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  • Writer's pictureBen Waterworth

Azerbaijan GP talking points: Perez a bona fide contender as Red Bull pull away from pack

Welcome back to another edition of F1 talking points and power rankings as we go over an, uh, okay Grand Prix around the streets of Baku.

While it was an interesting and somewhat controversial weekend, for the most part we left Azerbaijan in the same place as we entered it, with Red Bull still far and away the best team with no real challengers.

That being said, it doesn’t mean the Championship isn’t going to be tense. How? Read on to find out.

Perez can win the Championship

While the form of Red Bull hasn’t been a surprise in 2023, the form of Sergio Perez definitely has.

A solid first two years for the Austrian outfit has seen him serve well as deputy behind two-time World Champion Max Verstappen, but he has never really shown enough to warrant talk of challenging his teammate for a title.

After four races in 2023, that is now different. Perez has won as many races as Verstappen, has won a sprint race over Verstappen and had it not been for a poor weekend in Australia, he would be leading the Championship.

A mature and pacey Perez has really come into his own in 2023 and was able to capitalise on Red Bull’s unfortunate strategy error that saw Verstappen relinquish the lead during the safety car period in Azerbaijan.

From that moment on, Perez was never challenged and showcased why he should be considered a strong title contender.

Yes, he is somewhat of a street circuit specialist, and yes, it’s still very early in the season. But Perez was no slouch on the only road course this year so far in Bahrain and there are still five more street circuits this year to add to his potential winning resume.

The signs are there that he can continue this form. With only six points separating him from Verstappen, Perez is definitely in with a shot at becoming Mexico’s first-ever World Champion.

Max Verstappen needs to learn how to lose

Max Verstappen is an incredible driver and is on track to go down as one of, if not the greatest driver of all time statistically speaking.

Since he entered F1 in 2015, he has matured rapidly and become arguably the best driver on the grid with talent capable of winning almost any race.

If he is still yet to master a skill, however, it’s the ability to lose. During the sprint race on Saturday, Verstappen was involved in an incident with the Mercedes of George Russell, and it’s safe to say Verstappen wasn’t happy about it.

After Russell fairly passed him on the inside of turn three, Verstappen claimed he wasn’t left enough space. He angrily confronted the British driver after the spring and labelled him a “dickhead”, before later referring to him as a “princess” in media interviews.

It continued a trend from Verstappen that as soon as he loses and doesn’t agree with how it happens, he is unable to accept the outcome and is quick to blame others.

If Verstappen is truly to go down as one of the greatest drivers in the eyes of fans, he definitely needs to work on his attitude during those rare occasions when he doesn’t come out on top, as it definitely paints a negative picture of the Dutchman to those outside his very passionate orange army.

In a period for the sport where there are more eyes on it and more opinions than ever before, that will go a long way toward creating a much better reputation and legacy for himself over the years to come.

The new sprint race format is a joke

Once again we find ourselves talking about unnecessary changes to the sport that seem nothing more than a quick reaction to the Netflix generation of F1 fans.

In the midst of the varied opinions on the continued experiments with the sprint race format first introduced at select races in 2021, a change was implemented to include separate qualifying sessions for the race AND the sprint race in order to “make all sessions more relevant and exciting.”

Essentially, F1 has introduced a new qualifying session for the new qualifying session they introduced in order to qualify in a separate qualifying from the original qualifying that still qualifies you for the main race but not for the separate race that was introduced in order to spice up qualifying. Make sense? Of course not.

The result of this saw only one practice session on the Friday, the traditional qualifying session moved to Friday to then qualify for a race two days later, and then the Saturday practice turned into an additional qualifying to then set the grid for the sprint race on Saturday.

What adds to the frustration of the attempt to “make things more exciting” is that not only did it do absolutely nothing to improve on the racing, it created a fairly meaningless race on the Saturday with not much change, more than half the field racing for literally nothing and then arguably the least entertaining race of the season so far the next day, which really saw nothing added to it from the new format at all.

To add insult to injury, nobody has really complained at all about the current three-session qualifying format since it was first introduced in 2006. The fact F1 believe this is an issue and continues to experiment and make it up as they go along is baffling.

The sooner this obsession with making the sport “more entertaining” to appease a new generation of Netflix fans when the sport is already entertaining enough and has been for over 70 years, the better it will be for the fans.

Fernando Alonso the Jedi Master

Remember when Fernando Alonso was seemingly the most selfish man on the F1 grid?

The man who, in 2007, was so incensed that he wasn’t given preference on a qualifying lap that he deliberately blocked his teammate in order to get revenge and claim a pole position?

The man so bitter and angry about how badly he perceived his engine that he publicly insulted it by calling it a “GP2 engine” for the entire world to hear?

Well, it seems that man is long gone. Instead, Alonso is now capable of passing on advice mid-race to his teammate in order to better improve his position and help him with his driving style.

All to a driver who continues to be enemy number one amongst most F1 fans and experts alike.

Alonso demonstrating his skills and experience to Lance Stroll during the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was an amazing thing to witness, and shows just when he puts his mind to it and his incredible talent to good use, he can not only benefit other drivers, but long-standing F1 followers who may never have been a fan of his in the first place.

Guess Taylor Swift is good for more things than butchering pop music right?

Nyck de Vries has lost his Monza shine

It’s such a shame to see AlphaTauri’s Nyck de Vries struggle so much in the opening four races.

A talented driver who looked likely to have been lost on the F1 radar after not graduating to the sport from an F2 Championship in 2019, de Vries shone on debut at Monza last year after subbing in for an ill Alex Albon, and then looked like he finally got his big chance when AlphaTauri promptly signed him up.

But this season has gone horribly for the likeable Dutchman, and Azerbaijan was his worst showing yet.

After clipping his teammate Yuki Tsunoda in the sprint on Saturday, he found himself out of the race on lap nine after clipping the wall at turn five and retiring at the next corner.

This comes after disappointing showings in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Australia where he could only manage 14th, 14th & 15th respectively.

Alongside Logan Sargeant, he remains the only pointless driver in 2023 so far.

Yes, the car isn’t that great and that hasn’t helped his cause, but in four races his teammate Yuki Tsunoda has two points finishes to his name and narrowly missed out on points in the other two races, showcasing that there is potential to pull something from it.

It’s still very early in the season, but if de Vries wants to retain his spot in 2024, things will need to start improving soon.

This article was originally written for The Roar. You can read the published version here


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