Perez wins at Baku with Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen outside F1 points in wild finish

Perez Baku Hamilton Verstappen
Clive Rose/Getty Images

BAKU – Max Verstappen was cruising toward an easy second consecutive victory until an unexpected tire failure turned the Azerbaijan Grand Prix into a two-lap shootout, a shock victory for teammate Sergio Pérez and one of the more memorable races in recent memory.

The finish Sunday just might have been an unintentional preview of changes Formula One plans to experiment with later this season in an effort to add excitement to the on-track product.

“As long as we keep it consistent, going forward, it certainly helps the fans to be sticking to the TV,” winner Pérez said. “I think they have the most enjoyable two laps of the race, you know?”

The unusual sequence began when championship leader Verstappen crashed out of the lead with four laps remaining, halting what seemed to be a sure march to his third win of the season (amid his rear wing has drawn attention from Mercedes).

F1 threw a red flag, allowed teams to change tires during a lengthy delay, then unconventionally restarted the race.

From a standing start.

For two laps.

Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton tried to pass Pérez for the win but accidentally flicked a switch that “basically switches the brakes off and I just went straight” through turn one and off course.

Verstappen and Hamilton both finished outside the top 10, the first time since 2016 that the top two in the championship standings failed to score a point. Verstappen maintained a four-point lead on Hamilton, who could have gained 25 points on his title rival with a victory.

“So sorry, guys,” Hamilton, who had vowed to keep his eyes on the bigger picture of the championship prior to the finish, told the team after his mistake.

F1 Grand Prix of Azerbaijan
(Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

That made for an unfamiliar podium as Pérez, Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly all finished in the top three for the first time this year.

Verstappen had no warning his tire was about to fail as he slammed into the wall. The Dutchman climbed from his car, inspected the tire and kicked it in anger before stomping off in disgust over the race-changing failure.

“Sometimes you can hate this sport,” Verstappen said.

A tire failure had ended Lance Stroll’s race earlier and Red Bull, insistent that Pirelli had a safety concern, asked F1 that teams be allowed to change tires before the restart.

F1 had previously announced it would experiment with half-hour sprint races in places of qualifying later this season and then the Baku ending became a preview of an even shorter, more explosive format.

Liberty Media, an American company, is in its fifth season running F1 after buying the commercial rights in 2017. The U.S. ownership has brought a focus on a younger audience on social media and in a deal with Netflix on the popular “Drive to Survive” behind-the-scenes docuseries.

“The Americans took over, so I wasn’t really surprised that we go first with the entertainment,” Gasly said. “I was quite happy. It always brings a bit more excitement. It creates some sort of adrenaline inside you and I knew there will be some opportunities because you start only for two laps.

“Everybody is a bit like lions out of the cage and everybody goes for everything and try to make as many positions as they can in a very short time. It was very intense. I really enjoyed it. If anything, hopefully in the future they’ll do the same.”

Vettel cautioned against F1 adopting too many gimmicks moving forward as the focus turns toward “creating a show.”

“I hope that in the future the races are more exciting,” he said. “But I think we just need to watch out that it doesn’t become too artificial and we don’t lose the roots of the sport.”

Pérez was the leader on the restart but Hamilton shot past him in his attempt to win the race and reclaim the points lead from Verstappen, who took over the top for the first time in his career with his win at Monaco last round.

But when Hamilton accidentally turned his brakes off and slid through the first corner, he snapped a streak of 54 consecutive races of earning a points position finish.

Four-time champion Vettel took second, his highest finish since 2019, to give Aston Martin its first ever F1 podium. Gasly was third for AlphaTauri.

Charles Leclerc started on the pole for Ferrari but couldn’t replicate his qualifying pace and finished fourth. Lando Norris took fifth for McLaren, Fernando Alonso was sixth for Alpine and Gasly’s teammate Yuki Tsunoda took a career-best seventh.

Carlos Sainz was eighth for Ferrari and Daniel Ricciardo was ninth to give McLaren a double points day. Kimi Raikkonen’s 10th place for Alfa Romeo was his first points finish this season.

Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas was never in contention after qualifying 10th and finished 12th after being overtaken by both of the Alfa Romeo cars. Mercedes failed to score a point for the first time since 2018.

Pérez’s second victory in six months tied him with Pedro Rodríguez for the most in F1 by a Mexican driver. In his first season at Red Bull, Perez somewhat salvaged the race for the team that had been headed toward a 1-2 finish before Verstappen’s tire failed.

“I am so, so happy. First of all I have to say I am very sorry for Max because he had a tremendous race,” said Perez, who now has won twice in six months after needing nine years from his 2011 debut until his first victory last November. “We were going to have a 1-2 together, but in the end it was still a fantastic day for us and luckily we were still able to finish the race.”

F1 Grand Prix of Azerbaijan
Sergio Perez of Mexico celebrates after his second Formula One victory and his first for Red Bull Racing (Maxim Shemetov – Pool/Getty Images).

Ford Mustang GT3 test has Austin Cindric dreaming of Daytona: ‘I want to drive that car’

Cindric Ford GT3 test
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Austin Cindric wasn’t the “mystery” test driver behind the wheel of the new Ford Mustang GT3 at Sebring International Raceway, but the Team Penske driver desperately wanted to be.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, an amateur sports car driver himself, made the big reveal via a Tuesday tweet that provided the first video evidence of the GT3 Mustang on track.

“I’ve watched the video in question about a million times,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Ford Performance Zoom news conference to promote NASCAR’s first road course weekend of the season at Circuit of the Americas. “Definitely exciting times for sure. I want to drive that car. It suits my experience level and also the relationships that I have.”

Ford will enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next season with its GT3 Mustang, entering a two-car factory effort (that will be managed by Multimatic) in GTD Pro and making customer cars available in the GT Daytona category.

That increases the likelihood of seeing more NASCAR drivers crossing over to IMSA. Cindric has been the only full-time Cup driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the past two years, but Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook has said the GT3 Mustang will provide more opportunities.

Ford has used its GT4 Mustang as a NASCAR driver development tool in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Harrison Burton and Zane Smith combining to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in January.

“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said at the announcement of the Ford GT3 program in January 2022 at Daytona. “We think it’s a great opportunity and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Given his sports car background, Cindric probably still would be in the Rolex 24 regardless. He has eight IMSA starts since the 2017 season opener at Daytona, racing a Lexus RCF GT3 and Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT category. The 2022 Daytona 500 winner made his second LMP2 start this year with Rick Ware Racing.

But Cindric’s preference naturally would be in a Ford, particularly with sports car racing enjoying convergence and crossovers in both GT and prototype racing.

“It’s an exciting time in GT racing, just as it is now for prototype racing with a lot of new regulations and manufacturers building new GT3 cars,” he said. “And also the opportunity with WEC (the World Endurance Championship) and Le Mans and how that all lines up for that category of car. It’s definitely an exciting time. I want to be as much of a part of that as possible.”

Though those odds seemingly will increase with multiple Ford entries in the Rolex 24 field next year, Cindric said NASCAR drivers still have to put in the networking to land rides as he has in recent years.

“Now how (the GT3 Mustang) relates to specifically NASCAR drivers and how often they want to be in the Rolex, could it be an influence? Absolutely, as far as the tie-in with the manufacturer,” Cindric said. “But the challenge and the drive and the logistics of getting an opportunity for a race like the Rolex 24 will be just as challenging as it always is to find your one-off ride for the race. At least from my experience, that’s what I still anticipate.”

It turned out the “mystery” test driver wasn’t from NASCAR (Farley revealed the driver to be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Joey Hand after a fan asked whether it was Joey Logano).

But Cindric believes there could be more Cup drivers — and perhaps himself — behind the wheel of Mustang GT3s in the future.

“There’s definitely more of a pathway than I think there would be before as far as Ford drivers are concerned,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to drive that thing. It’s obviously a great looking car. That’s the first box you’ve got to check. And it’s cool (to have) a guy like Jim Farley, no doubt he’s a racer just as much as he is steering the ship for Ford. It’s cool to see he’s just as excited as the rest of us about it.”