Azerbaijan GP could see two become three in title fight

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Sergio Perez celebrates, photographer taking photos. Spain May 2022 Credit: PA Images
Sergio Perez celebrates, photographer taking photos. Spain May 2022 Credit: PA Images

Only Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc have been widely seen as title contenders this season, but that could change at the Azerbaijan GP.

While the Dutchman and the Monegasque have led the way for most of the 2022 campaign thus far, Sergio Perez has never been far behind and beat both of them last time out in Monaco to claim his first victory of the year.

As a result, the Mexican is just 15 points off the top of the standings, and if he could pick a track to cement his status as a title contender at, Baku would be high on his list.

For one, he claimed victory there last season, and while that was due to a fair bit of luck with Verstappen retiring ahead of him and Lewis Hamilton making a mistake after taking the lead at the restart, it was still one of his strongest races at Red Bull with him running just behind his team-mate and just ahead of the Mercedes before chaos ensued.

What’s more, he made it onto the podium there in midfield machinery in 2016 and 2018. With such a record at the circuit and such impressive form this season, we’d be surprised if he isn’t well in the mix for the win come Sunday.

That being said, Verstappen still has to be considered the favourite. After all, he would have won last year’s race if not for a sudden puncture and has still had the upper hand on Perez more often than not this season.

The reigning World Champion will be extremely keen to show he’s still the top dog at Red Bull after the Mexican stole the limelight last time out, and how the team handle things if the two end up battling each other will be fascinating.

If anybody is to battle the pair at the front of the field, it will surely be Leclerc, the man who claimed pole position in Azerbaijan last year and last time out on home turf this year.

He was left fuming there after the strategy Ferrari put him on cost him the win, and with Red Bull set to be the faster on the straights in Baku, the Italian team can’t afford to make such errors again if they want to win in the City of Winds for the first time, and he can’t afford to crash in qualifying as he did in 2019.

Mercedes took advantage of that back then, claiming a 1-2 on both Saturday and Sunday, but such a result is a distant dream this time around.

After seeming to have taken a big step towards the front of the pack in Barcelona, the German team were closer to the midfield again in Monte Carlo as George Russell crossed the line in P5, one place up on where he qualified, and Lewis Hamilton started and finished in P8.

It increasingly looks like the pairs’ main battles this year will be with one another, and Hamilton desperately needs to start winning some – Russell has beaten him in every race except the opening one and is pulling away from his compatriot in the standings as a result.

He’s not the only young Brit impressing, with McLaren’s Lando Norris just two points behind the seven-time World Champion after coming home well inside the points in every race he’s finished from the second round onwards.

The 22-year-old continues to out-perform Daniel Ricciardo, who it’s fair to say doesn’t seem the same driver as the one who won the inaugural Azerbaijan GP in 2017. With Zak Brown getting increasingly frustrated with the Aussie’s struggles, a performance even half as good as that one would do him the world of good.

He’s likely to battle it out with another former winner of the race, Valtteri Bottas, but the two have little else in common right now. The Finn has been immensely impressive this season with his drive in Monaco, where he climbed from P12 to P9, being one of the best of the day.

While he’s thrived though, the same can’t be said for the other Alfa Romeo, Zhou Guanyu. Despite having one of the strongest midfield cars, the rookie hasn’t scored points since finishing in P10 in the opening round and needs to start delivering more for the sake of his team.

That’s because they have not only fallen behind McLaren in the standings as a result but are now only one point ahead of Alpine, who enjoyed a much-needed strong weekend last time out.

They had excellent pace, getting both cars into Q3, and Fernando Alonso was able to turn that pace into big points for the first time this year as he claimed P7.

One of the Spaniard’s most famous moments came in Baku when he somehow made it back to the pits after doing an entire lap on just two functioning wheels, but he’ll be hoping he can impress in better circumstances this year.

While the French team are starting to find form, the opposite can be said of AlphaTauri and Haas who are falling further and further adrift at the bottom of the midfield.

Neither outfit has scored multiple points since the fourth round with both not as strong as they’d have hoped in terms of pace or reliability.

AlphaTauri do at least have two drivers generally performing well, but the same can’t be said for Haas. While Kevin Magnussen is impressing, Mick Schumacher has been poor. Well into his second year on the grid, a lack of experience is no longer an excuse, and he needs to step things up a gear if he wants to stay on the grid long-term.

His performances apparently haven’t put off Lawrence Stroll, with the German being linked with Aston Martin, but that would be a step backwards for him right now with the British team eight points behind Schumacher’s.

That being said, there are some reasons to be cheerful for Sebastian Vettel and co with the four-time World Champion spending the entirety of the last race weekend inside the top-10.

Whether that was a one-off or if he now has a midfield car rather than a backmarker will become clear this weekend. If it proves to be the latter, given Vettel’s record at the circuit, expect some big things from him.

Williams, four points off at the bottom of the standings, will be hoping that isn’t the case.

 

 

The article Azerbaijan GP could see two become three in title fight appeared first on Planetf1.com.

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