George Russell made it three wins in a row in the Virtual Grand Prix series, with his victory in Baku putting him into the championship lead as Charles Leclerc struggled.
Previously Formula 1 had said there was no championship to worry about as part of its Virtual Grand Prix events, but with Russell, Leclerc and Alex Albon all regularly fighting each other the standings were worked out and the Ferrari driver entered the Baku race in the lead.
That soon changed, though, with Russell taking pole position and Leclerc strangely off the pace in 10th. When the race started, a number of collisions in the opening two corners saw Leclerc drop to the back, while Russell and Albon led away.
The main intrigue came with a split strategy between the front two, with Albon pitting a lap earlier than the race leader and opting for the hard compound tire. Russell was a lap later and went for mediums but admitted he was concerned by the pace being shown by the Red Bull.
“Alex isn’t dropping away as much as I’d hoped on that hard,” Russell told his race engineer. “It’s so annoying that gap is not getting any bigger at all. I’m worried about the tires.”
Albon pegged the gap at under five seconds for much of the stint but struggled to close it, and while he picked up a time penalty it didn’t matter as Russell’s tires held on comfortably in the end as he made it a hat-trick of victories.
There was a similar scenario between third and fourth as Esteban Gutierrez swapped softs for mediums and Lando Norris went for hard tires. Norris did close in slightly in the second stint but the Mercedes driver matched Russell in making the mediums last and securing a podium place for the third race in a row.
Fourth was still the best result for Norris after numerous connection issues in past events — leading him to joke afterwards “This is an all-time high for me!” — with Australian Formula 3 driver Oscar Piastri finishing fifth for Renault after winning the Formula 2 event earlier in the day.
Pietro Fittipaldi finished sixth for Haas ahead of Nicholas Latifi, YouTuber Ben Daly — aka Tiametmarduk – for McLaren, Anthony Davidson in the Mercedes and Jimmy Broadbent for Racing Point.
Broadbent’s performance was impressive as he comfortably beat teammate Sergio Perez as the Mexican made his debut, but the two new entrants found the going pretty tough as Pierre Gasly could only manage 12th for AlphaTauri.
“You need to find me the best strategy ever, mate!” Gasly joked to his race engineer. “We need to recover this mess!”
With many celebrities making regular appearances, another debutant — Manchester City defender Aymeric Laporte — was the only driver to really struggle as the rest were all competitive. Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was 11th ahead of Gasly and the Ferrari pair of Enzo Fittipaldi and Leclerc, who opted for a two-stop but couldn’t recover to score any points.
Russell now leads the championship heading into the final round in Montreal next weekend, although after the race he was jokingly criticized by Norris for “learning from Lewis (Hamilton)” when complaining about tires while comfortably leading.
“I thought that’s what people do when they win!” Russell said. “You’ve got to pretend the tires are going away and you look like a hero at the end when you hold them through the rest of the race!
“No, honestly I was a bit worried because I obviously went onto the medium, Alex went onto the hard, and ordinarily you’d expect me to gap him quite a lot in the early phase of the race but he stayed with me. I was like, ‘Oh no, he’s going to come back at the end!’
“He was fast, to be fair to him. I think we were quite a long way ahead of the next one. I’m enjoying it all and good to get the win.
“I’m definitely going to want more of this when I get back to the real world. I’m not too sure how we’ll perform in Austria — I’ll definitely do my best but no promises I’ll be standing on the top step again.”