By Sanjay Suri
After three races this season, it is evident that Red Bull are a class above the other constructors. Having comfortably won every race so far, the 2023 World Driver’s Championship is surely going to be won by a Red Bull driver.
However, whilst Max Verstappen remains the red-hot favourite, Sergio ‘Checo’ Perez and his passionate fanbase have hope that the Mexican can mount a serious challenge in his third season at the Milton Keynes-based team.
Perez will need to take this season one race at a time, and hope that he can mentally outfox his teammate, which is no easy feat. The next race? Baku — a track where he has taken more points than any driver since its addition to the calendar in 2016, and almost double the number of points that Verstappen has scored in the Azerbaijan capital.
This is a circuit where Perez has outqualified Verstappen, taken a race win, and boasts four podiums, despite the majority of his races here being in a midfield car. However, he will require a calm head and excellent race-craft to win here.
Step one — do not go for pole
As mentioned before, Checo actually outqualified Verstappen here last year. He lined up P2 on the grid, behind Charles Leclerc, but quickly dispatched the Ferrari driver to take the lead into turn one. However, it soon became clear that he had set up his car predominantly for one lap pace.
On lap 15, Verstappen breezed past Perez and proceeded to extend his lead, cruising to victory whilst Perez had to settle for second. The Mexican’s championship challenge never recovered. He cannot afford to make the same mistake. His strength is on the Sunday, not in qualifying.
Fortunately, Red Bull have a significant gap to the rest of the field, so even if Perez is a couple of tenths off his teammate, he should still be able to put his car on the front row. After this, he can try and outrace the Dutchman, as the Red Bulls pull away from the chasing pack once more.
Step two — get a strong start
Pole position is not necessarily the best place to start in Baku. Whilst there is a short run to turn one, the driver in second will have the inside line, meaning that they will be able to get their elbows out, and force the polesitter wide or into a mistake.
We saw this last year when Perez got a much better start than Leclerc, and in 2021, when Lewis Hamilton managed to get ahead of Perez himself at the late restart, only to famously lock up and throw away his chances of victory. In fact, the polesitter has only won one of the last five Azerbaijan Grands Prix.
P2 might be the more advantageous starting position and, providing Verstappen does not get his elbows out too much, as he did here back in 2018, Checo could squeeze the Dutchman into turn one, in the hope of taking the race lead early on. If not, all is not lost though.
Step three — tyre management
Perez has built a reputation of being one of the best drivers on the grid regarding tyre management. His ability to stretch out the life of his tyres has enabled him to take on risky strategies which have paid off in many races.
In Baku, this will be paramount. Whilst the track is not known for being tough on its tyres, and a one-stop is often the most favourable strategy, the high chance of a safety car means that being able to do an alternate strategy can see a driver reap the rewards later in the race.
If Perez’s tyres can outlast Verstappen’s, this could help his race hugely. He could perform the overcut, pushing to the max for a few laps whilst Verstappen gets his new tyres up to temperature. This could result in him coming out in front of the Dutchman once he finally pits.
We saw him almost do this to take the lead in 2021. Unfortunately, a slow stop meant that he emerged just behind Verstappen. Had he received one of Red Bull’s signature two-second pit stops, he would have taken the lead at that point, and could have managed the race from there.
Step four — hope for chaos
If all else fails, a chaotic race could be the saving grace for Perez, and Baku is no stranger to this. The fact that it is a street circuit means that driver errors, crashes and safety cars are common. Many races here have been won in the dying laps, so history could well repeat itself.
In 2017, Valtteri Bottas snatched P2 from Lance Stroll on the line, having fought back from a first lap incident. In 2018, Sebastian Vettel looked set to take the lead, only to run wide and hand it back to polesitter Bottas. Bottas himself then lost it due to a late puncture, serving victory on a plate for Hamilton. Hamilton was the victim of running wide back in 2021, falling from first to last in one corner.
As Petyr Baelish once said, “chaos is a ladder.” Perez has climbed this ladder many times, becoming known for comeback drives, the most famous of which being in Sakhir in 2020, when he took his first ever race win. Why not add another chaotic race win to his arsenal?
The title will not be won in Azerbaijan. Verstappen will not go quiet should he drop points here. He knows that this is a long campaign and he has the pace to win over the course of the season. Perez, however, needs to impress in the next few races to show that he is a serious contender. And what better place to start than Baku?
The ‘King of the Streets’ has been on the podium here more than any other venue. He knows how to drive quickly here and keep his head in high pressure situations. Does this make him favourite in this race, ahead of Verstappen? One could certainly argue that he is.
Image: fuji.tim via Flickr