Sergio Perez warns Ferrari full Red Bull pace not on show in Baku sprint
Charles Leclerc gave Red Bull their toughest race of F1 2023 yet in the Baku sprint, though Sergio Perez suggested he was not at peak pace.
Despite a date with the barriers on his final lap in the Sprint Shootout, Leclerc’s previous effort had proven enough to ensure that he would start the sprint from P1 on the grid, following up his surprise capture of pole position for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Friday qualifying.
Leclerc would make the perfect start to the sprint to retain the lead, and despite later nailing a Safety Car restart Perez behind would soon reel Leclerc in and make the pass for the lead into Turn 1 on the eighth lap of the 17-lap mini race.
Perez went on to win with a margin of four-and-a-half seconds over Leclerc, though the Ferrari driver was able to keep Max Verstappen in the other Red Bull at bay, albeit with the caveat that Verstappen was carrying major sidepod damage after an earlier collision with Mercedes’ George Russell.
The story of the three grands prix so far in F1 2023 has been Red Bull holding a clear advantage over the rest of the pack in race trim, and while it seems that Ferrari have made major inroads into that buffer, Perez did claim that he felt there was more pace in that RB19 during the Baku sprint, potentially distorting the true picture somewhat.
That being said, Perez does believe it is not only Red Bull who have more pace to unleash.
“I think I had more pace than what I’ve shown today,” Perez told reporters after the sprint. “But it’s difficult to know because if you use your 100% pace then probably the tyres become a problem, so I think I was just driving to the maximum capacity of the tyre basically.
“I think all cars are much better than this, but it’s all about looking after the tyres and making sure to arrive to the end.”
Tyre management in race trim is a weakness for Ferrari which had followed them from the 2022 campaign into this season, but it was a positive sign for the team as Leclerc seemingly avoided a scenario where the medium tyres he was running fall off the cliff.
That being said, while Leclerc reckons Ferrari has taken a “step forward”, he concurred with Perez that Red Bull were not at their absolute best in the sprint, and “significant” gains are still needed to start genuinely troubling the Championship leaders.
“I think we did a step forward for sure,” Leclerc suggested. “It looks a little bit better but we still need to find something and that something feels quite significant still, because the Red Bull, as Checo said, maybe he could have pushed a bit more and we know that too. So yes, we need to find something more.”
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So now, focus switches to the grand prix, where Leclerc will once again lead the pack away – only this time it will be Verstappen operating the Red Bull that joins him on the front row, while Perez launches from P3.
However, Perez is confident after his sprint performance that he has what it takes to challenge for the Azerbaijan GP win.
“I’m confident that I will be fighting for the win,” Perez told Sky F1. “But let’s see, it’s Baku, anything can happen and I just want to make sure that I deliver when it matters.”
Perez was able to cut Verstappen’s Drivers’ Championship lead from 15 points to 13 with his Baku sprint win, and will hope to make further inroads into that advantage, or maybe even eliminate it completely if the cards fall his way on Sunday.
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