BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Max Verstappen once again pounced when rival Charles Leclerc faltered in their race for the Formula One title.
Verstappen extended his F1 championship lead by winning the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Sunday — his fifth victory of the season — following yet another Leclerc early retirement.
Leclerc started from pole, immediately lost the lead in the first corner to Sergio Pérez, Verstappen's Red Bull teammate, then used smart strategy to cycle his Ferrari back to the front. Leclerc regained the lead when he pitted under “virtual safety car” speed restrictions while the two Red Bull cars stayed out.
Leclerc seemed poised to challenge for the win, but the Monaco driver's car started spewing smoke on lap 20 of 51 and he had to pull into the pits.
His engine had failed — Leclerc's second retirement in three races.
“It hurts. We really need to look into that for it to not happen again. I don’t really find the right words to describe, obviously it is very disappointing," Leclerc said.
Verstappen had passed Pérez shortly before Leclerc's failure and the reigning F1 champion cruised to his fifth win in seven races. Red Bull has won five consecutive races, and although Leclerc has two wins this year, his last victory was at Australia in early April and his last podium was at Miami in early May.
“That’s racing. It happened to me, it happened to many people in the past. Unfortunately, it’s happening to Charles,” Verstappen said when asked if he had any sympathy for his rival’s difficulties.
“If I would be in the same situation, I would also be disappointed. I think that’s very normal. But it’s about how you come out of it, you always look at how to improve things. That’s what we did as well in the beginning of the season. And you learn from it. You don’t like it, you’re angry, but we turn it around.”
Verstappen took the win a year after he was headed to victory in Baku, only for a blown tire to hurl him into the wall while leading with three laps to go. There were more late reliability concerns Sunday when Verstappen told his team the car felt odd under braking, but he was able to make it to the finish.
“You can never make up what you lost last year but I think today we had incredible pace in the car, we could really look after the tires and chip away at it and pass for the lead," Verstappen said. “But then of course, also, maybe a tiny bit lucky with (Leclerc's) retirement. I think nevertheless our car was really quick today and could have closed that gap.”
Red Bull went 1-2 in the race with Pérez finishing second, while Mercedes was third and fourth with George Russell and Lewis Hamilton.
Pérez, who won in Azerbaijan last year, said Red Bull made the “right call” not to let him fight Verstappen for the win and said he struggled with worn tires.
Ferrari had a terrible day as both Leclerc and teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. failed to finish, as did the Ferrari-powered cars of Zhou Guanyu and Kevin Magnussen.
It was the first time since the Italian Grand Prix in 2020 that the Ferrari team had to retire both cars.
The slump in Ferrari reliability comes as Red Bull seems to have solved its own issues. Verstappen and Pérez both ground to a halt in the opening race of the season in Bahrain, Red Bull’s first race since bringing engine production in-house for 2022.
Verstappen leads the standings by 21 points over Pérez, while Leclerc dropped to third and is 34 points behind Verstappen.
Seven-time champion Hamilton has complained of back pain from the Mercedes' tendency to bounce at high speed, and he was holding his lower back as he gingerly climbed out of the car Sunday after finishing fourth.
“Let's definitely make some changes,” he told team boss Toto Wolff.
Pierre Gasly was fifth for AlphaTauri and Sebastian Vettel sixth for Alfa Romeo.
Fernando Alonso of Alpine held off the two McLarens of Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris to finish seventh, and Alonso's teammate Esteban Ocon was 10th.
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