Sergio Perez has memories of last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, and this weekend the Mexican returned to the fast and furious streets of Baku as an effective contender for the World Championships.
The ‘Checo’ has just reached the shores of the Caspian Sea since its Monaco victory, and the ink has just dried on its two-year extension to the Red Bull deal.
Monaco, after three second-place finishes, beat Mexico’s most successful F1 driver, his world champion teammate Max Verstappen, by 15 points.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc has just six points ahead of Perez to advance to this eighth round of the 22-race season, welcoming fans for the first time since the Covid epidemic.
“He’s just like Max in this championship,” said Red Bull boss Christian Horner after Azerbaijan in 2021 and Perez’s third career win in Bahrain before that.
In Monaco, Perez was pushed by Ferrari with the help of his team’s pit stop power, but Horner warned that it would be difficult to stop the Italian manufacturer’s fast cars in “upcoming races”.
Baku has a reputation for serving cars unexpectedly at speeds of 350kmh, the longest straight on the calendar, before bathing through the difficult old town framed by the medieval city wall.
Since Nico Rosberg won the first Grand Prix among Europeans in 2016, its unexpected nature has been revealed by the results, with a different driver winning each edition.
Verstapen readily admits that this is not one of his favorite weekend destinations to continue his sad sequence of not making the podium with checkered flags after last year’s dramatic tires.
The Dutchman had to settle for third place in Monaco but was still satisfied with extending his title lead over Leclerc, who judged his home race to be a “catastrophic disaster” after moving from the Pole to fourth place.
The Monaco man has seen heading for the title with wins in Bahrain and Australia and has disappeared with the Red Bulls in five-time after connecting the last four races.
“Everything went against us … we’ll come back stronger,” Leclerc said, a sentiment echoed by his team boss.
“We are quite aware: being competitive is a fact; Winning is another job and it is another level of difficulty. And I think as a team we are still making progress, learning and it will probably take some more time, “said Ferrari principal Matia Binotto.
As the Red Bull and Ferrari dominate the limelight of the early season, Mercedes struggles to unleash the full potential of their car.
The upgrades at Barcelona last month looked encouraging because under pressure Toto Wolf’s side wanted to get out of the ‘bouncing’ which distorted their performance.
Undoubtedly, Silver Arrows’ speed will give seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton and his clever new teammate George Russell the strength to count on qualifying.
But it is likely to suggest deliberate thinking that they are still in a position to add to their three wins from the five races held here on Sunday.
In addition to Perez, another one that escaped the hands of a powerful German manufacturer last year was in 2017, when Daniel Ricciardo won the Red Bull from 10th in the grid.
The term has been tested by the Australians’ trademark smile as he struggles to make a mark on his McLaren, scoring just 11 points out of 48 for his teammate Lando Norris.
In Monaco he almost agreed with team boss Jack Brown that his move to the team had so far failed to meet expectations.
“No one is going to be harder than me,” he said.
“I know I don’t want to run 10th or 12th.
“I still believe I can stay in the front and be in the front, so it’s been a bit more, of course, being tested from time to time, we’re trying to get there and maximize ourselves in this car.
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