Max Verstappen has blown open his championship lead with a comfortable victory in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix after both Ferrari drivers retired with mechanical failures.
The race was bubbling into a strategic thriller, with pole-getter Charles Leclerc having made an early pit stop during a virtual safety car on lap 9. The track-wide caution was triggered by Carlos Sainz, whose power unit suffered a hydraulic failure that forced him to park up in the run-off area at Turn 4.
Sergio Perez, having jumped Leclerc for the lead on the first lap, stayed out ahead of teammate Verstappen for a more conventional one-stop strategy that would have squeezed the Monegasque at the end of the race. But the tactics never had a chance to play out, with Leclerc’s power unit popping in the final sector after just 20 laps, forcing him into a costly retirement, his second in three races after the Spanish Grand Prix.
Ferrari also suffered engine failures in the back of Kevin Magnussen’s Haas and Zhou Guanyu’s Alfa Romeo.
Leclerc’s nine-point deficit to Verstappen at the start of the weekend has ballooned to 34 points — down from a 36-point lead after the Australian Grand Prix five rounds ago, an average loss of 16 points per race.
“It hurts,” he told Sky Sports. “I don’t really find the right words to describe. Obviously it’s very, very disappointing. I don’t know what’s going on.”
It left Red Bull Racing clear to control the race in one-two formation. Verstappen’s pace late in the first stint was enough for him to slipstream comfortably past Perez, and a slow first stop for the Mexican ensured the Dutchman retained the lead in the second stint to maximize the damage inflicted on Leclerc with a straightforward victory.
“I think today we had incredible pace in the car,” he said. “We could really look after the tires, chip away at it, pass for the lead.
“A tiny bit lucky with the retirement, but nevertheless our car was really quick today. I could’ve closed that gap, btu then you have a race on our hands.”
Perez was disappointed to be unable to convert his great launch and early lead into victory, but his consolation was to move into second in the drivers standings, albeit 22 points behind Verstappen.
“I just hit too much deg on the medium tire,” he said. “The deg was extremely high for me. It’s something we have to understand, what happened there, because certainly Max was a lot stronger today on the medium stint. But it’s still a good team result.”
George Russell collected his third podium of the season. The Briton started fifth but inherited third after Sainz and Leclerc retired.
“You’ve got to be there to pick up the pieces,” Russell said. “Thanks so much to all the guys back at Brackley and Brixworth to get the car to the end.
“It’s not easy with everything that’s going on. We’re going through a torrid time with the bouncing. I’m pleased to bring it home in P3.”
The battle for fourth went down to the final five laps between Pierre Gasly and Lewis Hamilton, the Frenchman having defended against the Briton sternly through the race. Hamilton, who was complaining of back pain in his violently bouncing Mercedes car, made a gamble on a second stop during a virtual safety car for Magnussen’s stopped Haas on lap 34. That dropped him to more than 10s behind the AlphaTauri car, but with fresh rubber he easily scythed past Gasly with seven laps to go to secure fourth place.
Yuki Tsunoda was set to finish sixth before he suffered a rear wing failure with a DRS failure snapped in half. He made an emergency pit stop on lap 38 for his mechanics to tape down the broken parts, dropping him out of the points. It promoted Sebastian Vettel to the top six after an aggressive race from the Aston Martin driver, his second point-scoring race in a row.
Fernando Alonso secured seventh ahead of McLaren teammates Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris. Ricciardo had the advantage of fresh mediums late in the race but couldn’t get close enough to Alonso to make a move.
The Australian was put under pressure late by Norris, but the Briton was told to hold position, repaying Ricciardo for not passing him in the first stint despite being the quicker driver early in the race.
Esteban Ocon took home the final point of the race after starting 13th with the counter-strategy and gaining three places from retirements ahead of him.
Valtteri Bottas finished 11th for Alfa Romeo ahead of Alex Albon and Tsunoda with his damaged car.
Mick Schumacher was 14th for Haas ahead of final finisher Nicholas Latifi, who copped a costly 10-second stop-and-go penalty for his engineers remaining on the grid for too long before the start of the formation lap.