Not everyone is as convinced as the Mexican, not even his team principal judging by Christian Horner’s post-race comments, but Perez has certainly set a new benchmark on the streets of Baku.
“It’s going to be a long year,” said Perez after he thwarted all attempts to overtake the double champion and controlled the race on the street circuit of the city on the shores of the Caspian Sea. “We are in battle.”
It was an extremely enjoyable performance from Perez. It was undoubtedly, even if he was reluctant to say it himself, the best of his six Formula 1 victories.
Perez had, as Horner said, “a bit of luck with the safety car”, but once in the lead he controlled the race. Throughout a tense grand prix, in which both drivers pushed to the limit throughout, Verstappen had no answer.
Perez’s victory, along with his win in Saudi Arabia two races ago, makes the score level between the Red Bull drivers so far this season.
Verstappen’s six-point lead is entirely due to a difficult day of qualifying for Perez at the previous race in Australia, where technical issues landed him at the bottom of the grid and required a comeback race. It is no coincidence that Perez mentioned several times during the weekend that he and the team must avoid such weekends.
This time there were no errors from Perez or his garage side, and he left Azerbaijan for the 15-hour flight to next weekend’s race in Miami with two wins to his name – one in the shorter “sprint” of on Saturday and another in the grand prix – to make this weekend almost perfect.
And while it is true that Perez had an advantage due to the timing of the safety car, it cannot be said that he was lucky to win.
Perez closed in on Verstappen after they both passed the Ferrari of pole position winner Charles Leclerc and put him under pressure. Verstappen announced on the radio that he was starting to have problems with the tires.
At the end of lap nine, Perez was just 0.6 seconds behind and felt he was on the verge of passing his team-mate, using the help of the DRS system. At which point Red Bull strategists stepped in, calling Verstappen for new tires on the next lap.
The idea was to keep Verstappen in the lead, but the strategy backfired as Nyck de Vries’ Alpha Tauri single-seater went off the track in the breakaway area at turn six.
Red Bull thought the incident wasn’t enough to bring out the safety car, believing the Dutchman’s car was undamaged and would return to the track in reverse, so they brought Verstappen instead of wait another lap for the intervention of the safety car.
The safety car was activated immediately after Verstappen’s pit stop, giving Perez and Leclerc pit stops that brought them back in front of Verstappen.
Verstappen had to pass Leclerc again, which he did almost immediately, but try as he might, he could not get within a second of his team-mate, the gap needed to activate the DRS overtaking aid. Perez controlled the margin and won the race.
After the race, Perez said, quoted by BBC Sports: “Jeddah and here, it was two strong weekends for me. I was pushed by Max from start to finish. So I also had some really good races, like Singapore (last year), when I was pushed by Charles.
“I wouldn’t say it’s my best race so far. It was just a really good race where I pushed from start to finish with no mistakes and when you do that you think you can beat anybody. It’s about to continue like this.
We want to fight each other. I want to win the championship as much as Max wants to, but there is a lot of respect between us and we are similar in the way we think about the sport. I don’t think this will change. We will fight as much as we can, but with a very high level of respect for ourselves and the team”.
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