Kurt Verlin
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Pérez, Vettel, Gasly Podium at Crazy Baku

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Perez celebrates after the race, holding Mexican flag
Photo: Honda
2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix Results

The 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku was an exciting and unpredictable race that ought to have concluded with a comfortable 1-2 for the Red Bull-Honda racing car. But it also featured two genuinely frightening moments that should raise important questions about Formula 1’s current safety protocols.

Pit Stop: 2nd-best service from a non-F1 team

Slow response to 200-mph crashes

When Lance Stroll’s tire unexpectedly blew out on lap 30, he was driving at 200 mph on the main straight, pitching him straight into the wall and sending debris flying everywhere. He was fortunately fine, but race director Michael Masi was slow to bring out the safety car.

As a result, many drivers raced past Stroll at full speed. Had they experienced their own tire failures in that moment — if not by chance, then because of the debris — the outcome of their own crash may not have been as good as Stroll’s. Worse, they could have crashed into Stroll’s stationary car and that would have been catastrophic.

Even more concerning was that despite the lesson that could have been learned from Stroll’s accident, Masi was once again slow to trigger the safety car when Max Verstappen experienced the same tire failure later in the race. The Red Bull Racing team did well to urge for the race to be red flagged — it argued that because there was no sign of imminent tire failure in the telemetry, it could happen again to other drivers — but that should not have been necessary. It should not be on the teams to take that kind of initiative.

Pirelli says it believes debris was the cause for the tire failures based on a cut they found on Lewis Hamilton’s tire after the race, but a full investigation is to follow.

Exciting race finish

For the second race in a row, Charles Leclerc put in the fastest provisional time on Saturday and was able to hold on to pole when a late crash cut short the final qualifying session. But there wasn’t much he could do to hang on to that lead on Sunday, and Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, and Sergio Pérez made short work of him in the opening laps of the grand prix.

In the early pit phase, a slow stop for Hamilton gave the Red Bull team and drivers the chance to shine. A quick in-lap and a blistering 1.9-second change of tires for Verstappen put the Dutchman in the lead, while two quick laps enabled Pérez to slot himself into second place, just behind his teammate and ahead of Hamilton, despite a slow stop of his own.

From there, Verstappen controlled the pace while Pérez did all he could to fend off the seven-time champion on his tail, managing this brilliantly. The safety car brought out because of Stroll’s accident allowed him no reprieve, nor did Verstappen’s crash.

On the final restart, which was a two-lap sprint to the finish, it seemed Hamilton had the measure of Pérez. But the Brit outdid himself in the first braking zone and went straight into the run-off area, taking himself out of the points. It would later be revealed that he had accidentally enabled the car’s “magic” warmup mode, which makes it more likely to lock up the brakes.

This no doubt provided some solace to Verstappen, who left Baku the same way he had arrived: as the championship leader, just four points ahead of Hamilton. He was robbed of the chance to extend that lead to 15 points, but thanks to Hamilton’s blunder, he at least didn’t fall behind by 21 points through no fault of his own.

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After all of that chaos, the final podium was one nobody could have predicted: Pérez, Sebastian Vettel, and Pierre Gasly. The 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix was an exciting race, but F1 should leave Baku asking itself what it could have done better and instituting changes that improve safety in the future instead of waiting for the worst.

2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix Championship Standings