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How a hot, breezy Sunday afternoon could end Ferrari's hopes of a Baku F1 victory

Charles Leclerc lost out to Sergio Perez in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix sprint race, but he has another golden opportunity from pole position for the main Formula 1 event. But with both Red Bulls directly behind him again, several key factors appear to be against the Ferrari driver from prevailing

The Safety Car Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Once Sergio Perez had shaken off polesitter Charles Leclerc in Formula 1’s sprint race at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, victory seemed to be plain sailing.

The Mexican, a winner here in 2021 and a driver who has always performed strongly in the Azerbaijani capital, stuck with the Monegasque on the sixth-lap restart under the safety car and waited until DRS was available.

He scampered free of the Ferrari’s slipstream across the long stretch on the route to the start-finish line and powered down the inside, with Leclerc able to offer little in return as Perez took control of the race.

While Leclerc initially kept pace with Perez and remained in his tracks with DRS, it was inevitable that Perez would be able to break free of that one-second gap, particularly when Leclerc began to struggle with tyre degradation relative to the Red Bull. Although it looked that, on lap 13, Leclerc might be able to inch closer to Perez and provide an unexpected challenge for victory until the end, the briefest flutter of the DRS flap was not enough to resume parity. Perez instead put the 17-lap race beyond all doubt, tripling the gap to 2.1s by the start of the 15th tour and continuing to extend his advantage until the final difference between the two stood at 4.4s.

Leclerc did, however, manage to keep the chasing Max Verstappen behind him once the Dutchman had closed up towards the end of the race. But the #1 Red Bull had been hampered by damage sustained in his fierce battle with George Russell on the opening lap, one which left a gaping wound in Verstappen’s sidepod. While not exactly the most critical damage, it was enough to deny Verstappen a chance to close up to Leclerc and break past at the death for a Red Bull 1-2 finish.

Aside from the Russell and Verstappen squabbling, the first lap also featured more moments of infamy; Yuki Tsunoda had hit the wall moments before Turn 14 and dislodged his right-rear tyre away from the rim. A touch with team-mate Nyck de Vries at the third corner broke the Japanese driver’s front wing and, without the downforce, Tsunoda washed out into the barrier to bring out what was initially a virtual safety car. This became a full safety car, as the level of debris littering the track became all too apparent.

Perez reeled in Leclerc to win the Baku sprint race, with the Red Bull tyre prowess a key advantage over his Ferrari rival

Perez reeled in Leclerc to win the Baku sprint race, with the Red Bull tyre prowess a key advantage over his Ferrari rival

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Can Ferrari beat Red Bull in the full-length race?

Although Ferrari has made good gains in Azerbaijan, particularly after having already felt that it made a breakthrough with its set-up choices in Australia, there seems to be a common theme that has pervaded its fortunes this season: tyre degradation.

The SF-23 simply cannot match the Red Bull RB19 in the tyre-saving stakes, and that continued to be pertinent in the Baku sprint – even with the short run-time. Leclerc was able to stay in a similar ballpark to Perez on pace until the 13th lap; after getting to within a second, he could not retain that pace and started to progressively shed time over the following laps.

Perez was over a second a lap quicker on laps 15 and 16, and Leclerc’s times were much more intertwined with those of Verstappen – although the Dutchman was shedding time thanks to the hole in his bodywork he was forced to limp on with, which will naturally slash aerodynamic performance.

"Once you start with the tyre degradation, that's when Checo started to go away. Max started to come back. From that moment onward, we had a little bit of a disadvantage" Charles Leclerc

It pretty much all went to plan for Perez, who stated that he needed to clear Leclerc early doors and then start managing his pace out in the front of the pack – as you do, when you’re hoping to win a race. But Red Bull had probably suspected that Ferrari would struggle when it came to the race – as did Ferrari itself, despite its onset of qualifying prowess.

"Charles had a very, very strong place initially," Perez recalled after the sprint. "Then we had the virtual safety car, then full safety car, so on the restart was important to stay close to Charles. DRS is a lot shorter now, so it was very important to stay within a few tenths to be able to make the move. Once I got that move, Charles stayed pretty much there on my DRS, so I was getting a good eye on him and then I was able to slowly pull away.

"I think I had more pace than what I showed today, but it's difficult to know because if you use 100% pace, probably the tyres become a problem, so I think I was just driving to the maximum capacity of the tyre."

Leclerc also starts on pole for the grand prix, giving him a second shot at glory

Leclerc also starts on pole for the grand prix, giving him a second shot at glory

Photo by: Andrew Ferraro / Motorsport Images

For his part, Leclerc reiterated his doubts that Ferrari could make much of a race of it. Although Ferrari is working hard to try and find a fix to the tyre degradation issues that hamper it in race trim, Leclerc felt that extra familiarity – from him and from the engineers in the garage – have ensured improvement from the opening three rounds of the calendar.

"We are still lacking some pace in the race, this is definitely where our focus is at the moment. It's been the case now for quite a bit,” he reflected. "So we are working on that, trying to find something for the races. In qualifying, we seem to be okay, having said that I believe we have made a step forward. If you look at Australia and here, here we are better. We are not yet at the level of Red Bull so there's still a lot of work to do, but I'm a bit happier with the car.

"Once you start with the tyre degradation, that's when Checo started to go away. Max started to come back. From that moment onward, we had a little bit of a disadvantage."

Of course, there are different conditions to race under in the full grand prix; for one, the race will be two hours earlier, and track temperatures should be hotter compared to those seen on Saturday.

That’ll be much harder on the tyres, particularly the soft – Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas reported that the least-durable compound was “melting” during the cooler climes of the sprint. Added to that, the cars will have full tanks of fuel to lug around the Baku course. This will push more load through them in the early stages, so it may be a battle to save some tyre life early on.

For Ferrari, it'll be a bridge too far in that event. Unless the team is able to concoct some kind of tyre alchemy with its strategies to push it past Red Bull, or if Leclerc is able to defend his pole against all the odds, it looks like the Milton Keynes squad will start to come into its own once the opening flurry of laps are done and dusted. From there, it'll be a battle between the two drivers in blue, as Leclerc's tyres begin to wilt amid the hot and breezy Sunday afternoon drive.

The grand prix appears to be shaping up for another all-Red Bull fight

The grand prix appears to be shaping up for another all-Red Bull fight

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Can Perez challenge Verstappen?

In the full race, the roles are reversed; Perez lines up third, with Verstappen alongside Leclerc on the front row. Leclerc’s initial getaway in the sprint was stronger than both Red Bulls, and Verstappen ceded ground at the start to put him in an unwanted battle with Russell in the opening corners. A repeat of this would certainly place Verstappen in Perez’s clutches and, although an intra-team battle of wits should be devoid of contact, a close-quarters duel may result in worried hand wringing within the Red Bull camp.

Perez has been strong all weekend – in fact, he’s notoriously strong around this circuit. With Red Bull, he won in 2021 and finished second in 2022, and at Force India/Racing Point, he scored two third places in seasons where podiums were much harder to come by. Another podium is surely a certainty barring any misfortune, and he’ll be hoping for another win to become the driver who spoils the curious statistic that nobody has ever won two F1 races in Baku.

"Starting on the high fuel loads and also higher track temps, so they actually will be a bit tougher on the tyres for everyone. I think the most important thing is to just get through that one and then you'll see what the car will do" Max Verstappen

It’s hard to read too much into the sprint race, given the previously mentioned caveats, and that Verstappen’s car was clearly far more laboured compared to his team-mate's undamaged chassis. But it stands to reason that, given Perez’s Baku prowess, he should be able to make a go of it if circumstances permit. If it simply descends into a battle between Red Bulls, which it likely will, then the title race needs Perez to perform on Sunday.

"It's a bit different tomorrow of course, starting on the high fuel loads and also higher track temps, so they actually will be a bit tougher on the tyres for everyone," Verstappen reckoned. "I think the most important thing is to just get through that one and then you'll see what the car will do in terms of how it responds. And then normally, we have good race pace."

Perez took the early advantage with the sprint win, but can he make it count in the grand prix?

Perez took the early advantage with the sprint win, but can he make it count in the grand prix?

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

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