Nothing quite gets the juices flowing like a little bit of controversy in Formula 1 – and when it comes in a sprint as the latest helping did ahead of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, even better. After all, the warm-up to the main event on Sunday means even more discussion and eyeballs on what happened (on this occasion) between Max Verstappen and George Russell, and as Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” In the end, the collision between Verstappen and Russell was deemed just a racing incident by those in the Mercedes camp, and a case of wrongdoing against Verstappen – although this was given the short shrift it deserved by 1996 champion Damon Hill. Verstappen is a loser from the sprint, but we start with the guy who won the 17-lap affair, Sergio Perez. Winner – Sergio Perez There is a reason why Sergio Perez has more podiums than any other driver at the Baku City Circuit – four and counting. Not only is it a street circuit at which he excels, but the Mexican has long been regarded as one of the best on the grid at looking after his tyres. It is to do with how he applies the throttle to minimise wheel slip – and on a track filled with 90 degree corners and heavy traction zones, it is a crucial skill to master. Getting ahead of Verstappen in Sprint Shootout qualifying was crucial, as the lone Ferrari of Charles Leclerc was a sitting duck out front, especially given Red Bull’s straight line speed advantage and DRS strength. He breezed past after the Safety Car restart and that was that. Job done, and Verstappen’s championship lead is down to 12 points. There is a favourable series of tracks coming up for Perez – he must eat into Verstappen’s lead further and needs to start tomorrow by getting his elbows out and getting past the #1 at the start. What did Perez say? “It was good, with this tricky sessions, there’s been a lot of pressure on us, the teams, engineers, mechanics and drivers. To get away with maximum points was the main objective, but obviously we know that tomorrow is the main race. Loser – Max Verstappen Imagine for a second that the roles on the opening lap were reserved and Verstappen was sending it up the inside at Turns 2 and 3, with Russell attempting to go around the outside – always a risky move on a street circuit. The Dutchman would no doubt argue that Russell should not have been there as it was a dangerous move to attempt – and the guy ahead would simply squeeze you out of room. In other words, exactly what happened as Russell closed the door and left a Red Bull-sized hole on the outside. It was Verstappen’s choice to drive into it. Much of Verstappen’s annoyance stems from the fact that someone had the temerity to try and overtake him. Sure, he was annoyed at the sizeable chunk of Red Bull that was missing, but it’s racing – and as a double World Champion, he should know by now that the throttle works both ways and trying to hang it around the outside on a street track usually ends one way. Coupled with the fact that Verstappen openly hates the sprint format, it all made for a rather messy day on the shore of the Caspian Sea. What did Verstappen say? “Just scrap the whole thing, I think it is important to go back to what we already have and make sure that every team can fight for a win, that is what we have to try and aim for [instead of] trying to implement all the kind of artificial excitement. Winner – George Russell Throughout practice, qualifying and then most of sprint qualifying, Russell was decidedly the second-best Mercedes driver – only getting ahead of Lewis Hamilton on the second runs to decide the sprint grid. A fast-start allowed him into the position to ruffle Verstappen – and once the obvious happened and the Red Bull sailed past at the restart, Russell was in No Man’s Land, coming home fourth with Hamilton a lowly seventh. He starts the Grand Prix down in 11th and so unless something drastic happens, he won’t be anywhere near Verstappen in the race. It would have been all too easy to just slot in behind Verstappen on the opening lap, and allow him to go, but Russell took the chance to show the Red Bull driver what he might expect if and when Mercedes ever get themselves into a position to fight. What did Russell say? “I ‘m not gonna hold back just because he’s leading the championship. I was quite surprised he was still trying to hold it around the outside, it’s on a street circuit. He’s got a lot more to lose than I have” Loser – Carlos Sainz Less said about this weekend thus far for Carlos Sainz, the better. Yes, Charles Leclerc is a bit of an expert on this track with the last three actual pole positions and one sprint one, but the Spaniard has been a hefty chunk behind from practice – with Leclerc nearly eight-tenths up in Q3 on Friday. He was nowhere in the sprint, coming home fifth, 1.3s seconds ahead of Fernando Alonso. With Leclerc challenging for the win, the very minimum Sainz should have achieved was fourth, dispensing with Russell and getting on Verstappen’s coattails – as he was losing three-quarters of a second per lap. Unless Sainz ups his game, quickly, he will be relegated into the number two position and turned into Leclerc’s wingman. What did Sainz say? “Hopefully, having completed more laps today, tomorrow I can work around the main limitations and maximise the result.” Winner – Aston Martin Baku was never meant to be an easy weekend for Aston Martin, going into it with their eyes open for a challenging weekend with their AMR23 a draggy machine. A continual DRS problem hampering both cars throughout the weekend and just not being able to shake it off despite their best efforts also cost performance in both qualifying sessions. But a sixth and eighth in the sprint was probably more than they could have achieved in their wildest dreams given the benefit of the system on the 1.4-mile long pit-straight. Fernando Alonso made a good start, nothing new there, to leapfrog Alex Albon in customary style while Lance Stroll eventually got past to pick up the final point. The four points picked up did little to open daylight between them and Mercedes on what was far from the best day of the season, but when the track doesn’t suit you, still hauling points is a crucial step forward for the team. What did Alonso say? “I’m not sure if the DRS issue that we’ve had all weekend is fixed, but we will analyse it overnight and hopefully it’s fine for tomorrow. Even with DRS activated, overtaking was quite difficult today and we were all very closely matched in terms of performance.” Loser – Williams On a track that should suit their car, with two races, and a P7 grid start in the sprint, Williams could have at least one point on the board after the sprint. After all, the slippery nature of the car is perhaps best suited to Baku of all the tracks owing to that monster 1.4-mile straight. But to have one car DNS and the other finish ninth (albeit beaten by the eight cars from the big four) will be a hard result to take. Alex Albon did well to fend off Stroll but could not defend forever as the Aston slipped past at Turn 1 to take the final point. Williams needs to start turning the promise into points – Jeddah and Melbourne should have suited the cars owing to the high-speed nature, but they came away with nil points. What did Albon say? “I’m on the fence with the sprint race if I’m honest; it’s rewarding the top four teams and they’re already a step ahead of everyone else. It was a great race for us, but we just don’t have the pace compared to them, so unfortunately no reward for today.”

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