The Azerbaijan Grand Prix was one of madness, with two safety cars and an eventual red flag, the strategy was hard to master. Here’s who played it out the best.
Baku and bonkers both start with the letter “B” and once again Baku was bonkers, with the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix being one of attrition and surviving to the finish. Those in the midfield managed to do so, but title contenders Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton both had big problems, while Valtteri Bottas was off the pace, gifting Sergio Perez a surprise win.
Unfortunately, the strategy outlier was cruelly taken away on lap 29, when Lance Stroll, who started on the hard tires, crashed down the main straight thanks to a failure of the left rear. The favored strategy was starting on the soft tires, then running until lap 8-13, before pitting for hards, which ran until the red flag on lap 49.
Indeed, the winning strategy was Sergio Perez pitting on lap 13 to change from soft to hard, before running until the red flag. Verstappen, who led until his tire let go, pitted on lap 12. The third heavy hitter at the front, Hamilton, pitted slightly earlier, on lap 10, meaning he needed to conserve slightly more until the red flag came out.
There were a few noticeable deviations to this pain strategy though. As said earlier, Stroll started on the hard compound, and ASN gave him the curse of the century by tweeting about the possibility of a decent points haul, the moment before he crashed.
Under the safety car, once the pit lane had opened, a few midfield drivers took the opportunity to put new tires on. Fernando Alonso, Antonio Giovanazzi, George Russell, and others rolled the dice with fresh tires. It was Alonso who used them to best effect, as he jumped from 14th to 11th on the first lap of green racing.
Russell and Giovanazzi also diverted from the usual strategy early on in the race, both drivers peeled off at the end of lap one to put new tires on. Without the interruptions, it could be inferred they were both thinking of a two-stop strategy.
Arguably the big winner from the strategy race though was Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel. Starting in 11th, he had the advantage of being the highest placed on brand new tires. After climbing to ninth on lap one, Vettel stretched his soft tire stint out to lap 17, by which point he was the race leader, becoming the fifth man to lead a lap in 2021.
After pitting a whole five laps later than anyone else, Vettel had the benefit of newer tires come the restart on lap 36 when he passed two cars in one lap to go from sixth to fourth. This became third after Verstappen’s crash, and second after Hamilton ran off. The last time Vettel finished in the top two was the 2019 Mexico Grand Prix, and he only needs five points to overhaul his 2020 season total.
After the red flag, everything reset, and it was a two-lap dash to the flag on brand new soft tires. Strategy was thrown out the window, and the question was who would race the best. The answer was Alonso. Going into the restart with a “pass-or-crash” mindset, the Spaniard made his way from 10th to sixth, with plenty of daring moves thrown in there. It was reminiscent of the Alonso of years gone by, knowing how, and when, to pass cars so he could get in front.
Arguably the greatest scrap of 2021 so far though, was that of Pierre Gasly, Charles Leclerc, and Lando Norris for the podium. Norris had already moved from seventh to fifth after the restart but challenged for the podium at the beginning of the final lap. Leclerc had leaped from fifth to third on the opening lap of the restart but was slipstreamed by Gasly for the Alpha Tauri driver to take a memorable podium in Baku, with polesitter Leclerc fourth.
The one team that lost out on the strategy race was Mercedes. Because Bottas was nowhere, it meant they had less scope to play with the strategy, unlike Red Bull. Mercedes pitted Bottas on lap 35 to try and give the Finn something to play with, but he eventually lost a position to Giovanazzi, rather than gaining anything. He finished the race with a lowly 12th spot.
Hamilton though, spent the first 49 laps of the race in the top four, trying to use mind games to trick the Red Bull pit wall, but ultimately it was he who would face problems. At the restart, he knocked a brake switch, and effectively reduced their effectiveness, running off at turn 1 and ending the race 16th and last. It’s only the second time in Mercedes’ history that both cars finished, but neither scored, the only other time being the 2012 USA Grand Prix.
Lower down the field, Haas showed why it’s important to finish. The 13th place from Mick Schumacher has lifted the struggling team to ninth in the constructors’ standings, overtaking Williams. Russell and Nicholas Latifi could have been high up in the field, but Latifi earned himself a penalty, and Russell retired with gearbox problems just before the restart.
Overall, the best strategy award for the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix has to go to Aston Martin and Sebastian Vettel. Their eeking out the first stint to give the German better tires at a potential safety car was smart thinking, and his knowing when to push and when to conserve gave him a truly deserved second place in the race.