The Baku Street Circuit, after missing 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, made a return to the calendar in 2021, and delivered an instant classic. The 51-lap race included one red flag, two safety cars, and four retirements. Red flags in Baku are not that uncommon, but the reason behind the red flag was insanely unexpected and unlucky.
Max Verstappen was cruising up front. The championship protagonist had swiftly overtaken polesitter Charles Leclerc on Lap 7, and jumped race leader Lewis Hamilton after a round of pit stops. Sergio Perez, Max’s Red Bull teammate, would have jumped Max if it weren’t for a slow stop from the Red Bull crew, came out ahead of Hamilton, giving Verstappen more help.
Right when the race was turning into a snoozefest, Lance Stroll suffered a tyre failure running in 4th place. Stroll’s accident brought out a Safety Car. Drivers were not allowed too pit due to Stroll’s car stuck near the pit lane entry. After the restart, Verstappen cruised away and Perez defended from Hamilton, as Vettel climbed his way up to fourth place.
With 5 laps remaining, Max Verstappen seemed unstoppable on his way to a first Azerbaijan Grand Prix victory. Unfortunately for Max, a tyre failure, very similar to Stroll’s, caused him to plow into the wall at 200 miles per hour. Verstappen was luckily okay, but his chance at victory in Baku was gone.
The Safety Car, which eventually lead to a Red Flag, was called out with Sergio Perez leading in the sister Red Bull. The race, suspended with two laps left, was restarted 35 minutes later. Did you think the action and drama was over? Well if you did, you thought wrong.
On the restart, Hamilton initially got his nose ahead of Perez heading into the first corner, but suffered a huge lock-up forcing him to use the run-off area at Turn 1, demoting Hamilton all the way down to last place. This would become Hamilton’s first race without points since Austria 2018, an impressive 54 races, and Mercedes first race without points since that race also, with Valtteri Bottas finishing P12.
The battles on track continued, with Pierre Gasly and Charles Leclerc battling for the final podium position. Gasly ended up winning that battle coming in third place.
Sebastian Vettel took second in a well-driven, well-strategized, drive for Aston Martin’s first podium as a constructor, and Vettel’s first for his new team.
Sergio Perez took his second Formula 1 victory, first for Red Bull, as he was able to keep Hamilton behind as Hamilton piled pressure on him throughout the race, and optimized a well-planned strategy for Red Bull. The drama for Perez didn’t end though, as he pulled over to the side of the track after he finished, with his engineer telling him to “stop the car” after a mechanical issue.
So what exactly happened?
The sure reason for the tyre failures of Verstappen and Stroll is still unknown, but Pirelli as investigating the case. A possibility is simply just tyre wear, but with other cars going longer on the same tyres, it is unlikely. The most possible reason is debris on track. Verstappen’s crash is a bit more straightforward as it was on the same section of the track as Stroll’s crash, and could have been caused by debris from Stroll, but Stroll’s is not very straightforward, as there had been no previous incidents on that portion of the track. As Baku is a large city with a lot of buildings and overhanging trees near the track, and it’s possible there could have been a twig on track.
These incidents could be compared to a similar failure in the 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, as Valtteri Bottas suffered a puncture from the lead of that race. Bottas’ incident is much more simple, as the debris was large and easily spotted by viewers, unlike Verstappen and Stroll, where there was no large things on the track to cause punctures.
Lewis Hamilton’s lock-up in Turn 1 that cost him a podium and points was explained by the team and driver. Mercedes cars has a “magic” button, that can shift the balance of the car. Hamilton claims he accidentally touched the button and flicked the switch while defending from Perez, which caused him to go off the track and finish last.
With both championship contenders not scoring, Verstappen still leads Hamilton by four points in the drivers championship, with Perez moving to third, Norris 4th, Leclerc 5th, Bottas 6th, Sainz 7th, Gasly 8th, Vettel 9th, and Ricciardo 10th. In the constructors, Red Bull leads Mercedes by 24 points after Mercedes failed to score, which Ferrari passing McLaren for third, and AlphaTauri passing Aston Martin for fifth after a double points finish. Alpine and Alfa Romeo come in seventh and eighth, as Haas passes Williams for ninth despite both teams not scoring points yet, as Haas now owns the tiebreaker.
We have an exciting season for F1 to continue!