BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — 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. 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.
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.
It was the second career win for first-year Red Bull driver Pérez. It somewhat salvaged the race for the team that had been headed toward a 1-2 finish before Verstappen’s tire failed. Verstappen is still up by four points over Hamilton, while Hamilton moved from fifth to third in the standings.
“I am very sorry for Max because he had a tremendous race,” Pérez said. “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.”
Pérez’s second win ties him with Pedro Rodríguez for the most in F1 by a Mexican driver. It took nine years from his 2011 debut for his first win and Perez now has two victories in six months.
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.
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports