Baku – Sergio Perez has fond memories of last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix and this weekend the Mexican finds himself returning to the fast and furious streets of Baku as a viable contender for the world championship.
‘Checo’ arrives on the Caspian Sea coastline fresh from his Monaco triumph and with the ink barely dry on a two-year extension to his Red Bull contract.
Monaco, following three second-place finishes, lifted Mexico’s most successful F1 driver to within 15 points of his world champion teammate Max Verstappen.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc is only six points in front of Perez heading into this eighth round of the 22-race season which welcomes back fans for the first time since the Covid pandemic.
“He’s in this championship just as much as Max is,” Red Bull boss Christian Horner stated in the aftermath of Perez’s third career win after Azerbaijan in 2021 and in Bahrain the season before.
Perez was helped in Monaco by his team’s pit stop prowess with Ferrari bungling theirs but Horner warned the Italian constructor’s faster car will be hard to stop “over the coming races”.
Baku has a reputation for serving up the unexpected, with cars hurtling down the Neftchilar Avenue, the longest straight on the calendar, at 350kmh, before snaking through the sinuous old town framed by Baku’s medieval city walls.
It’s unpredictable nature is borne out by the results, with a different driver winning each edition since Nico Rosberg won the first Grand Prix held there, the European, in 2016.
Verstappen readily concedes it’s not one of his favourite weekend destinations after last year’s dramatic tyre blow out with the chequered flag his for the taking continuing his sorry sequence of never making the podium.
The Dutchman had to settle for third in Monaco but still came away satisfied at extending his title lead over Leclerc, who judged his home race as “a freaking disaster” after starting from pole to finish fourth.
The man from Monaco has seen the title momentum he established with wins in Bahrain and Australia disappear with Red Bull on a five-timer after annexing the last four races.
– Dominating –
“Everything went against us…we’ll come back stronger,” said Leclerc, that sentiment echoed by his team boss.
“We are pretty aware: being competitive is a fact; winning is another task and it’s another level of difficulty. And I think as a team we are still progressing, learning, and maybe it will take some more time,” said Ferrari principal Mattia Binotto.
While Red Bull and Ferrari are dominating the early season limelight Mercedes have struggled to unleash the full potential of their car.
Upgrades in Barcelona last month looked encouraging as Toto Wolff’s under pressure team sought to iron out the ‘bouncing’ that has bedevilled their performance.
The Silver Arrows’ undoubted speed should make deposed seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton and his astute new teammate George Russell a force to be reckoned with in qualifying.
But it is perhaps wishful thinking to suggest they are in a position to add to their three wins from the five races held here on Sunday just yet.
Aside from Perez last year the other that escaped the mighty German manufacturer was in 2017, when Daniel Ricciardo won for Red Bull from 10th on the grid.
The Australian’s trademark smile has been tested this term as he struggles to make a mark in his McLaren, collecting only 11 points to 48 for his teammate Lando Norris.
At Monaco he more or less agreed with team boss Zak Brown that so far his move to the team had failed to meet expectations.
“No one’s going to be harder on me than myself,” he said.
“I know that I don’t want to be racing around in 10th, 12th places.
“I still believe I can be at the front and belong at the front, so it’s been a little bit more, certainly, testing at times, in terms of us trying to get up there and maximise myself in this car.