Sergio Perez has been left speechless after claiming an expertly judged third place in a chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
The Mexican took advantage of the lap 1 safety car to switch from his used ultrasoft tires to a new set of the soft-compound rubber. He dropped to 15th exiting the pits but recovered back to seventh by lap 24 once most of the rest of the midfield had made their own stops.
But adding difficulty to Perez’s tire management run was Haas’s Romain Grosjean, who was executing a similar strategy with the faster supersoft compound. The Force India driver spent much of the race rebuffing the Frenchman’s advances until Grosjean crashed while warming his tires behind the second safety car.
But it wasn’t until lap 49, after the second safety car restart, that Perez turned an impressive weekend into a truly memorable one. He seized fourth place from Sebastian Vettel, who had dropped down the order after a Turn 1 lock-up trying to take the lead from Valtteri Bottas, and quickly graduated to third when Bottas retired with a puncture.
The Force India driver spent the final two laps defending against the four-time world champion, ending with a 1.3-second margin over the Ferrari.
“I think today I did the best two laps of my whole career,” Perez said. “The last two laps with Sebastian behind, with cold tires, it was so difficult.
“I was on the supersoft tire. I had to keep a very strong rhythm, trying to keep close to [second-placed Kimi] Raikkonen, to make sure that Sebastian didn’t get close enough, and in the end we did it. I’m speechless.”
It was Perez’s first podium since his third-place finish in Baku in 2016, and true celebration was delayed a bit when Perez, Lance Stroll and Kevin Magnussen were called to the stewards after the race for improper use of DRS. However, no further action was taken.
Though he acknowledged that he needed some luck to get to the podium, Perez thought it was nonetheless promising for his midfield team after a slow start to the year.
“Obviously this result is a coincidence of so many things happening, but it’s not a coincidence that we are always there to take anything that is offered to us,” he said. “I think our battle is not here; to be honest, it’s the midfield.
“In two weeks’ time we have a very important challenge: Barcelona. You show all of your potential there. It will be very interesting to see where we are. I believe that we are making good progress.
“Up to now we only had one point as a team. It’s definitely a massive motivation for all the boys that are doing a fantastic job. They did an incredible job with the stops, with the strategy. What else can I say? Amazing job.”
Though the team was elated by its first podium in two years, its overall result was tempered by Esteban Ocon’s first-lap retirement after a crash with Kimi Raikkonen.
The pair collided as Raikkonen attempted to scythe down Ocon inside at Turn 4. The Ferrari driver believed he was entitled to more space, but Ocon was adamant he had earned the racing line.
Perez’s points haul elevated Force India to sixth in the constructors standings, three points ahead of Toro Rosso.