Max Verstappen leads Formula One title race with a renewed focus on Red Bull’s rear wing

Verstappen Red Bull wings
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BAKU, Azerbaijan — Max Verstappen heads into his first race as Formula One leader looking for his first podium finish at a previously troublesome circuit, and with the focus on his Red Bull car’s rear wing.

The 23-year-old Dutch driver has been a potential championship contender since he made his debut in 2015 when he was only 17. This season, he has a car capable of challenging seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton for the title.

Winning the last race in Monaco put Verstappen four points ahead of Hamilton heading into the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

F1 Grand Prix of Azerbaijan - Previews
Max Verstappen (Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Some rivals, particularly Mercedes, have argued Red Bull’s rear wing flexes too much at high speed and reduces drag. That would be a particular benefit in Azerbaijan, which has the longest straight of any circuit on the calendar.

Governing body FIA is introducing new tests to measure how rigid wings are. However, they only take effect from June 15, ahead of the French Grand Prix.

Hamilton was vocal last month of what he called the “bendy” Red Bull wing and previously said it made the rival cars faster at the Spanish Grand Prix, which he won.

“Regardless of what I think, it doesn’t really make a difference,” Hamilton said Thursday. “The fact is they passed the tests that are given for this weekend so we proceed in the way things are. Of course, it is an advantage on the straight.”

Verstappen has struggled in Baku in the past, with no podium finishes and two retirements in his four races. The low point came in 2018, when he tried to block then-teammate Daniel Ricciardo at the end of the long straight. The pair collided and both drivers were out of the race.

Verstappen said he believes Mercedes still has a faster car overall.

“I do think they are still on normal tracks ahead of us but I think for us, so far this season, we’ve had a great start compared to the other seasons and we just need to keep it up,” he said.

McLaren driver Lando Norris is third in the standings – already 49 points behind Verstappen – and leads a chasing pack that includes Mercedes rival Valtteri Bottas, the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez and both Ferraris.

Bottas has shown flickers of pace with a pole position and two fastest laps this season. But the Finn has yet to finish higher than third in a race and has less than half of Hamilton’s points tally.

His weekend got off to a bad start when flight delays left him stuck Thursday at the airport in Finland as other drivers walked the Baku track.

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Still, Bottas has been something of a Baku specialist in the past. He won the last race in 2019 – the Azerbaijan GP was canceled in 2020 amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic – and was on course to win in 2018 before a puncture ended his race.

Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc is coming off disappointment in Monaco when he qualified on pole position only for his car to break down before the start of the race because he crashed in qualifying. He said Ferrari will struggle to repeat its “one-off” Monaco pace, given Baku’s long straight.

“Even though there are quite a lot of slow-speed corners,” Leclerc said, “I believe we will be back to the normal competitiveness that we had before Monaco.”

IndyCar disappointed by delay of video game but aiming to launch at start of 2024

IndyCar video game 2024

An IndyCar executive said there is “absolutely” disappointment that its long-awaited video game recently was delayed beyond its target date, but the series remains optimistic about the new title.

“Well, I don’t know how quick it will be, but the whole situation is important to us,” Penske Entertainment president and CEO Mark Miles said during a news conference Monday morning to announce IndyCar’s NTT title sponsorship. “Motorsport Games has spent a lot of money, a lot of effort to create an IndyCar title. What we’ve seen of that effort, which is not completely obvious, is very reassuring.

“I think it’s going to be outstanding. That’s our shared objective, that when it is released, it’s just widely accepted. A great credit both to IndyCar racing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, something that our fans love.”

In June 2021, IndyCar announced a new partnership with Motorsport Games to create and distribute an IndyCar video game for the PC and Xbox and PlayStation consoles in 2023.

But during an earnings call last week, Motorsport Games said the IndyCar game had been delayed to 2024 to ensure high quality.

Somewhat compounding the delay is that IndyCar’s license for iRacing expired after the end of the 2022 season because of its exclusive agreement with Motorsport Games.

That’s resulted in significant changes for IndyCar on iRacing, which had provided a high-profile way for the series to stay visible during its 2020 shutdown from the pandemic. (Players still can race an unbranded car but don’t race on current IndyCar tracks, nor can they stream).

That’s helped ratchet up the attention on having a video game outlet for IndyCar.

“I wish we had an IndyCar title 10 years ago,” said Miles, who has been working with the organization since 2013. “We’ve been close, but we’ve had these I think speed bumps.”

IndyCar is hopeful the Motorsports Game edition will be ready at the start of 2024. Miles hinted that beta versions could be unveiled to reporters ahead of the time “to begin to show the progress in a narrow way to make sure we’ve got it right, to test the progress so that we’re ready when they’re ready.”

It’s been nearly 18 years since the release of the most recent IndyCar video game for console or PC.

“(We) better get it right,” Miles said. “It’s something we’re very close to and continue to think about what it is to make sure we get it over the line in due course.”