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10 things we learned from the 2023 F1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Although the 2023 Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix struggled to excite in terms of action and overtaking spectacle, the event still contained big talking points, from the title fight brewing at Red Bull to the latest FIA review after the pitlane near-miss

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

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Sergio Perez’s latest street track victory has raised his hopes of really taking on Max Verstappen for the 2023 world title. That and the Mexican driver’s victory in the tweaked sprint format, along with his team-mate’s George Russell clashes, meant Perez left the Baku weekend nine points closer in the points standings. He is now just six back from the reigning world champion.

That is the headline takeaway. But there was also Charles Leclerc taking what was Ferrari’s only realistic chance for 2023 qualifying glory – twice – plus big news concerning design legend Adrian Newey and terrifying pitlane scenes come the main race’s end.

Here’s everything we learned from the seventh Baku F1 weekend.

Perez has shown he can take the fight to Verstappen on occasion, but can he sustain that through the season?

Perez has shown he can take the fight to Verstappen on occasion, but can he sustain that through the season?

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

1. Perez can repel a relentless Verstappen, but title tests come on unfavourable ground

There can be no doubt Perez was the driver of the weekend just gone, where his year-on-year Baku gains compared to Verstappen were seriously impressive. He was better on the medium tyres early on and even reckoned he’d have had a go at passing his team-mate had Red Bull not pulled the Dutchman in.

PLUS: How Perez laid down his title credentials in Baku

But it cannot be denied that the safety car timing was the defining factor in Perez’s second Baku victory, as it confined Verstappen to sliding around in his team-mate’s wake. There is a consensus starting to form in the paddock that the mandated 2023 floor and diffuser changes have made following another car slightly harder than last year. Yet, Verstappen didn’t give up, as evidenced by his various wall strikes, and in the face of such sustained pressure, Perez didn’t wilt. This was seriously impressive.

Perez reckons without Melbourne-style problems he can challenge Verstappen for the title. If he can keep up his high level, he might be right. But this must be balanced by the conflicting ‘team or driver?’ explanations of the brake issues Red Bull had in Australia, which didn’t bother Verstappen as much. On the other hand, Perez has been mighty on courses that suit his style so far in 2023.

Expect more of the same in Miami and Monaco, where the need to be precise between walls rewards an understeer preference. The big tests loom, however, at Imola and Barcelona.

The Red Bull/Newey partnership will continue into the future

The Red Bull/Newey partnership will continue into the future

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

2. Newey remaining at Red Bull will boost its staggering tech strength

The Red Bull squad is teeming with stars and on the non-driving side, the recognition reaped by Adrian Newey throughout his illustrious career designing F1 cars and leading team technical departments is fully deserved.

Now, Red Bull will continue to benefit from his input for the foreseeable future as he has signed a new contract with the team. Although the precise details remain under wraps, Newey is surely set to see out the current rules era on this deal, likely with an eye on trying to keep Red Bull in its current dominant position when the confirmed engine and active-bodywork changes come in for 2026.

Aston Martin’s 2022-2023 gains have shown, once again, the value of having excellent technical staff in place. Newey’s new contract keeps him protected from a big-money approach from a well-funded rival (such as Ferrari) and at a team he loves as much it loves him.

Ferrari remains superb over a single lap, but its race pace leaves a lot to be desired

Ferrari remains superb over a single lap, but its race pace leaves a lot to be desired

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

3. Ferrari’s qualifying/race imbalance limits its 2023 glory potential

Leclerc’s 2023 Baku weekend had all his greatest hits – searing qualifying speed and the notable achievement of securing two poles on one weekend, an unforced error leading to a crash and Ferrari’s tyre management weakness limiting his race potential.

Because really, the driver that must now be considered F1’s best and fastest qualifier, had no chance of keeping the Red Bulls at bay even if Ferrari had been able to match its top-speed prowess in either race, especially with the DRS factor. This is because Ferrari required its drivers to be so gentle on the hard tyres to make the GP finish without extra stops. It thus couldn’t replicate its qualifying speed.

Once informed he could push to the end of the race on Sunday, Leclerc romped away from Fernando Alonso’s threatening Aston Martin as the final third kicked off. But the Spaniard got close by the flag, underpinning what has become clear in 2023: Ferrari has a qualifying/race package imbalance that means it does best in the session that doesn’t produce points.

Car issues didn't stop Aston from another strong showing in Baku

Car issues didn't stop Aston from another strong showing in Baku

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

4. Aston can still impress even when it has latent car problems

Baku was always likely to imperil Alonso and Aston’s podium streak given the AMR23 is draggy compared to its blue and red rivals. But a surprise technical issue also hurt the team last weekend.

This was that its low-drag wing with the high Baku air pressure and bumps all combined to cause the DRS to oscillate and only work intermittently in qualifying, costing 0.2s a lap. Things were better in the race after the team deployed lubricant on its wings, with Alonso then at his tenacious best in boldly jumping Sainz’s Ferrari at Turn 4 after the restart, then preserving his tyres for a late-race charge. That went unrewarded as Alonso ran out of time to catch the impressive Leclerc up ahead.

Although Aston had its setbacks in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Australia, its Baku problems were the first of its own making. That Alonso still scooped up fourth and threatened the podium reinforces that the green team is one of the stories to watch throughout 2023, a tale enhanced by his ongoing love-in with Lance Stroll.

FIA says it will move to rectify the procedural issue which led to the Baku pitlane fiasco on the last lap

FIA says it will move to rectify the procedural issue which led to the Baku pitlane fiasco on the last lap

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

5. The FIA must address its end-of-race pitlane procedures urgently and for good

The GP nearly had a horrifying conclusion when Esteban Ocon arrived in the pitlane to make his sole pitstop on the penultimate lap, only to “see the barriers and the people all around”.

As the Frenchman approached at high speed, the start of the pitlane had started to fill up with photographers and other event personnel as the podium ceremony preparations had begun. That is not unusual, but the protocols in place buckled when Alpine’s rare strategy put a car in the pitlane at such a late stage. This also happened at the 2022 Australian GP, where paddock personnel and guests were allowed to walk up the pitlane as Alex Albon pitted his Williams. There were also moments where it was felt team guests – including celebrities – were getting too close to cars as they re-entered pitlanes post-race in 2022. The FIA addressed this by reminding the teams such actions were not allowed.

To ensure there is no repeat of what happened last Sunday, the governing body must now tighten the procedures its staff, and those of F1, follow to set up the podium as the race concludes. It was good to see the personnel concerned in the Baku incident summoned to the stewards so their actions could be understood publicly. This follows race director Niels Wittich doing likewise with the Australian GP organiser after the track invasion in Melbourne, in what is being viewed as a positive step in FIA openness.

This fiasco should never have been allowed to occur, but the FIA has vowed to implement the lessons of the shockingly close call before Miami this weekend.

Baku weekend was a dud by its usual standards

Baku weekend was a dud by its usual standards

Photo by: Andrew Ferraro / Motorsport Images

6. Baku doesn’t always produce a thriller

Ahead of the weekend, the Baku race organisers were keen to gee up unpredictable and wild action expectations thanks to the events of previous years. Unfortunately, the new sprint still wasn’t thrilling, while this time Baku’s GP was a dud.

Arguably the biggest talking point was Verstappen’s heated reaction to George Russell pulling a Verstappen move at the sprint’s start – albeit with the Mercedes driver not pulling the pass off as successfully as the Dutchman’s typical dives, and so glancing and damaging the Red Bull. But the longer GP developed into a snooze fest when the track’s opening-turn action didn’t produce similar results – bar Alex Albon whacking Oscar Piastri, kicking off Valtteri Bottas’s afternoon of misery.

That’s just how it goes sometimes, with Baku surely hoping the three races it will now hold per the terms of its new F1 deal will run more along the lines of past thrillers. Despite this year's April slot, another June switch could occur depending on F1’s future geographically-logical calendar requirements.

McLaren wasn't able to show the true potential of its updated car in Baku

McLaren wasn't able to show the true potential of its updated car in Baku

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

7. McLaren’s updates work, but Baku doesn’t show true scale of gains

At its surprisingly downbeat 2023 car launch, McLaren revealed that it was pin-pointing Baku as the moment it would introduce a major update package. This was aimed at restoring the orange team to the level it was expecting before missing launch performance targets during its challenger’s initial 2023 design phase.

The updates arrived as expected last weekend, with the team unveiling a new floor layout plus new rear and beam wings aimed at cutting out drag. These introductions to the MCL60 were then followed by McLaren’s best (normal) qualifying of the season so far last Friday evening.

But Lando Norris, in the points for the second race in a row with his ninth-place finish, reckons a bigger benefit will be felt elsewhere for McLaren, which has further major updates planned.

“[The changes are not] gonna help that much in the very slow speed corners that we have here,” Norris explained. “So, if you look at it on a pure lap time basis, [they] probably didn't help us too much here. A tiny bit, but not too much.

“Maybe Miami will see some bigger gains with some of the more medium speed corners. But that's it for now. It's a small step forward, it's more like a different philosophy to have a baseline with. That is a small step forward. But more of the bigger gains are coming out in the future.”

Tweaked format has done nothing to boost universal love of sprints

Tweaked format has done nothing to boost universal love of sprints

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

8. Updated sprints still not universally loved, while rules problems remain

The biggest topic pre-weekend was the latest sprint race format tweaks F1 and its stakeholders have enacted for 2023, with Baku the first of six such events this year.

The Friday qualifying session played out as expected in providing F1 with the competitive action it wants on all three days and it was an entertaining session enhanced by Leclerc’s brilliance amongst the high-speed/close-wall danger. There’s a feeling that holding a session when most people (in the west at least) are working hurts some TV spectators, but this also doesn’t factor in how markets outside Europe typically have to consume live F1 at less than sociable hours anyway…

But the overriding takeaway was that while the second sprint-only qualifying heaps pressure and therefore jeopardy on the drivers, the shorter race action still wasn’t massively exciting bar the Russell/Verstappen spat. Yet that is what happens when the quickest cars start at the front of the grid – the order just isn’t going to magically change and even when teams do get set-ups wrong from reduced practice running the results aren’t hugely different.

The bigger problem based on last weekend was the revelation of rules loopholes that left Yuki Tsunoda and Norris with the possibility of a sprint Q3 shootout (correctly used here, not in F1’s official lexicon) on wets having used all their softs in FP1 and normal qualifying. These loopholes are expected to be closed before the Austria sprint, but demonstrate how such things can crop up with big format rule changes implemented in-season.

De Vries hasn't delivered on the promise of his one-off Monza showing last year

De Vries hasn't delivered on the promise of his one-off Monza showing last year

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

9. De Vries’ tough start to full-time F1 life continues

With his two unforced errors and costly crashes in Baku, Nyck de Vries’s previously low-key start to full-time F1 life was thrust into a spotlight with a very negative glare last weekend.

Having finished adrift of team-mate Tsunoda in the opening races, albeit only technically classified in Australia after Logan Sargeant’s late restart gaffe, de Vries wasn’t setting the world alight but was at least getting laps in with AlphaTauri’s underwhelming 2023 package. That changed with an early GP mistake he called “very silly and unnecessary”, whacking the inside Turn 5 wall and breaking his left-front track rod, putting him out and triggering the safety car period.

Rookie errors are to be expected, but de Vries arrived in F1 with his reputation enhanced by his Formula E success and was predicted by some to challenge Tsunoda immediately given how well he coped on his Williams one-off at Monza last year.

PLUS: Azerbaijan Grand Prix Driver Ratings

The Dutchman needs a smooth run in Miami to banish the negative headlines, but with the revelation of Franz Tost’s impending AlphaTauri departure plus Helmut Marko’s long-term Red Bull future uncertain, the typical three-year AlphaTauri stints for new drivers surely aren’t guaranteed.

An ill Piastri (Aussie) gritted his teeth through the Baku weekend

An ill Piastri (Aussie) gritted his teeth through the Baku weekend

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

10. Piastri also has real ‘Aussie Grit’

“I think I've had about four pieces of toast for the whole weekend.”

F1 drivers are of course usually meticulous about their food consumption for weight and performance reasons, but that was a far from ideal Baku meal plan for Oscar Piastri. Most unfortunately for the McLaren rookie, he was struck by a stomach bug – uncomfortable in the plushest surroundings, let alone an F1 cockpit.

That he made Q3 in Friday qualifying and was just 0.032s behind Norris, and repeated that feat on Saturday morning, all while feeling unwell, was impressive. That he didn’t fade in the pack over the full GP distance showed Piastri has all the ‘Aussie Grit’ you’d expect of a driver managed by Mark Webber.

Piastri has done a solid job at McLaren so far - even if he couldn't keep many solids down!

Piastri has done a solid job at McLaren so far - even if he couldn't keep many solids down!

Photo by: Andrew Ferraro / Motorsport Images

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