After a lengthy three-week break since its last race Down Under, the Formula 1 circus was back in Baku. Apart from the reenergized teams and multiple upgrades, it was also the host of the first Sprint Race of the year, which was received with mixed opinions from fans and drivers alike. Here’s what we learned from the race weekend.
1. The sprint format is useless. Even the current champ Max Verstappen (Red Bull) says that it should be scrapped altogether. For 2023, it now has a revised format, which doesn’t really make much sense at all.
It swaps Free Practice sessions 2 and 3 for the qualifying session. On Saturday, it will then have a “Sprint Shoot-Out,” essentially a mini qualifying for the sprint race with mandatory tire compounds.
Now, the results of the sprint race are separate from the actual race, save for the additional points for the top eight finishers. The starting grid will follow Friday’s qualifying results, so treat it as an “extra race” before the actual race.
With one down, it will appear in five more race weekends, specifically in Austria, Belgium, Qatar, USA (Austin), and Brazil. You could say that it is being done to increase the entertainment value of the weekend, but it also has the unfortunate side effect of making the actual race weekend a little more predictable, which leads us to…
2. The race was a bit of a snoozefest. Baku is a circuit that’s mostly about straight-line speed, so most of the action comes from exploding tires and brake magic—or smacking into the wall and causing yellow flags, like how Nyck de Vries (AlphaTauri) clipped the barrier on Lap 10 and brought out the safety car.
After the restart and a ballsy overtake by Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) on Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) on Lap 14, the race eventually settled into a lull of close calls and DRS-fueled passes in the midfield as the two Red Bulls drove off into the sunset.
If you watched the qualifying and the sprints, you saw most of the action that the weekend had to offer, like the detached, rolling tire from the car of Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri), or the heated argument between Verstappen and George Russell (Mercedes) after the sprint race.
By then, the teams had already worked out the tire-degradation strategies, so it was a matter of bringing the cars home in one piece. Even Mercedes-AMG team boss Toto Wolff agreed that the race was “not a thriller.”
3. Ferrari is beginning to believe. After a horrendous start to the season, it seems like the intense prayers of the tifosi were starting to pay off as Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) had a stellar weekend, taking pole position on Friday’s qualifying session, ending up second in the sprint race, and finishing third place on Sunday.
Leclerc even managed to hold off a charging Alonso, with only a gap of a second separating the two at the end of the race. Meanwhile, teammate Carlos Sainz held onto fifth place. Not a bad result, and definitely a morale-boosting weekend for the Scuderia as this is the team’s first podium of the season.
4. Sergio Perez truly is the “King of the Streets.” You can’t deny the Mexican’s raw pace when it comes to street circuits. Both the Red Bulls were blisteringly quick, with this race being the team’s 25th one-two finish.
After Verstappen’s early pit-stop gamble paid off when the safety car came out on Lap 10, Perez inherited the lead with a well-timed change of tires. Despite a small mistake on Lap 34 that would have cost him the lead, he managed to hold onto his position with a 2.189-second gap, making it five street circuit wins in a row for Perez.
This now puts him in spitting distance of his teammate for the drivers’ title with six points separating the two. But still, fans of the dark horse named Fernando Alonso need not worry, as he’s still in third place with 60 points after the race.
5. Esteban Ocon was incredibly lucky in the end. While everyone was probably dozing off or doing something else in the last stages of the race, Ocon (Alpine) had to enter the pits on the last lap for a mandatory pit stop so he would not be disqualified after running an amazing 51-lap stint on the hard tire compound.
Unfortunately, he encountered FIA staffers on the pit straight who were closing it off for parc fermé. Ocon was fortunate enough to slow down to 80km/h and prevent what would have been a very deadly accident.
Of course, the FIA launched an investigation, but we’re unsure about what the organization had done. We hope that this does not happen in the next race, which is scheduled to take place in Miami this weekend.