claim his third podium in Mercedes colours, while team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who complained of back pain during the race, was fourth.
Leclerc delivered an impressive lap in qualifying to put his Ferrari at the front of the field only to lose out to Perez on the short stampede to the opening corner.
Perez soon moved two seconds clear of Leclerc, with Verstappen occupying the Monegasque’s mirrors. On lap nine, Sainz, who was in fourth place, parked his scarlet machine following a hydraulic failure.
The virtual safety car was deployed, and in came Leclerc for a change of rubber. He was stationary for five seconds with the front jack jammed underneath his car.
Despite the VSC, both Perez and Verstappen stayed out before the Red Bull drivers traded positions on lap 15.
Verstappen took the lead into the opening bend with Perez offering little resistance. “No fighting,” was the order from the Red Bull pit wall in a clear sign that Verstappen is the team’s number one man.
On lap 18, Verstappen stopped for new tyres, promoting Leclerc into the lead. But just two laps later, Leclerc’s race was over, and with it, possibly his championship dreams, too.
Leclerc’s Ferrari engine dramatically expired and in a plume of white smoke, the 24-year-old limped back to the pits. The pained expression on Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto’s face spoke volumes.
Leclerc was denied victory in Monaco a fortnight ago following Ferrari’s questionable strategy in the wet-dry race, and he was also forced to park his car in Spain last month with engine problems. He has now retired from two of the last three races.
With Perez offering no challenge, Verstappen cruised to the flag, claiming the fifth win of his championship defence.
Hamilton, the seven-time world champion, ended the day a staggering 71 seconds behind his former rival.
Mercedes are still battling with porpoising and the bouncing problems led to Hamilton complaining about back pain.
“Argh, my back is killing me, man,” he yelled with 22 laps still to run.
Nevertheless, it marked Hamilton’s best result since the opening grand prix in Bahrain, albeit another afternoon where he trailed Russell. Hamilton has finished behind Russell at every round since the first race.
Pierre Gasly took fifth for AlphaTauri, one place ahead of Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel. Fernando Alonso was seventh, with Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris eighth and ninth respectively for McLaren.
“Today we had incredible pace in the car and we looked after the tyres and chipped away with it,” said Verstappen.
“We are a tiny bit lucky with the retirement [of Leclerc] but overall I am pleased with how the balance of the car was.”
Russell said: “You have got to be there at the end to pick up the pieces.
“The cars are going through a torrid time with the bouncing and I am pleased to bring it home in third.”
Meanwhile, Hamilton was seen having trouble getting out of his Mercedes cockpit as he struggled with back pain.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said over the radio: “Lewis we all know this is a bit of a s*** box to drive and sorry for the back. We will sort ourselves out.”
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